From March 20 to 24, some 9,000 librarians, publishers, and vendors will descend on the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia for the 2018 Public Library Association Conference, one of the library community’s most well-attended events. PLA is the largest division of the American Library Association, and in recent years its biennial conference has earned a reputation for strong programming, and great speakers. And the 2018 conference is set up to be a great one.

“I’m extremely optimistic about the 2018 conference, for lots of reasons,” says PLA president Pam Sandlian Smith, director of Anythink Libraries in Thornton, Colo. “First, Philadelphia is such a great city—the food, the history, the culture, and, of course, the Philadelphia Free Library,” she says. “And the conference itself—I think the team has done a terrific job of putting together a package of speakers and authors that are very timely and prescient.”

In addition to an excellent slate of authors and speakers, the 2018 professional program also looks especially robust—and it comes as public libraries face an array of challenges, including budget questions, diversity and equity issues, questions about the future of library education, and, of course, broader political issues such as the rise of fake news and social media.

“My takeaway is that public libraries are more important now than ever, because of the world being a little crazy—a lot crazy, actually,” Smith says. “Public libraries are the cornerstones of our communities. And we continue to be a force for good. Could you imagine things right now if we were a country that didn’t have public libraries?”

The Politics of Libraries

Luckily, we do have strong public libraries in America, but keeping them strong in today’s political culture requires serious engagement, and effort.

For the second year in a row, the Trump administration has proposed eliminating all federal funding for libraries, which would mean closing the Institute of Museum and Library Services and ending programs that support reading and literacy programs, among others. ALA president Jim Neal says that after a successful grassroots campaign last year, he is optimistic that federal library funding will be okay through the 2018 fiscal year. After that, however?

“For fiscal year 2019 we’re just beginning the process, and what we know is that the administration has once again earmarked for elimination the agencies and programs that we care about,” Neal says. In addition, recent changes to federal tax laws are expected to put pressure on state and local coffers. “There are obviously states where there is going to be fallout, particularly those that have higher state and local taxes.”

Of course, the political tension extends beyond funding. As outgoing ALA executive director Keith Fiels noted ahead of last year’s ALA Annual conference, Trump administration policies thus far have represented “a wholehearted attack on just about everything we value,” from issues such as net neutrality and education policy to the administration’s ongoing assaults on the free press and some of the library profession’s core values.

Meanwhile, the politics within the library community are also getting interesting. As public librarians gather in Philadelphia, ALA members will be voting on whether to require the next ALA executive director hold an MLS degree. The issue has become surprisingly contentious—and has delayed the appointment of a permanent replacement for Fiels, who retired last July.

PW columnist Sari Feldman, director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio and former president of both ALA and PLA, says the discussion over the role of the MLS degree could be an issue to watch at this year’s PLA—and not just in terms of the next ALA executive director.

“There is an active shift away from mandating the MLS for new hires at public libraries, to prioritizing a set of competencies,” she says, noting that many public libraries seek to hire people with relevant skills who can help “build relationships with customers,” a trend that holds major implications for library education. “Increasingly, we see professionals with degrees from outside librarianship being hired who then develop an understanding of library core values through in-house staff development and online learning. The warning signs are everywhere that this may be the next big issue for PLA and public librarians.”

Guns, or Books?

Meanwhile, the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., will also be weighing on librarians at this year’s PLA. As public servants, librarians have long been engaged on the issue of gun violence and issues of public safety. And pushed along by a brave group of Parkland students, a national conversation over gun violence is again ramping up—and librarians are more than interested observers.

Just last summer, on Aug. 28, 2017, a 16-year-old local student entered the Clovis-Carver Public Library in downtown Clovis, N.Mex., and opened fire. Circulation assistant Wanda Walters and youth-services librarian Kristina Carter were killed. Another circulation assistant, Jessica Thron, was wounded. The emotionally troubled shooter told investigators that he had “been thinking bad things for a while” but felt he couldn’t tell anyone.

Pushed along by a brave group of Parkland students, a national conversation over gun violence is again ramping up—and librarians are more than just interested observers.

And the summer before that, in 2016, ALA members did community service and held a moving tribute at the ALA annual conference in Orlando, Fla., for the victims of the shocking massacre at the Pulse nightclub there just two weeks before the conference. Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis was on hand for the ALA’s memorial service in Orlando, just hours after ending a sit-in on Capitol Hill—an unprecedented protest over Congress’s inability to pass gun control measures. Lewis told librarians they had a “moral obligation” to speak out in the face of great injustice.

Six months later, at the 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting, the ALA Council passed a resolution on gun violence.

