The Public Library Association (PLA) last week announced that registration and housing are officially open for the PLA 2022 Conference, set for March 23-25 in Portland, Oregon. And while the full program is yet to be finalized, PLA officials confirmed to PW this week that plans are full steam ahead for an in-person conference, making it potentially the first major in-person library conference since the pandemic began in 2020.

“We’re super excited about the prospect of being together again,” said Melanie Huggins, PLA president and executive director of the Richland (SC) Public Library. “PLA 2020 was kind of the last big library conference right before the pandemic so we’re all really very excited to get together and see each other and share what we’ve learned over the last two years, and to look toward the future.”

Huggins told PW there was "an immediate sign-up response" when the registration page went live. "We will be watching over time, but the immediate response was very positive."

Held every two years, the last PLA Conference was held February 25-29, 2020 in Nashville, TN, as scheduled, just as the conference the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic was becoming apparent. Less than three weeks later, on March 17, 2020, the American Library Association took the unprecedented step of recommending the nation’s libraries temporarily close their doors. A week later, on March 24, ALA canceled its annual conference and has since held three successful virtual events, although, in a positive sign the American Association of School Librarians is expecting some 1,2000 members to show up to its in-person biennial conference this month in Utah.

Until last month, there was hope that the ALA’s new January event, LibLearnX, (which was set to debut with an in-person component in San Antonio, TX, from January 21-24, 2022) would mark the return of major in-person library conferences. But the emergence of the delta variant, along with the controversial approach to Covid-19 in the host state of Texas—Texas governor Greg Abbot has signed orders forbidding both mask and vaccine mandates—left ALA officials with little choice but to cancel the in-person portion of the event. LibLearnX will now be virtual-only this year.

With national case counts falling once again and vaccination rates slowly rising, however, librarians are optimistic that they will be able to gather in person by March of next year. Huggins also expressed confidence in the Covid-19 policies in place in Oregon.

We’re super excited about the prospect of being together again.

“We are definitely pleased with what we’ve seen and the policies in place at the Oregon Convention Center,” Huggins told PW. “We are going to follow their protocols. Portland is very supportive of masks and showing proof of vaccination, and the city of Portland has a high vaccination rate so we feel this is going to be a safe and welcoming place to have a conference.”

Still, Huggins sounded a note of caution and said PLA would remain vigilant, acknowledging that some parts of the country are continuing to struggle with infection and vaccination rates, and that situations can change quickly.

“I think the biggest hurdle for some people will not be on the ground in Portland but with what the situation is like in their hometowns and communities,” she acknowledged. “Hopefully by the time March gets here that will not be such a challenge.”

Huggins also told PW that PLA remains committed to offering a robust virtual offering as well.

“One of the things we learned during the pandemic was that providing a virtual option really makes the conference accessible to people who would never be able to attend our programs in person,” she said. “We certainly want to keep that, because we saw so many more people being able to engage. It’s important for us to keep that as an option."

With some 9,000 members, the Public Library Association is one the largest division of the American Library Association and its biennial conference has become an increasingly popular draw.

PLA 2022 could also be harbinger for things to come for ALA, which is hoping for a strong turnout for its next Annual Conference, set to run from June 23-28, 2022, in Washington D.C.

A traditionally popular host city, ALA drew 21,460 attendees to Washington D.C. in 2019, its last in-person annual conference before the pandemic forced ALA events to go virtual.

"I would have to believe that PLA having strong attendance and hosting a conference that feels welcoming and vibrant and safe and worth the trip will be a strong indicator that ALA next June can be phenomenal," Huggins said, when asked if she felt that a successful PLA show in March of 2022 could be a table-setter for a successful return to ALA annual. "It certainly can't hurt for us to have a strong showing. And we do feel like many people are ready to get back together with their colleagues and friends. We miss our colleagues badly."

Clarification: an earlier version of this story referred to cancellations and no-shows at PLA in 2020 in the early days of Covid-19. PLA organizers say there were in fact few no-shows and attendance was as expected. We also noted the AASL conference, which, while much smaller in scale than a PLA or an ALA, is gathering in person this month.