The American Association of School Librarians held its 19th National Conference from November 14 to 16 in Louisville, Ky., where just over 2,500 registered attendees were greeted with a diverse roster of general session speakers, access to more than 300 exhibitors and more than 60 authors, and a slate of educational programming keenly focused on the organization’s National School Library Standards.

“The one thing that I appreciate the most is the intimacy that this smaller conference provides for all of the attendees,” says Lisa Brakel, district school librarian at Airport Community Schools in Carleton, Mich. “When compared to the ALA Midwinter Meeting and the ALA Annual Conference that many of us regularly attend, the biannual AASL conference feels very small, and yet it is a powerhouse of a conference.” Brakel also likes that the smaller setting provides opportunities to hold conversations with AASL board members and staff.

Kicking off the conference—and the lineup of featured speakers—on Thursday, November 14, author and We Need Diverse Books cofounder Ellen Oh spoke to librarians about the critical need in school libraries for children’s books and materials that reflect every student in the school and its community. She recalled her own childhood, when she felt excluded by the sea of books that didn’t feature any nonwhite characters. She pointed to a continued lack of representation of various kinds in children’s literature, and also emphasized the power of books to teach empathy and help readers through difficult times.

On Friday morning, educator, author, and research scientist Adolph Brown used music, performance, humor, and wardrobe changes during his talk about how implicit bias, stereotypes, and microaggressions play a key role in affecting students’ behavior and academic achievement. He had arrived at the convention center early and wandered the venue in baggy pants and a sweatshirt, a backpack, and flamboyantly styled, dreadlocked hair, noting that “I never received so much help in my life,” as nearly everyone he encountered assumed he must be lost. “At my office, we call it ‘the undercover brother,’ ” he joked of this technique. Relating his approach to judging a book by its cover, he said, “Give everyone you meet the benefit of the doubt. Whatever you are thinking says more about you than it does about me.” In sharing personal episodes from his life, he further stressed his point about appearance and assumptions, saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but stereotypes will kill me.” Toward the end of his address, he pulled off his “disguise” to reveal close-cropped hair and more conservative casual clothes before donning a cap and gown for his book signing.

Author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka took the stage on Saturday morning to share his journey through creating and promoting Hey, Kiddo (Graphix), his graphic memoir about growing up with a heroin-addicted and incarcerated mother. Reflecting on his childhood, he reminded the audience that school librarians have the power to enrich kids’ experience by putting the right book in the right reader’s hands—including graphic novels, which librarians have long championed. “We have graphic novels as they are now because of the support of school librarians,” he said to hearty applause. He told the story of one of his school visits for Hey, Kiddo being canceled because of the book’s “inappropriate” subject matter. But he noted that at “every single school” he has visited, there have been young people who are affected by issues of addiction. Krosoczka stressed the importance of remembering that for every parent who might deem a book inappropriate for their own child, there is another kid who could benefit from the book because they are living an “inappropriate” life.

Conference cochair Alice Bryant, a middle school instructional librarian at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, whose duties included helping select who would give the general session talks, says, “All three of [the speakers] addressed diversity in different ways and that set the stage for the entire conference. I think it was impactful to people; I had a lot of people come up and mention that to me.”

Brakel described the speakers as “inspiring and thought-provoking,” adding, “It is such a wonderful feeling to walk away from a session feeling challenged to work hard with a new perspective and encouraged that you are making a difference to the young people that you work with.”

Learning from Each Other

The conference’s more than 150 concurrent sessions this year were organized around the six shared foundations of the AASL standards (“Inquire,” “Include,” “Collaborate,” “Curate,” “Explore,” “Engage”) so that attendees could see examples of how fellow librarians have implemented the standards in their classrooms and schools. Numerous sessions highlighted how to help develop different types of literacy, including “Detecting Propaganda, Defeating Emotional Manipulation,” “Fighting Fake News with Visual Literacy,” “Teaching Media Literacy in a Post-truth World,” and “Literacy: Information, Digital, News, Media... Same S#!@, Different Day!,” which invited the audience to join in a Kahoot quiz to get the ball rolling.

The panel titled “A Conversation with Ellen Oh and AASL’s Emerging Leaders” offered discussion of strategies addressed in the “Developing Inclusive Learners and Citizens” activity guide developed by the 2019 ALA Emerging Leaders team sponsored by AASL. The Emerging Leaders team posed questions to Oh about such things as including more LGBTQ books in the library, authentic voices, and dealing with book challenges. Among the other sessions spotlighting inclusion and representation were “(Mis)representation of Deaf Characters in Young Adult Fiction” and “Adapted Library: Ideas and Strategies for Students on the Autism Spectrum and Non-categorical Disabilities.”

Effective advocacy was a theme running through several sessions. Kathy Lester, school librarian at East Middle School in Plymouth, Mich., who is also advocacy chair for the Michigan Association for Media in Education, was a copresenter on the panel “Taking Our Case to Decision Makers: Effective State- and District-Level Advocacy.” She summarized some of her key takeaways: “There is a difference between advocacy, marketing, and public relations, and all school librarians should be advocating using AASL’s definition of that term.” In addition, she says, it’s essential to remember the “five Ps of advocacy: advocacy requires being present, being polite, being prepared, being positive, and oftentimes being persistent.” Social justice and activism were among the other topics addressed in various panel discussions and presentations.