Yet in 2018, mass shootings remain a plague unique to our country, and our government appears unable or unwilling to address it. Can the students of Parkland finally usher in reforms? So far, it seems the only suggestion from Congress is willing to consider to address the epidemic of gun violence is more guns—a proposal librarians are not behind.

“The public library is a unique place, where all are welcome,” Feldman says, acknowledging that training for “the horror of an active shooter” is part of the job these days. “But despite the vulnerability of both staff and the public, libraries need to be a safe haven.” In Ohio, she notes, the library community successfully lobbied for libraries to be excluded from the state’s concealed-carry legislation—guns can’t be brought into libraries in Ohio.

“I don’t think the solution to gun violence in schools and libraries is bringing more guns into those venues,” Neal says—nor does he think it reasonable to expect librarians to respond like soldiers at the crack of live ammo. “School teachers and librarians have very significant responsibilities already,” he notes. “To add this on top of that... I’m not sure that is a good strategy.”

So what can libraries do? For now, continue to train for the unthinkable, Feldman suggests, and use what they have at their disposal to push for change: their knowledge, resources—and their meeting rooms. “Libraries can provide a civic space and a forum for conversations about guns,” she says.

“By supporting the presentation of accurate information, and an opportunity for people to convene around common concerns, libraries can advocate for sound public policy.”

Smith agrees and says she been personally inspired by the students in Parkland. “The thing about them is they’re just fearless,” she says, pointing to the CNN town hall at which Parkland students pointedly questioned Sen. Marco Rubio over his ties to the National Rifle Association. “We try to protect our libraries from getting into the middle of the political fray,” she adds. “But that said, libraries are all about ideas, and giving people opportunities to think about things in different ways. And being provocative isn’t something we should shy away from.”

Speaker Highlights

The main speaker program at this year’s PLA certainly doesn’t shy away from being provocative. On Wednesday, March 21 (2–3:30 p.m., PCC Auditorium), former assistant attorney general Sally Yates will deliver the conference’s opening keynote. Yates shot to national prominence as a symbol of resistance after she was fired by Donald Trump for refusing to enforce the administration’s travel ban, and because she informed the White House that then–national security adviser Michael Flynn was “compromised” and possibly vulnerable to blackmail. It should be fun to watch Trump’s Twitter feed after this one.

The popular Big Ideas program kicks off with bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Thursday, March 22, 8:15–9:15 a.m., PCC Exhibit Hall C). In the decade since Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, was published, she has become a touchstone for those seeking advice on how to lead “a bold and inspired life.” At PLA, she’ll seek to inspire librarians.

The series continues with Steve Pemberton (Friday, March 23, 8:15–9:15 a.m., PCC Exhibit Hall C), whose bestselling memoir, A Chance in the World, recounts his triumphant life journey—overcoming abuse and neglect as an orphan in foster care and becoming a trailblazing corporate executive, diversity leader, youth advocate, and speaker.

Closing out the Big Ideas series will be Tim Wu (Saturday, March 23, 8:15–9:15 a.m. in PCC Exhibit Hall C). Wu is the author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires and serves as a professor at the Columbia Law School and director of the Poliak Center for the study of First Amendment Issues at Columbia Journalism School. He is perhaps best known for developing the theory of net neutrality—the principles of which were formally adopted in 2015 by the FCC under the Obama administration and repealed in December 2017 by the FCC under Trump, despite a public outcry.

The PLA program will close with a highly anticipated keynote from Hasan Minaj (Saturday, March 24, 12–1 p.m., PCC Exhibit Hall C). Minaj made his television debut in 2014 as a correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and in April 2017 hosted the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

Exhibits and More
In addition to the main program, PLA will be packed with authors and speakers set to appeari at a host of special events, as well as on the exhibit floor. The exhibits open on Wednesday, March 21 (3:30–6:30 p.m.), with a reception immediately following Sally Yates’s keynote, and they close with a reception on Friday, March 23 (1–2 p.m.). As always, check the PLA program for any last-minute changes.

Below, more on the Public Library Association Conference

PLA 2018 Spotlight: 'There’s No Dress Rehearsal for This Kind of Thing'
PW talks to Parkland Public Library director Joe Green about how the community is coping after the tragic shooting there, and how the library is helping.

PLA 2018 Spotlight: Tackling the Tough Topics
PW columnist Brian Kenney offers his picks from a strong Public Library Association Conference program.

PLA 2018 Spotlight: Striving for Change
A look at the PLA program suggests that a new generation of leaders is ready to transform librarianship.