The American Library Association concluded its first in-person conference since 2019 on Tuesday, June 28, in Washington, D.C., and while attendance was well below pre-pandemic levels, as expected, the show set a new high-water mark for the return to U.S. in-person events in the book business.

At press time, ALA officials reported 13,990 total registrations, with 8,023 attendees and 5,133 exhibitors. The ALA’s last in-person annual conference in 2019, also held in Washington, D.C., drew 21,460 total attendees, while the 2018 conference in New Orleans drew 17,599.

In addition to in-person attendees, ALA reported 834 digital-only registrants—a surprisingly low number given the association’s success with virtual events over the last two years and its stated commitment to using virtual access to increase engagement. The ALA’s 2021 virtual-only annual conference (which was headlined by Barack Obama) drew 9,142 attendees. And the ALA’s inaugural LibLearnX conference, the successor to the now discontinued ALA Midwinter Meeting, drew more than 2,100 attendees in January after being forced to go virtual-only.

The much-anticipated return of the ALA Annual Conference comes after the Public Library Association, one of the ALA’s largest divisions, drew more than 4,000 in-person attendees to its biennial conference in Portland, Ore., in March, as well as nearly 1,200 virtual attendees.

But where the 2022 PLA conference—the first major library conference in two years—felt like a reunion, attendees agreed that the 2022 ALA Annual Conference felt more like a return to business.

“ALA Annual 2022 was a success for us,” said Penguin Random House senior v-p Skip Dye, who noted that traffic in the exhibit hall was steady. “The highlight for me was seeing people, library friends and colleagues,” Dye said, adding that the meeting generally felt safe (ALA required vaccination and masks—though the mask rule, while generally observed, was not strictly enforced). Dye also said PRH adjusted its booth layout “to promote more social distancing and to make colleagues, attendees, and authors more at ease.”

Other publishers and exhibitors agreed with Dye’s view, noting long lines for book signings and galley giveaways, and consistent traffic. “The conference was full of energy, and we felt the passion from each librarian we met,” said Barb Wing, v-p at Literati, the Texas-based subscription book box service that purchased Follett’s book fair business earlier this year. A newcomer to the ALA annual conference, Wing expressed satisfaction with the show and said the company looked forward to returning to ALA conferences as it continues to expand its book fair business in support of both young readers and libraries.

For librarians, the return to an in-person ALA was a bit more complicated.

Librarians arrived in Washington amid a host of significant issues. A wide-ranging professional program addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion issues; the safety of library workers and patrons; the ongoing movement for equitable access to e-books; and the rise of book bans and other actions that undermine the freedom to read. Those actions took an ugly twist in recent weeks with reports of far-right groups like the Proud Boys showing up to menace attendees at children’s events at various libraries. Meanwhile, many librarians found time to join protests after the Supreme Court on June 24 released its long-anticipated ruling striking down Roe v. Wade.

Next up on the ALA calendar is its second annual LibLearnX show, set to run in-person Jan. 27-31, 2023, in New Orleans. And while the threat from Covid-19 may be receding, making it unlikely the the 2023 LibLearnX conference will be forced to go virtual-only, economic and political challenges may now loom. Some librarians told PW that their travel budgets are very much in question given the state of the economy. Plus, there is talk that some librarians may not support travel to states where abortion is now illegal, or where educational gag orders, such as Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law, are in place.

The next annual conference is set for the ALA’s hometown of Chicago, June 22–27, 2023.

Correction: an earlier version of this story omitted the word "not" as in there is talk some librarians may not support travel to states where abortion is illegal or educational gag orders are in place.