The 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference officially got underway on Friday evening, June 23, with a special guest: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In a short address, Emanuel welcomed librarians to his city, and offered words of support amid the steep political challenges facing the profession.

“I want to stand up in front of you and say thank you for what you do every day,” Emanuel said. Acknowledging President Trump’s proposal to eliminate virtually all library funding, the mayor, a former chief-of-staff for President Barack Obama, urged librarians to stand tall, and insisted that libraries have “never been more important” than today, as they lay the “common foundations” for Americans at a time when Americans are becoming increasingly “polarized.”

Emanuel also took a moment to talk about the vital role libraries play in Chicago: offering citizenship centers for all residents (not just new citizens); free homework in English and Spanish; new media centers for adolescents and teenagers; employment centers; language instruction programs; and a program that is co-locating newly constructed public library branches, designed by top architects, in neighborhood high schools, as well as senior and veterans’ housing complexes.

I'm telling you, your work is appreciated and never been needed more. Stay strong in what you do.

“It’s no longer just about books—it's about using the Internet to explore in the world,” Emanuel observed. “I know these are difficult times, not just financially. When you have a national government that is eliminating funding for libraries, it can feel like your work is going unappreciated. I'm telling you: your work is appreciated and never been needed more. Stay strong in what you do.”

More than 20,000 librarians, vendors, and publishers are expected in the ALA’s home base of Chicago through June 27 for the conference, which will feature more than 2,500 events, including 1,500 professional programs, and hundreds of author talks, over five days. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton will deliver the conference’s closing keynote.

The conference is the first for ALA since Donald Trump took office and proposed eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services and virtually all library funding—as well as the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities—along with deep cuts in other key areas, including education funding and broadband support.

Like Emanuel, in her opening remarks, ALA outgoing president Julie Todaro referenced the battle librarians face.

“The infrastructure we’ve created, and the work that we've done and continue to do, is attempting to be rolled back or discontinued,” she noted, adding that her spirits have been lifted by the advocacy work of librarians and their supporters. “We have a lot left to do, and we can achieve a lot if we sustain the levels of advocacy that we saw this past year [and] still stay focused and engaged in the very big picture.”

She also urged librarians to continue to stand up for their core values. “As we kick off the conference, we need to remember that ours is a noble profession dedicated to combating ignorance and intolerance,” she said. “Now more than ever, we are proud to be on the front lines of that. We need to stay committed to equity, and diversity, and inclusion in what we do. And we need to ensure that our spaces are safe spaces for everyone, and as welcoming as they can be.”