From Tuesday to Saturday, February 25 to 29, some 8,000 librarians, publishers, and vendors will descend on the Music City Center in the great city of Nashville for the 2020 Public Library Association conference. PLA is the largest division of the American Library Association, and in recent years its biennial conference has become one of the library community’s most popular and well-attended events, with a reputation for strong programming and great speakers. And the 2020 conference—the first of a new decade—is certainly set up to be a great one.

“We’re very excited,” says Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library and the current PLA president, pointing to some A-list keynote speakers, a packed professional education series with more than 120 sessions (including the return of the popular Spark Talks series), and “hundreds of authors” (including Erik Larson and local resident Ann Patchett) participating throughout the conference. There’s also the usual slate of luncheons, receptions, and a bustling exhibits hall, with some 900 publishers and vendors expected to be on hand.

Nashville Skyline

The city of Nashville, one of America’s most vibrant, storied cultural capitals, will star as well at this year’s PLA. Long ago dubbed the Athens of the South, Nashville is “so much more than country music,” Salazar says. “The city is so dynamic. When you visit, you can see all the construction, all the new buildings. It’s growing like crazy. They have so many people coming in, including new immigrants to this country.”

Nashville Public Library director Kent Oliver says he and his staff are looking forward to hosting the profession in his hometown. “First, the PLA programs I’ve seen so far look incredible,” he notes. “But we are very excited about the opportunity for people to see our library system and some of the special things that are going on here.”

Oliver has a lot to share with his fellow public librarians (see “What Makes Nashville Tick,” p. 14). The NPL, which serves more than 700,000 people through 21 locations, holds a world-class collection. It also houses a national treasure in its Civil Rights Room. And the library’s community programming is a model for public libraries across the nation. Perhaps most notable is its Limitless Libraries program, a resource-sharing collaboration between the library and Metro Nashville Public Libraries that in 2019—a decade after it was chartered—circulated 131,000 items to 80,000 students, teachers, and librarians in 126 schools in the city, while saving taxpayers nearly $500,000 in purchasing costs.

In 2017, NPL’s innovative programs and resources earned it the Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year Award. In announcing the award, Library Journal publisher Rebecca Miller praised the library’s vision. “The Nashville Public Library stands out for its range of services, innovation in partnerships, and commitment to evolving as its community does, while keeping a keen eye on what’s important from the past.”

Librarians head to Nashville at an interesting time. In 2020 there will be a high-stakes national election, and also a national census, which libraries will be very involved with. Technology and changing media use continues to change the profession. Print books remain stable, but access to digital media and e-books has become a contentious subject. The ALA, meanwhile, is retooling for the next generation of library service with a lengthy effort to gather input from members, and the association will have a new executive director, Tracie D. Hall, to oversee the effort. Through it all, libraries continue to do a remarkable job in their communities, taking a leading role on educational, literacy, and social and economic justice initiatives, offering an ever-wider and popular array of programming, and updating their spaces to include everything from recording studios and makerspaces to language classes and immigration services.

Indeed, while some pundits continue to question the future of public libraries, libraries are working to increase their relevance. And in January, a Gallup poll reported that “visiting the library remains the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far”—they go to libraries more than they attend movies, sporting events, or concerts. But as any librarian will tell you, the only constant is change, even for award-winning libraries like Nashville’s. “As I think back on 2019, an old truth has made itself apparent to me yet again,” Oliver wrote in NPL’s recently released 2019 annual report. “As Nashville changes, so does its library.”


The 2020 PLA conference will feature some powerful keynote speakers bookending a packed professional program. The highly anticipated opening keynote will be delivered by Stacey Abrams (Wednesday, 2–3:30 p.m., Music City Center Auditorium). Abrams shot to national prominence after winning the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor of Georgia, the first black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the United States. In that election, she garnered more votes than any other Democrat in the state’s history, losing by only 50,000 votes. Before running for governor, Abrams served 11 years in the Georgia House of Representatives, seven as minority leader, and she has founded multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color, and tackling social issues at both the state and national level.

In June, Abrams is set to publish her latest book, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Holt). The book will draw on extensive national research from Abrams’s voter rights organization, Fair Fight Action, and her 2020 census effort, Fair Count, as well as, according to the publisher page, “moving and personal anecdotes from her own life,” to explore how our modern political system is suppressing the voices of millions, and how Americans can reverse this troubling trend.

