The 2023 American Library Association Annual Conference has long been circled on calendars as the conference to watch. After a solid showing at last year’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. (where attendance topped 13,000), this year’s event, set for Thursday–Tuesday, June 22–27, in the ALA’s hometown of Chicago, is expected to speak volumes about the state of libraries as well as the future of the association’s in-person events.
“We are outpacing last year in terms of exhibitor and attendee registrations,” says ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, who is quick to credit ALA members and conference organizers with putting together a strong program to meet what is shaping up to be a critical moment for libraries. “I was just wowed by all of the program proposals we received. We have more than 200 education programs on the schedule, and the topics are so timely. We’re going to be talking about censorship. We’re talking about health and wellness, and trauma. We’re talking about our important EDI efforts in libraries. We’re talking about prison libraries. There are some really difficult topics on the schedule for this year, but we’ve set this conference up to be inspiring, which is what library workers and library supporters need it to be.”
This year’s annual conference also represents an important moment for ALA as an organization. When the pandemic hit, ALA was facing a serious financial challenge and was already in the midst of a bylaws revision and a membership-driven strategic plan to modernize the association.
In 2023, Pelayo-Lozada says, the association, under the leadership of executive director Tracie D. Hall, is turning a corner in terms of its recovery from the pandemic shutdowns and in its forward-facing modernization efforts.
“In addition to facing some major challenges head-on, we’ve been able to look at ourselves internally at ALA and figure out what our future should look like,” she adds. “I didn’t start this work, of course, but I’ve been working hard with our members and staff to make ALA more nimble, more member friendly, and less bureaucratic. And to see a lot of that work come to fruition is really encouraging.”
Incoming ALA president Emily Drabinksi, a critical pedagogy librarian at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, also acknowledges that librarians will be gathering in Chicago at an important juncture.
“I think we need to be together with one another now more than maybe ever before,” she says. “With the pandemic and all the book bans and censorship attempts, librarians and library workers have really been through the wringer. I think the conference is going to be a profoundly important and moving experience.” And Drabinski, whose ALA presidential term will begin at the end of conference, is ready and eager to get to work.
“I believe that a well-resourced library with library workers that are supported is key to our communities—I ran for ALA president for that reason,” she says, adding that there couldn’t be a more important time for an association like ALA to make a difference. “How can we organize effectively on behalf of libraries as a public institution, as a public good? Because every square inch of a city that’s a library is a square inch that’s not a jail, that’s not a parking lot, that’s something that makes life better for people. I want to make the case that libraries are worth fighting for, affirmatively.”
Despite a political “culture war” narrative that has for some reason targeted libraries, Drabinski insists the public understands the value of libraries—and supports them.
“Libraries today stand for what we have always stood for, which is equitable access to information for everyone,” she says. “If you ask people what they think of when they think of the library they think of storytimes and bestselling books, broadband internet, or help with their small business. That’s the truth of libraries.”
The 2023 ALA Annual Conference main speaker program will take place in the McCormick Place Chicago convention center auditorium (W375c-e/Skyline) and will kick off with some serious star power: renowned author Judy Blume in conversation with Simon & Schuster senior v-p and publisher Justin Chanda (Friday, 4–5:30 p.m.). Blume’s 29 books—including Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which was recently adapted into a film—have sold more than 90 million copies worldwide in 39 languages. The discussion promises to explore a number of important topics and issues, including the freedom to read and write in this unprecedented era of book bans and legislative restrictions. Blume’s books have landed on ALA’s Most Challenged Books lists over the years, and she continues to be a vocal advocate against censorship.
Maysoon Zayid will open the main speaker program on Saturday (9–10 a.m.). A comedian, actor, and well-known disability advocate, Zayid is as one of America’s pioneering Muslim women comedians and has a recurring character on General Hospital. She is also the author of the bestselling memoir Find Another Dream, and her debut graphic novel for young readers, Shiny Misfits (illustrated by Shadia Amin) will be published in 2024 by Scholastic.
