American Library Association officials last week reported solid attendance for the 2018 ALA Annual Conference, which concluded on June 26 in New Orleans. But while a star-studded slate of authors and speakers (topped by former first lady Michelle Obama) energized and inspired librarians from the show’s main stages, it was the issues addressed in the conference meeting rooms that ended up making the biggest headlines.
In all, preliminary figures reported last week put total attendance in New Orleans at 17,599 (attendees and exhibitors). And while that’s down significantly from the 23,485 who gathered in Chicago last year (Chicago conferences, where the ALA is based, always draw higher attendance), it was up from the 2016 show in Orlando. The attendance in New Orleans was impressive, considering that this was the third major library conference in just over four months, including the biennial Public Library Association conference, held in Philadelphia in late March, and the annual ALA Midwinter Meeting, which was in February in Denver. In New Orleans, librarians and publishers alike reported a busy show floor.
A long line began forming early in the morning ahead of Michelle Obama’s much anticipated appearance on June 22, and the former first lady delighted librarians with her reflections on her life as a professional woman, a mother, and as first lady. Obama’s appearance was sponsored by Penguin Random House, who will publish her memoir, Becoming, in November. “What I’ve learned,” Obama told librarians, “is that you can have it all, but you usually can’t have it all at the same time.”
Notably, Obama’s talk avoided any hint of politics, despite the ALA’s decision to weigh in strongly on the crisis playing out on the nation’s southern border. In a press released on June19, just two days before the show opened, ALA president Jim Neal said the nation’s library community was “appalled” by the Trump administration’s “unconscionable” policy of separating migrant children from their families, and urged librarians to marshal their resources in support of refugees.
Perhaps the biggest headline to come out of the conference, however, came after the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of ALA, voted on June 23 to strip the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from a prestigious children’s book award. The decision came just four months after an ALSC task force set out to consider the award’s future, citing the long-running scholarly discussion around “anti-Native and anti-black sentiments” in Wilder’s work. The award will now be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
The name change made national headlines, with critics portraying the move as ALA being “politically correct.” But in a joint statement, Neal and ALSC president Nina Lindsay stressed that the move was not an attempt to censor or diminish the legacy of Wilder’s popular books, but to bring the award more in line with the ALSC’s core values, “inclusiveness” among them. “We are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children,” the statement read. “We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books, and the discussions that can take place around them.”
As always, the conference featured hundreds of authors—among them prize-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose new book Leadership: In Turbulent Times will be published this fall by Simon & Schuster, and Jennifer Egan, who addressed librarians at a reception as the winner of the 2018 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction for her book Manhattan Beach.
In her talk at this year’s awards reception (which has become a highlight of the ALA conference), Egan told librarians that the idea behind the book was seeded at the New York Public Library. Knowing only that she wanted to set a novel during WWII, librarians started her off with a book of photographs by Andreas Feininger, in which Egan saw a photo of a giant Hammerhead crane at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which inspired the setting of Manhattan Beach.
Notably, this was the first year no Carnegie Medal was awarded for nonfiction. In February, Sherman Alexie was named the winner for his book You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir. But after allegations of sexual misconduct against the author became widely reported, Alexie “declined” the award.
Next up, the ALA Midwinter Meeting is set for Seattle, from January 25–29. The 2019 ALA Annual Conference is set for June 20–25 in Washington, D.C., and the next five ALA annual conferences will be held in either Chicago or Washington, D.C., until going to San Diego in 2024.