The 2021 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting has for some time loomed large on the ALA’s event calendar. Originally set for Indianapolis, Ind., it was to be the final Midwinter Meeting before the launch of a new, soon-to-be-revealed “January event.” But on August 6, as it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic would continue to be with us for the foreseeable future, ALA executives made the necessary decision: they pulled the plug on the in-person event and announced a virtual meeting in its place.

The virtual Midwinter Meeting will run from Friday to Tuesday, January 22 to 26, 2021. Registration is now open and will close January 15, at noon CT. And as was the case for the ALA virtual event this past June, ALA members who have been laid off or furloughed can register at no cost. “Though we very much hoped to be able to meet in person in Indianapolis, the health and safety of conference attendees, ALA members and staff, exhibitors, and other stakeholders are the priority,” said ALA president Julius C. Jefferson Jr. in announcing the conference’s move to online only.

The good news is that ALA got that decision absolutely right: safety matters most. And with Covid-19 cases and deaths now spiking to tragic, record levels (just as public health officials predicted and many politicians denied), it simply will not be possible to safely travel and hold large in-person meetings by January.

Fortunately, after months of doing online events and using technology effectively to serve their communities in the wake of the pandemic, librarians have adjusted well to the new virtual reality. The online ALA event in June was by most accounts a surprising success. Though it was not without some initial tech hiccups, which were to be expected, ALA reported strong engagement and more than 10,000 attendees. And more good news: conference organizers have had more time and now have more experience with which to plan the virtual edition of the 2021 Midwinter Meeting.

Rest assured, there will be in-person ALA events again at some point—but only when they can be safe. Librarians largely agree that nothing can replace the sense of community that comes with being together with their fellow library professionals, publishers, and vendors. At the same time, one of ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall's stated goals is to make ALA less dependent on conference revenue, and to make ALA’s programs more accessible and more affordable for members. “What ALA is looking at for the future is always thinking hybrid—not only face-to-face conferences but online as well,” Hall told PW in an interview earlier this year.

As for the upcoming virtual Midwinter Meeting, Hall expects a strong showing. “We had people who were able to attend an ALA conference for the first time in their careers, connecting with the association and all that we offer,” Hall said of ALA’s June event. “So, from my vantage point, I am looking at all the members and new constituents our virtual events allow us to reach.”

The 2021 Midwinter Meeting will officially begin with the opening of a virtual exhibits hall, dubbed the Library Marketplace, on Friday, January 22. Offerings each day will include a morning Coffee Talk with a featured author, followed by exhibitor education sessions, presentations, more author talks, and an end-of-day happy hour to network and catch up with friends and colleagues. As of press time, the Library Marketplace lists more than 100 virtual exhibitor booths. For the full schedule, check out the ALA 2021 Midwinter website.

Speaker Highlights

The featured speaker programs for the Midwinter Meeting begin on Saturday with a can’t-miss discussion featuring Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain (10–11 a.m. CT).

Kendi is the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, and the bestselling author of five books, including Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction; How to Be an Antiracist, which topped bestseller lists for much of the summer; and Antiracist Baby, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky. Blain is a historian at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle of Freedom and Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Vision of America. In February 2021, Kendi and Blain will release a joint effort, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019, which publisher One World describes as a “choral history” of African Americans, covering 400 years of history in the voices of 80 writers.

Later on Saturday, actor and director Ethan Hawke takes the virtual stage (12:30–1 p.m. CT). He has appeared in more than 80 independent and commercial films and currently stars in the Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, based on the 2013 novel of the same name by James McBride. Hawke is also an author, whose new novel A Bright Ray of Darkness (Knopf) is due out in early February 2021. Billed as a “blistering story of a young man making his Broadway debut just as his marriage implodes,” it is his first novel in 20 years. He is also an active supporter of the Doe Fund, a charity that strives to break the cycles of homelessness, incarceration, and recidivism by providing holistic services, housing, and work opportunities.

Grammy-winner, Emmy-winner, author, philanthropist, and reggae icon Ziggy Marley will close Saturday’s featured speaker program (1:45–2:15 p.m. CT). Born in Jamaica in 1968, Marley began his music career at the tender age of 10, when he sat in on recording sessions with his father, the legendary Bob Marley. He’d go on to release eight chart-topping albums—and turn his song “I Love You Too” into a children’s picture book of the same name with Akashic, illustrated by Ag Jatkowska. Marley’s latest two children’s books, Music Is in Everything and My Dog Romeo, will be available May 2021, both published by Akashic.

Sunday’s main speaker program begins with the annual ALA President’s Program, which will feature Joy Harjo, the U.S. poet laureate (11 a.m.–12:30 p.m CT). A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo is the first Native American to be named poet laureate, a post to which she was reappointed this past April. She is the author of nine books of poetry and a memoir, Crazy Brave, which was awarded the PEN USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is also an executive editor on When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, which features more than 160 poets representing nearly 100 Indigenous nations and was published in August 2020.

Next up, don’t miss legendary actor, lecturer, and activist Cicely Tyson (12:30–1 p.m. CT). At age 95, she is one of the most acclaimed and respected talents in American theater and film history. Among her many accolades, she is the recipient of the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spingarn Award, and was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. The following year, in 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation. Tyson’s memoir, Just as I Am (HarperCollins) comes out in January 2021 and is said to include details about her decades-long friendship with Arthur Mitchell and her love affair with and eight-year marriage to jazz legend Miles Davis.

The featured speaker program closes with NFL player turned author and YouTuber Emmanuel Acho (3:30–4 p.m. CT). In early summer 2020, Acho created the YouTube series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. The series quickly went viral and led to a book of the same name—and a partnership with Oprah Winfrey. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man was published by Flatiron in November, and a young readers edition, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy, will be published by Flatiron in March 2021.

More Programs and Awards

In addition to the Library Marketplace and the great slate of main speakers, the virtual Midwinter Meeting will be packed with educational sessions and awards programs, including updates on the newest research, innovations, and advances in libraries; a slate of interactive author events; live chat and networking opportunities; a new Diversity in Publishing stage; and the always-useful Symposium on the Future of Libraries, which features a strong list of topics and speakers.

And one of the major highlights of every Midwinter Meeting is the announcement of the ALA Youth Media Awards, including the prestigious Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and Coretta Scott King awards. The Youth Media Awards announcements will take place on Monday at 8 a.m. CT. The program can be streamed online by visiting the ALA’s social media channels, including Facebook and YouTube, or on Twitter, by following hashtag #ALAYMA.

As always, events are subject to change. Check the ALA’s 2021 Midwinter Meeting website for updates.