For the second year in a row, the American Library Association Annual Conference will be a virtual-only event, set to run online from June 23–29, 2021. But more than a year after having so much of our lives pushed online by the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 ALA Annual Conference represents an impressive step up from the conference that had to be quickly organized in the wake of last year’s spring lockdowns, featuring a deep educational program, an expanded, diverse slate of authors and speakers, and some truly A-list keynoters including former president Barack Obama.

“I think that what we’ve found, and what we’re still finding, is that conferences are absolutely essential,” said ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall, when asked at the recent U.S. Book Show about the experience of having the association’s conferences forced to go online-only for the past year. “People use conferences to punctuate their professional experiences, to expand their network and their learning. And at ALA our goal is continue to be the premier point for networking and for learning. But what we are also finding is that a virtual experience allows us to expand to audiences that maybe we hadn’t reached before, and also allows us a certain amount of elasticity in terms of that experience.”

In fact, over the last year librarians and ALA leaders have truly leaned in to the virtual experience, seizing the opportunity to use technology to increase engagement among ALA members. For sure, in-person ALA conferences have always been a popular draw and they most surely will be again soon. But for too many ALA members, however, taking part in an in-person ALA conference has never really been possible be it for budgetary or other reasons—frustrations that over the years had become cataloged under a hashtag: #ALALeftBehind.

I think that what we’ve found, and what we’re still finding, is that conferences are absolutely essential.

But after the experience gained from a year of virtual-only meetings, ALA is now determined to leave that hashtag behind. Hall recalls that one of her favorite moments from a challenging year came during an ALA virtual event, when a rural librarian posted that they were no longer #ALALeftBehind.

“To see that, I felt really excited and happy,” Hall said. “Here was someone who had attended their very first ALA conference. And, as someone else later said, another attendee, now I know what the hype is about and it’s worth it. That made me feel really good.”

As ALA members know, change was coming to the association before the pandemic hit. In 2018, under a plan dubbed “Forward Together,” ALA had begun soliciting input from its membership and had formed a committee to report on how to modernize the association, increase member engagement, improve the association’s effectiveness and efficiency, and to better support equity, diversity, and inclusion both within ALA and the profession. And prior to the pandemic, Hall and ALA leaders were already working to retool the association’s revenue model to depend less on in-person conferences and events.

Suffice it to say, the pressing needs ALA was facing in the early days of 2020, when Hall was appointed executive director, became urgent and immediate needs virtually overnight in the wake of Covid-19, and as a long overdue racial justice movement took root following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And after a year of quick pivots and extraordinary efforts, Hall says ALA members and leaders are rising to the occasion. And the experience of this year, including the expansion of virtual content offerings, has helped point the way forward.

“Have there been challenges? Absolutely. Sometimes staggering challenges,” Hall conceded. “But do we have a will to push this association forward? Absolutely. And do we understand that as goes the association, so goes the profession? We absolutely do. That responsibility is enormous, and that is, I think, the source of our tenacity.”

A Year Like No Other

One person who surely understands the magnitude of the challenges facing librarians is current ALA president Julius C. Jefferson Jr., who deserves special recognition for his year in office. Unlike previous presidents, Jefferson enjoyed few of the fun parts of being ALA president, such as traveling and visiting with fellow librarians around the country, while at the same time facing profound, unprecedented challenges, many for which no playbook exists.

With libraries across the country closed, and pandemic travel restrictions in place, Jefferson, undeterred, took his “Holding Space” conversation tour with libraries virtual. And he ably navigated a fraught political environment to deliver much-needed results for libraries, and progress for ALA.

“ALA staff and leadership managed major challenges—all while having our governance and membership meetings in a virtual environment,” Jefferson recounted in his June 1 “American Libraries” column, his farewell column as president. “ALA developed a plan to address our finances and continued with the work of reenvisioning the operating agreement with our divisions. We heard from ALA’s Forward Together Working Group and are considering possibilities for a new, more responsive governance model. We increased member engagement, with so many answering the call to serve as committee chairs and members, and division and round table leaders.”

Meanwhile, throughout the last 16 months, librarians have remained laser-focused on doing the work in their communities.

“A lot of us refer to ourselves sometimes as first restorers, or second responders,” said Santa Monica City Librarian Patty Wong, who will be inaugurated as ALA president at the 2021 ALA virtual conference. “We were out there in the field. We helped get people the information they needed. And I think what we realized very quickly is that broadband was critical in terms of being successful in this pandemic.”