“The strongest leaders and researchers in the school library field are the presenters, and having this type of access to those individuals is extremely helpful,” says Brakel of the overall programming. She participated in a different type of session, one of the standards focus groups hosted by AASL. “AASL is seeking input from members about their thoughts and use of the standards, how they are being implemented in the field,” she adds.

On the Exhibit Floor

This year’s conference saw several logistical changes designed to enhance the experience of attendees and exhibitors. “One of the chief things was we made sure we had more nonconflicting exhibit times,” Bryant says. “This gave people the opportunity to get in and see what our exhibitors were offering. In addition, we offered exclusive exhibit time right after the opening session keynote, and we served hors d’oeuvres. That was really successful.”

Also new this year was the inclusion of lunch vouchers for attendees in the price of registration. According to Bryant, this tweak to the conference tackled a couple of concerns for librarians, mainly cost and time. At past conferences, lunchtime saw attendees trying to find something to eat in or around the event venue, which was usually expensive and time consuming. Bryant said the planning committees and AASL staff devised a plan to provide lunch at the rear of the exhibit hall on Friday and Saturday.

From early feedback, the result of implementing these two new ideas seems to be a win for all sides. “I think people liked it, and it helped in terms of cost savings,” Bryant says. “There was a pretty positive reaction to that.”

Ellen Myrick, president and chief marketer behind exhibitor Publisher Spotlight, which represented the interests of a variety of publishers in its booth, was enthusiastic about how things went. “We were pleased by the increase in exclusive exhibit time, which encouraged attendees to spend more time in the exhibit hall,” she says. As a bonus, she notes, “We enjoyed having hundreds of school librarians file past our booth” as they made their way to the lunch area. All told, her team “had more than 1,000 conversations with people interested in our books, graphic novels, and audiobooks” over the weekend, she adds.

“The foot traffic at our booth was especially heavy during the exhibit exclusive hours, which gave us a chance to connect with so many dedicated and passionate school librarians throughout the show,” says Sawako Shirota, library marketing coordinator at Candlewick Press. “From the engaging conversations we’ve had with everyone, we learned that there is a strong need for more early readers and transitional chapter books to serve the independent new readers and the growing numbers of ELL students, especially bilingual and Spanish titles.”

The digital reading platform Epic had a booth at the conference. “Our booth got great traffic and saw lots of excitement from librarians who were already using the service,” says Sally Espinoza, the company’s director of engagement. “But it was their candid feedback about their experience with Epic that was most valuable.” Going forward, Espinoza says Epic plans to use the librarians’ feedback to help improve their user experience with the app.

And Louisville-based Flyaway Books, which launched in 2018, didn’t have far to travel to exhibit at its first AASL. Marketing manager Keri Daly says her team was “very impressed with the conference,” adding, “The foot traffic in our booth was fairly steady and our team members had a lot of good conversations with librarians, as well as other exhibitors, who stopped by. In particular, there was a lot of interest in our social and emotional learning picture books, as well as our Christmas picture books. It was encouraging to hear positive feedback about our books, especially about the covers and the additional guides we created for several titles.”

Author Presence at the Show

One change in AASL National Conference procedures this year that wasn’t unanimously welcomed was a shift in the policies regarding author participation in the event. As a result of this move, authors from several major publishing houses were not part of the 2019 conference. A school and library marketing contact from one of the Big Five publishers says, “Our company would have loved to support AASL attendees by proposing and sponsoring authors for programs, as we’ve done in the past, but AASL recently added a new stipulation to author programs. Because we were not an official exhibitor, meaning we did not take our own booth, we were not allowed to participate in that manner. We are hoping that AASL will revisit this policy, as it only hurts its attendees.”

Voicing concerns about author participation at the conference from another perspective, Mary Ann Scheuer, a teacher librarian at Albany High School in Northern California, shared some of her observations as an attendee. “Authors who did not have strong reviews within professional publications were selected to be part of panels,” she says. “And that is contradictory to the values and training within our profession.” This development led Scheuer and some fellow librarians to wonder what might have changed in the author selection process.

AASL provided a statement that offered some history of the evolution of its author programming over time, as well as some explanation for how it arrived at its current rules regarding participation. “AASL was very excited in adding author programming at the AASL National Conference several years ago,” the statement reads. “There have been iterations every year with the goal to have a more inclusive and diverse representation of publishers. Specific publishers were invited to offer authors and there were still events in which additional tickets were required by attendees in the initial transformation. Today, AASL offers all author presentations and signings as open access to all attendees. While we appreciate and approach the bigger publishers for assistance, it is no longer assumed that they will receive automatic inclusion to the exclusion of smaller or independent publishers. During the last conference AASL saw that there were publishers who chose to support the presence of an author and forgo additional engagement with AASL attendees on the exhibit floor. Conversely, many smaller publishers supported AASL’s exhibits and engaged attendees through collection development and content conversations. As we look to the next iteration, we are hoping to involve publishers even more by seeking input on topics and content for sessions.”

Saturday afternoon’s closing general session—titled “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too!”—sported a new format, as well. Attendees had been encouraged to take notes over the weekend on pages provided in the conference program book, so that they could then share key takeaways from the sessions they went to during a final gathering. “Roughly 500 people attended the reflection piece,” Bryant says. “We had door prizes and food, and people had the opportunity to reflect and share. We thought it was pretty successful considering it took place on Saturday afternoon.”

With 2019’s event officially in the books, a new slate of committee chairpersons will be named in early 2020, and they will soon begin their work planning the next AASL National Conference, scheduled to take place October 21–23, 2021, in Salt Lake City.