The American Library Association wrapped up the first in-person LibLearnX conference in New Orleans on January 30. And while the new conference was significantly scaled down from its predecessor (the now discontinued ALA Midwinter Meeting) it featured a slate of strong speakers, education panels, receptions, and great energy from librarians in attendance.
In all, ALA reported total attendance of 2,659, including 1,712 attendees (librarians, library workers, and library supporters); 757 exhibitors (including authors, press, and staff); and 190 online attendees via the LLX Digital Experience, the show’s virtual component—a surprisingly low number given the strength of ALA’s virtual programming during the pandemic (including 2,100 attendees at the inaugural LibLearnX last year, which was forced to go online only). The 2023 LibLearnX attendance numbers were expected to be modest—it is, after all, the debut of a reimagined show, with the pandemic still looming large, amid a tough, uncertain economic climate.
But despite modest attendance, the conference showed signs of success. Librarians told PW the first in-person LibLearnX in many ways delivered what ALA membership asked for when the association began reimagining the ALA Midwinter Meeting some five years ago—fewer meetings, more educational offerings, and more time to connect with peers. And librarians were clearly energized to be together in person to share best practices and support one another in what has been a challenging time for the profession.
Among the highlights, the LibLearnX program began with a timely, pitch-perfect opening session, featuring middle grade novelist Nic Stone and Ibram X. Kendi, who discussed their new book, How to Be a (Young) Antiracist (Penguin Random House), moderated by Nichelle Hayes, director of Indianapolis Public Library’s Center for Black Literature & Culture and president of the Black Caucus of ALA. In an engaging talk Kendi and Stone spoke about the importance of helping young people understand what it means to be antiracist.
“When I think about the changes, the large scale changes that have happened over the course of history, like, let's just take the civil rights movement for a second—a lot of the civil rights movement was driven by young people. Young people have a zeal and a focus that as we get older and literally have to pay bills, our focus shifts,” Stone said. “I travel a lot. I speak to a lot of kids. They're hungry for the information. They want to know what they can do,” she added, insisting that young people can “absolutely affect massive change as we've seen throughout the course of history.”
Kendi agreed, referencing how young people often have been at the vanguard of social movements.
“That was the case during the civil rights movement, during the Black Power movement, and that certainly was the case during Black Lives Matter. We of course, have spoken quite a bit about upwards of 25 million people who demonstrated in the summer of 2020. And a large number of those people were teenagers, were young people, in many cases they were young people who were demonstrating at their local high schools because they wanted to have a different curriculum,” Kendi said, noting that those demonstrations have led to the backlash we now see in some states, with book bans and restrictive education laws banning certain topics and themes. Overcoming that backlash, Kendi suggested, will certainly involve young people.
“Part of the reason why young people have been at the forefront, in my estimation, one credible reason: courage,” Kendi noted. “For young people, the question isn’t about the danger. The question for them is: is it right?”
The surge in book bans and restrictive new laws in libraries and schools figured prominently throughout the program, including in one session that focused on what’s happening in Louisiana. Among the panel’s participants: Amanda Jones, a school librarian who has gained national attention for her courageous efforts to defend the freedom to read despite being personally attacked online, and labeled a “groomer.”
One of the librarians on the panel (at the request of ALA, we are not identifying the librarians by name for safety reasons) called Louisiana "ground zero" for censorship, noting that the playbook now being used to try to ban books about race and the LGBTQ community from library shelves in many communities nationwide got its start in Louisiana, back in 2018 when a political operative teamed up with a local conservative group protesting a drag queen story time.
"This started our story of battling censorship," the librarian said, going on to tell a tale that rings true in many states today. But while the battle can be demoralizing, the librarian noted, defending the freedom to read is a battle that can and must be won with the support and collective action of the community.
"I want to express my deepest gratitude to all the librarians who have stood with us even at the risk of their jobs and livelihoods," the librarian said. "They have encouraged us. They have spoken at board meetings. They have signed petitions. You may sometimes feel powerless. But you can choose how you respond to these threats. You can stay silent or you can speak up. You can hide those books or you can stand up for those books. You can ban displays or you can put up displays. Our story is not just full of villains who are working to destroy a public library system. It is full of so many heroes who are working every day to save our library and to protect everything it stands for."
In her talk, Jones, who is currently suing two men who have publicly accused her of "grooming" children, spoke of her deeply trying experience, and of her commitment to fighting back.
"I have had enough," Jones said. "I've had enough for the librarians who are labeled groomer and and pedophile. And I've had enough for our students, and our children, and our communities who are led to feel less than because of these extremist groups that are coming in and taking over our library boards."
Among other program highlights, a President's Program session entitled "Library Workers: Organize and Activate,” moderated by ALA president Lessa Kanani‘opua Pelayo-Lozada and ALA president-elect Emily Drabinski, touched upon the importance of self-care and successful activism in the profession. Other speakers included authors Carole Lindstrom and Steph Littlebird, Brian Selznick, Willie Mae Brown, Clint Smith and bestselling author, journalist, and activist Cory Doctorow.
And, as is tradition, the prestigious ALA Youth Media Awards were announced on Monday, January 30 at LibLearnX. Amina Luqman-Dawson has won the 2023 John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature, for her novel Freewater (Little, Brown/Patterson), edited by Alexandra Hightower. Doug Salati has won the 2023 Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book for children, for Hot Dog (Knopf), edited by Rotem Moscovich. And All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill), edited by Ruta Rimas, has won the 2023 Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults.
The 2024 LibLearnX is set for January 19-22 in Baltimore. And next up, the ALA Annual Conference is set for June 22-27, in the ALA's hometown of Chicago.