This week, the Public Library Association will become the largest association conference in Portland since the pandemic began two years ago. With more than 4,000 library workers and advocates, it also will be the largest in-person library gathering since February 2020.
Like the cherry blossoms or Columbia River Gorge wildflowers, the PLA 2022 conference feels like another sign of the hope and renewal that comes with spring after a long winter. Portland offers the perfect backdrop to sow in-depth conversations regarding the future of library service in a post-pandemic world.
Public libraries are opening their doors to a new normal, reconnecting and adopting best practices that will help us all navigate forward. Colleagues from coast to coast will share their experiences as libraries swiftly responded to meet evolving community needs.
Multnomah County Library, for instance, doubled spending on digital content, boosted multilingual online programming, and expanded free reading and learning resources to aid distance education for parents, students and teachers. Jackson County Library Service’s Direct Access to Resources and Technology (DART) Wi-Fi on wheels demonstrates another trend by libraries to bridge a yawning digital divide. The Oregon Library Association’s successful work with legislators to pass broadband legislation (HB 4092) will provide additional support to libraries to advance more critically needed broadband projects.
As library buildings and services are restored to full capacity, we can build on these recent lessons. Just as library makerspaces and 3D printers boosted production of face masks and other PPE, they are equipped to support and network diverse entrepreneurs to expand economic recovery. We also are re-envisioning services to help address systemic inequities. Libraries nationwide—including roughly half of Oregon libraries—are eliminating late fees, and conference sessions range from summer learning based on racial equity to improving web accessibility to improving staff diversity.
We can learn from Multnomah County, where voters know that investing in your public library is an investment in the future. Libraries bring diverse residents together and empower learning with culturally relevant resources and innovative services ranging from maker spaces to teaching kitchens. Powered by a $387 million bond, MCL is on track to build, rebuild or expand eight libraries that will strengthen the county’s civic and social infrastructure. The library is centering plans around a robust community engagement effort and the perspectives of historically underserved communities.
Community support is key to ensuring equitable access for all through our facilities, collections and programs. Unfortunately, librarians have recently seen an unprecedented rise in efforts to ban books. From calls to remove Huckleberry Finn for racist language to a challenge of a book of poetry in the Roseburg (Ore.) High School library, libraries have something to offend most everyone.
But coordinated campaigns to remove materials that mirror the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals or tell authentic stories of Black, Indigenous, or Persons of Color are using intimidating tactics to deny access. The Idaho legislature, for instance, is considering whether to criminalize library workers for providing access to content some find objectionable.
The American Library Association, Oregon Library Association, and librarians nationwide are speaking out for your freedom to read and choose from our diverse collections. We know most Americans value libraries and trust librarians, so we must stand together to resist this dangerous trend to restrict access to information.
As the inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place.” We couldn’t agree more, and we invite you all to join the renewal at “everybody’s place” today.
Melanie Huggins is president of the Public Library Association; Arlene Weible is president of the Oregon Library Association; Vailey Oehlke is director, Multnomah County Library.