Broadband access has of course long been a priority for ALA. And as Wong begins her year as ALA president—a time when vaccination rates are rising, infection rates falling, and our public spaces reopening—she understands that now is the time to solve core problems, like the lack of internet access, problems that have been pulled into sharp relief by the pandemic.

“One of the critical things that we recognized both on the front line and at the American Library Association is that digital equity and universal broadband is something that resonated within our communities,” Wong noted in an interview at the recent U.S. Book Show, adding that the ALA Council this year passed a resolution supporting access to broadband as a human right. “Broadband is necessary for people to be successful. Broadband is as essential as electricity. And yet the FCC reports that more than 80 million people in our communities still do not have access to robust broadband. So that’s going to be a big underpinning of the work that I’ll be doing in my presidential year.”

Like Hall, Wong says she too is excited by the prospect of increased engagement for ALA and the power of digital platforms to reach more members. She points to the nearly 200 virtual educational sessions scheduled for the 2021 Annual Conference.

“I’m looking at a few of them right now and I’d just like to share some titles: ‘Creating an Essential Virtual Presence for Your School Library’; ‘Design Considerations for Libraries responding to Infectious Disease Concerns’; ‘Beyond Picture Perfect Diversity: How to Create a Sense of Inclusion'; 'Using Comic Books to Explore Social Justice’; ‘Books, Bytes, and Ballots: Assisting Voters and Elections Officials During a Pandemic’; and ‘Librarians’ Roles During Emergencies and Natural Disasters,’ which of course reflects all of the things that our community is going through right now.”

No question, significant hurdles remain as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic. But as the library community prepares for a virtual 2021 ALA Annual Conference, a sense of hope and optimism is beginning to replace fear and uncertainty.

“Wherever there’s a challenge, we’re finding opportunities,” Hall said. “I think we’re all collectively agreeing that the next 50 of the next 150 years of the American Library Association must be as great and formidable and important and impactful as the first 150 years, if not more so. I say more so because ALA is alive and operating at a time when three of the primary quality of life indicators have come to the information space—access to education, access to employment, and access to public health. And all of that access is predicated on analog as well as digital information platforms. So this is library’s time. And, I would venture to say, now is ALA’s time as well.”

Featured speakers

The featured speaker series for this year’s ALA Annual Conference kicks off with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who will keynote this year’s Opening General Session on Thursday, June 24 (10–11 a.m. CT). Jones is an award-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times and winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the 1619 Project, the groundbreaking exploration of the legacy of Black Americans tracing back to the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619. In November of 2021, Jones will publish The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (Penguin Random House) and Born on the Water (Penguin Random House) a lyrical picture book, also from the 1619 Project.

Next up is Leana Wen (3:30–4 p.m. CT), an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University and a CNN medical analyst. Wen’s memoir, Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in Public Health (Metropolitan), due out in July, explores the role of public health in approaching social ills and tells Wen’s remarkable personal story. An immigrant who came to the United States at age seven, she fought through poverty, attended college at 13, became a Rhodes scholar, and dedicated her life to public health.

Bestselling author Melissa de la Cruz will close Thursday’s lineup of featured speakers (4:30–5:30 p.m. CT). In addition to her own numerous bestselling books, de la Cruz is the founder and principal of Melissa de la Cruz Studio at Disney Publishing, which will create and package books in every genre and age range, with a focus on middle grade and young adult titles from a diverse group of new and established writers. She is also the co-director of YALLfest, and cofounder of YALLwest, the two largest young adult book festivals in the country, which attract more than 30,000 readers each year.

Acclaimed actor, writer, director, and producer Stanley Tucci kicks off the featured speaker program on Friday, June 25 (10:30–11 a.m. CT). Tucci is the host of the CNN travelogue Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, and his forthcoming book, Taste: My Life Through Food (Gallery), is billed as a reflection on the intersection of food and life.

Next up is Charles Person, a well-known activist and public speaker and one of two living Freedom Riders from the original 1961 ride (12:15–12:45 p.m. CT). Person was the youngest of the original Freedom Riders, key figures in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement who left Washington, D.C., on two buses in May 1961 to test whether part of the country would follow the Supreme Court’s desegregation order. His book Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider (St. Martin’s) provides a personal view of the struggle to belong in America and challenges today’s youth from the perspective of a teenager in a previous era.

Areli Morales (1:30–2 p.m. CT), who came to the U.S. with her family at age six, is said by her publisher to be the author of the first picture book written by a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) “Dreamer.” In Areli Is a Dreamer (Random House Children’s Books), illustrated by Luisa Uribe, Morales tells her personal immigration story, which she hopes will help young readers understand what it means to reach for the American dream.