The closing keynote speaker also promises to be a hit—the great Samantha Bee (Saturday, February 29, noon–1 p.m. in the Music City Center Auditorium ). In 2003, Bee joined Comedy Central’s The Daily Show on its “Best F#@king News Team,” leaving in 2015 after 12 years. Bee has gone on to establish herself as one of the sharpest comedic voices on television with her late-night show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.

Bee is the author of a 2010 collection of personal essays, I Know I Am, but What Are You? (Simon & Schuster), and she is currently working on a middle grade novel for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Big Ideas, Spark Talks

PLA’s popular Big Ideas speaker series is back for 2020. The talks, which conference organizers pitch as the PLA’s version of TED Talks, will kick off each day with an inspiring speaker sure to challenge attendees’ minds and spark their creativity.

The Big Ideas series (all in the Music City Convention Center Grand Ballroom) begins with Bettina Love (Thursday, 8–9 a.m.). Love is an award-winning author and associate professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on the ways in which urban youth negotiate hip-hop music and culture to form social, cultural, and political identities, and how teachers and schools working with parents and communities can build communal, civically engaged schools rooted in intersectional social justice with the goal of equitable classrooms. Her most recent book is We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Beacon).

Next up in the series is Haben Girma (Friday, 8–9 a.m.). Girma, the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, is a powerful advocate for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2013, Barack Obama named her a White House Champion of Change, and in 2016, she earned a spot on Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Today, Girma travels the world teaching organizations the benefits of fully accessible products and services. She’s also the author of the bestselling book Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law (Twelve).

The Big Ideas series wraps up with award-winning journalist, entrepreneur, and television host Soledad O’Brien (Saturday, 8–9 a.m.). As the host of the Sunday morning syndicated political show Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, she has established herself as one of the most recognized names in broadcasting. She’s also a devoted champion of diversity and the producer of the Emmy-winning documentary series Black in America, as well as the documentary Latino in America. O’Brien is the founder of PowHERful, a foundation that mentors and funds college tuition and expenses for young women.

Looking for an energetic close to your day at PLA? The 2020 PLA program will once again feature two days of its popular Spark Talks. The presenters are librarians and PLA members who will have only five minutes each to ignite some new ideas inspired by their work and their personal passion; and if speakers go over five minutes, they get the big hook. Both sessions are scheduled for the Music City Center Hall A2. As always, check the PLA program online for last-minute changes.

Among the various speakers, Spark Talks I (Thursday, 5:15–6:15 p.m.) will feature Megan Emery (The Healing Library), who will discuss how David Bowie’s life’s work “reads like a playbook of how to be a good librarian”; Rebecca Ballard (Oconee County [S.C.] Library), who offers “Five Minute Self-Care Techniques” for stressed out public librarians; and Betha Gutsche (OCLC WebJunction), who will talk about how libraries can close “the justice gap” and help patrons who turn to the library for help with life crises.”

Among the topics on tap in the Sparks Talks II session (Friday, 5:15–6:15 p.m.): Anne Heidemann (Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Libraries [Mich.]) will offer tips on how libraries can use “traditional ways of knowing and being to break free of colonialist library organizational systems” that can reinforce a damaging worldview; and Julie Jurgens (Mount Prospect [Ill.] Public Library) will (in five minutes, mind you!) offer a take on a topic all libraries face these days: scope creep. Her take: “Libraries contain multitudes—they are repositories of information, community centers, and gathering places. But what happens when libraries try to do too much with not enough help?”

Go to the Library

PLA offers a packed, high-quality program. And there are plenty of attractions in and around Nashville. But you’ll be missing out if you visit Nashville and don’t make it to the library.

While in town, find some time to check out the NPL main library. Or take advantage of a PLA-organized branch tour. You can join your colleagues on Wednesday, 9 a.m.–1:30 p.m., for a tour with stops at the Bellevue, Madison, and Looby branches. The tour is $50 and includes coffee, snacks, and a boxed lunch (check out the PLA website to sign up and for more details). We look forward to seeing you in Nashville.

See below for more on Nashville PLA 2020.

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PLA 2020: Nashville's Library Is What Makes It Tick
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PLA 2020: Nashville Encourages Its Teens to Create
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