In a stark reminder that the U.S. is still likely in the early stages of the battle to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, the American Library Association has canceled the 2020 ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition, which was scheduled for June 25-30 in Chicago. It will be first time in 75 years that ALA has not hosted an annual conference, with the last cancellation taking place in 1945 as World War II wound down.
“We recognize the magnitude of this decision for the association and our membership,” said ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall. “This year, we were especially looking forward to the conference taking place in ALA’s hometown of Chicago. However, the well-being of our library community, staff, and fellow Chicago residents has to be the number one concern, and that drove our decision-making."
Hall’s sentiments were echoed by ALA president Wanda K. Brown. “ALA’s priority is the health and safety of the library community, including our members, staff, supporters, vendors, and volunteers,” Brown said. “As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, it’s become clear that in the face of an unprecedented situation, we need to make tough choices.”
The ALA cancellation comes just days after ALA made another unprecedented announcement, in which it urged libraries to close to slow the spread of Covid-19. Earlier this month, the Texas Library Association, the country’s largest state library association, announced the cancellation of its annual conference, which had been set for this week. TLA added that a planned digital replacement is now in the works.
Hall called the move “a great disappointment,” although she noted that ALA would use that disappointment as fuel for its future events. But the show's cancellation is certainly an unwelcome development for ALA, with the organization in the midst of a cash crunch as well as a reorganization. The annual conference, which often draws more than 20,000 attendees and hundreds of vendors, is an important source of revenue for the organization.
The cancellation is also a blow for publishers, authors, and other vendors and service providers. The conference always features a robust program of authors, and provides an important opportunity for publishers to launch new titles in front of an influential audience. The 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans, for example, hosted the first appearance by Michelle Obama in connection with her then not yet released memoir Becoming.
In a sign of how important the conference is to publishers and other vendors who support ALA, the ALA press release announcing the cancellation featured statements from a number of publishers and other vendors, including EBSCO, Follett/Baker & Taylor, Gale/Cengage, HarperCollins, OverDrive, Penguin Random House, ProQuest, and, Simon & Schuster. In his statement, Gale senior v-p Paul Gazzolo applauded ALA for “making this difficult decision quickly."
Next up for ALA is the association’s last scheduled Midwinter Meeting, set for Indianapolis in January of 2021, followed by the 2021 ALA Annual Conference, also scheduled for Chicago. Hall said the plan is to make both of those meetings “incredible experiences” that will “serve as opportunities for the profession to regroup and recharge.”
But at this moment, the focus needs to be on staying healthy and looking ahead, said Julius C. Jefferson, ALA president-elect. “At this unprecedented and historic time the health and safety of our members and their families are our primary concern,” Jefferson said in a statement. “I want us all to focus on our collective health so we may live to advocate for libraries and library workers another day."