Following Morales will be author and sociologist Eve L. Ewing (2:15–2:45 p.m. CT). Ewing’s research focuses on racism, social inequality, urban policy, and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people. Her first book for middle grade readers, Maya and the Robot (Penguin Young Readers) will be available in July 2021. The book, illustrated by Christine Almeda, is about a forgotten homemade robot who comes to life just when aspiring fifth grade scientist Maya needs a friend (and a science fair project).

In what figures to be one of the conference highlights, Billie Jean King will address attendees (3:30–4:30 p.m. CT). A groundbreaking tennis champion, King is the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. King’s memoir, All In: An Autobiography (Penguin Random House), will be available in August; it is billed as an intimate self-portrait that covers King’s brilliant tennis career, her unwavering activism, and her ongoing commitment to fairness, social justice, and LGBTQ rights.

Closing out Friday’s featured speakers will be classical ballet dancer Judy Tyrus and pianist, playwright, and composer Paul Novosel (4:30–5 p.m. CT), the authors of Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Celebration, A Movement (Kensington). With hundreds of sensational photographs, firsthand accounts, archival images, and a well-researched narrative, the book is being billed as the definitive history of the nation’s first African American classical ballet company.

The featured speakers program for Saturday, June 26, begins with Padma Lakshmi & Juana Martinez-Neal (10–10:30 a.m. CT). Lakshmi is an Indian American model, actor, author, creator and host of Hulu’s Taste the Nation, and the host and executive producer of the Emmy-winning Bravo series Top Chef. Award-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal is the Peruvian-born daughter and granddaughter of painters. Lakshmi and Martinez-Neal’s picture book Tomatoes for Neela (Penguin Young Readers), due out in August, affirms how cultures connect through food.

Next up, musician and cookbook author Trisha Yearwood (1–1:30 p.m. CT) will talk about what might be her most personal cookbook yet, Trisha’s Kitchen: Easy Comfort Food for Friends and Family (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), due out in September. The book collects 125 comfort food recipes and is peppered with unforgettable family stories and photos.

Closing out Saturday’s featured speakers will be writer, speaker, and lawyer Savala Nolan (2:30–3 p.m.). Nolan is the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law and regularly speaks on social justice issues, including implicit bias, structural racism, understanding whiteness, and the importance of social justice work for all lawyers. Her new book, Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body (Simon & Schuster), is due out this summer.

On Sunday, June 27, bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson will keynote the ALA President’s Program (11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. CT). Wilkerson, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, has become a leading figure in narrative nonfiction. Her most recent work, 2020’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Penguin Random House), explores the inner workings of an American hierarchy that goes far beyond the confines of race, class, or gender.

And, on Tuesday, June 29, Barack Obama will close the 2021 ALA Annual Conference (noon–1 p.m. CT). Obama will appear in conversation with Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian and first African American appointed to the role. The first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, A Promised Land, was published in November 2020 by Crown, a Penguin Random House imprint.

The much-anticipated appearance is not ALA’s first engagement with the Obamas. Michelle Obama keynoted the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans, in conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. And in 2005, Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois, spoke at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, where he delivered a memorable speech praising librarians and presciently talking about the challenges facing Americans in the digital age.

“We have to change our whole mindset as a nation. We’re living in the 21st-century knowledge economy, but our schools, our homes, and our culture are still based around 20th-century and in some cases 19th-century expectations,” Obama told librarians in his 2005 speech, which was reprinted in the June 1 edition of American Libraries magazine.

Exhibits and more

There is of course plenty more to the ALA Annual Conference than its featured speakers. And this year’s virtual event—the ALA’s third online conference in the last year—figures to be the most robust yet.

Be sure to check out the virtual exhibit hall, The Library Marketplace: Exhibits, Stages, & Resources, which will open on June 23 at 10 a.m. CT, with a full day of exhibit sessions and activities planned. Virtual exhibitor booths—more than 250 of them—will be open through June 26.

This year’s event will also feature hundreds more authors and presenters through a series of Spotlight Sessions, which will feature emerging authors; Presentation Stages, with more than 100 presentations from leading authors and publishers currently scheduled; virtual Networking Activities (including Coffee Talk, the Magic Show, the Bunny Break, and more); and, of course, the Educational Program is not to be missed, with some 200 planned sessions, all tracked by subject matter.

For more information and a complete lineup of speakers, consult the ALA Annual Conference program online. And, as always, check the online program for any last-minute changes or additions.