During the recently concluded American Association of School Librarians National Conference ALA executive director Tracy Hall made a simple yet hopeful observation: “This AASL conference is the first time that the American Library Association has met [in-person] in almost two years.” Hall’s obversation, ALA officials note, was met with “wild applause.”

Indeed, more than 1,500 school librarians, administrators, authors, and exhibitors gathered in Salt Lake City from October 21-23 in Salt Lake City, Utah for the AASL’s biennial national conference. And while that number is down from the more than 2,500 who attended the last AASL National Conference in 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, attendance exceeded ALA’s expectations, which had estimated attendance in Utah would come it at around 1,200.

A division of ALA, AASL counts some 7,000 members.

In Salt Lake City, AASL members gathered at a crucial time, with schools back to in-person learning after a 2020 that saw many school buildings shuttered, and amid an increasingly contentious political environment that has included a sharp increase in attempts to ban books from schools and libraries, particularly books that deal with issues of race and sexuality.

Among the AASL conference highlights, Dr. Omékongo Dibinga, author of The UPstander’s Guide to an Outstanding Life” introduced the term “agnotology,” which he defined as “the willful act of spreading deceit and confusion—and he celebrated librarians and libraries are the antithesis of agnotology, and essential to our nation.

“We must always make sure libraries are seen as the sacred spaces they are,” Dibinga said. “The two things I had growing up; I had my parents and family and I had a school library.”

A general session on October 22 featured a conversation among four school superintendents and principals, who characterized the school library as the heart of the school building with an impact on every class, and librarians as problem-solvers, co-teachers, and co-researchers. “It’s bigger than kids just coming to the library to get books,” said Sean Doherty, a retired superintendent from the school district of Clayton, Missouri, who described school librarians as “powerful connectors” who not only help kids learn to read for fun, but also develop critical information literacy skills. “This is a need,” Doherty said, “not a want.”

And on Oct. 23, Kekla Magoon, the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for young readers, and a National Book Award finalist for young people’s literature, delivered the conference’s author keynote. Magoon urged librarians to stand up to the growing wave of attempts underway in many states to ban books, especially that address issues of race and gender identity.

“I challenge you to be brave, to stand up for the needs of your young patrons and not shy away from shelving books that feel important to you and to them,” said Magoon, whose upcoming book Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People,” is due out from Candlwick Press in November. “The power of libraries comes from offering a multitude of voices. It comes from carrying a collection that speaks truth in a chorus of perspectives and a range of genres across diverse formats and media. We cannot allow that diversity and complexity to be taken from us by the powers that be.”

Meanwhile, AASL wasn’t the only in-person meeting for librarians this month. ARSL (The Association of Rural and Small Libraries) also held an in-person event for its 2021 National Conference in Sparks, Nevada. ARSL is independent, and not a division of ALA.

ARSL president Kathy Zappitello, executive director of the Conneaut (Ohio) Public Library, told PW that the show, dubbed "The Biggest Little Library Conference"—which also drew another 500 virtual attendees—was, in her opinion, the best ARSL national conference ever. "Arriving to the banquet hall for our kickoff keynote and meal, my emotions got the best of me," Zappitello told PW.

Zappitello said she was especially struck by ARSL's focus on issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. "Seeing that embraced by my library colleagues from across the country showed me that libraries in small and rural communities really are the heartbeat of our nation and deeply care about the folks they serve," Zappitello said.

The ARSL conference was keynoted by civil rights lawyer Qian Julie Wang, whose bestselling memoir, Beautiful Country, earned a starred review from PW, which called it “a new classic.

The successful conclusion of the first in-person shows in nearly two years should bolster the ALA’s hopes for an in-person return to its major conferences—with two major in-person ALA conferences looming especially large on the calendar for 2022: the PLA national conference, set for March 23-25, in Portland, Oregon; and the ALA Annual Conference, set for Washington DC, June 23-28. Washington DC is historically among the best-attended ALA conference locations. The 2019 ALA Conference in Washington DC drew nearly 22,000 attendees.

Meanwhile, registration is now open for the ALA's first ever LibLearn X, the successor to the ALA's Midwinter Meeting, which this year will be held as an online-only event.

This week, ALA officials announced that comedian, and author Molly Shannon will appear at LibLearnX to talk about her forthcoming book Hello, Molly! A Memoir, (HarperCollins). In addition, bestselling YA author Kelly Yang will discuss her newest book, New from Here. More LibLearnX speakers are expected to be announced soon.

Correction: an earlier version of this story suggested that Kekla Magoon's upcoming book was due to be published by Penguin Random House. The book is being published by Candlewick Press, and is distributed by PRH.