Next up, sisters Cara Mentzel and Idina Menzel (yes, they spell their last names differently) will take the stage in conversation with John Schu, author of numerous books including This Is a School (11 a.m.–noon). Cara Mentzel is the author of the memoir Voice Lessons: A Sisters Story, about her relationship with her superstar sister, Idina. She is also a former elementary school teacher. Idina Menzel is an actor, singer-songwriter, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and author, and is probably best known for her performance as Elsa in Disney’s Frozen movies. In their talk, the sisters will share the inspiration behind their new book, Proud Mouse (Disney, Sept.), which the publisher describes as a “lyrical picture book about a proud sister learning to find her own way.”
The program continues with Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney, who will discuss their book A Walk in the Woods, due out in September from Neal Porter Books. Grimes is the author of numerous books, including the Coretta Scott King Book Award winner Bronx Masquerade. Among her many other honors, she is a recipient of the Virginia A. Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, the ALAN Award for outstanding contributions to young adult literature, the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
Brian Pinkney has illustrated many books for children, including Duke Ellington, written by his wife, Andrea Pinkney, and The Faithful Friend by Robert D. San Souci, both of which received Caldecott Honors. He also received the Coretta Scott King Book Award for In the Time of the Drums by Kim L. Siegelson. And he is of course the son of the legendary Jerry Pinkney—the original illustrator of A Walk in the Woods, which Brian finished after his father’s death in 2022.
On Sunday, the slate begins with an inside look at the Obama Presidential Center, which broke ground in Chicago in September 2021. This special session will feature Obama Presidential Center Museum director Louise Bernard and Chicago Public Library commissioner Chris Brown in conversation with librarian of Congress Carla Hayden (10:30–11:30 a.m.). Scheduled for a 2025 grand opening, the much-heralded center is a historic endeavor that will enrich Chicago’s South Side—it will feature acres of parkland, a children’s playground area, and large event spaces for performances, in addition to a museum and library research complex that will, according to the center’s website, “explore the fullness of the American story.”
That afternoon, authors Rick Riordan and Mark Oshiro will take the stage (1–2 p.m.) to discuss their new book, The Sun and the Star: A Nico Di Angelo Adventure (Disney-Hyperion). The standalone fantasy novel follows Nico Di Angelo (the son of Hades) and his boyfriend, Will Solace (the son of Apollo), as their relationship is tested.
Riordan—once dubbed “the storyteller of the gods” by PW—is the author of five bestselling middle grade series with millions of copies sold throughout the world, including Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus, The Trials of Apollo, the Kane Chronicles, and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. Riordan is also the publisher of an imprint at Disney-Hyperion that is dedicated to highlighting fiction that features world cultures and mythologies. Oshiro is the author of Anger Is a Gift, winner of the 2019 Schneider Family Book Award, and Each of Us A Desert, an NPR Best Book of 2020, among other young adult titles.
The 2023 annual ALA President’s Program (Sunday, 3:30–5 p.m.) will feature ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada and filmmaker and author Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu in a discussion about Native Hawaiian philosophy and traditions, and about the contributions Wong-Kalu has made to both the Native Hawaiian and LGBTQ communities. Wong-Kalu is a Native Hawaiian mahu, a traditional “third-gender person” who occupies “a place in the middle” between male and female, traditionally seen as a teacher of ancient traditions. Wong-Kalu’s first children’s picture book, Kapaemahu, written with Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson and illustrated by Daniel Souda, was awarded the Stonewall Honor and was a Lambda Literary finalist.
And there is more star power to end the main speaker program: this year’s closing general session will feature Amanda Gorman and Christian Robinson, who will discuss their forthcoming children’s book Something, Someday, due out in September from Viking (Tuesday, 11 a.m.–noon). Gorman is the youngest presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history and the bestselling author of numerous books, including The Hill We Climb, which made headlines recently when a single complaint alleging the book contained “hate messages” was enough to get it removed from circulation in a Florida school library. Illustrator Christian Robinson’s accolades include a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for his art in Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña.
Virtual programs, exhibits, and more
ALA definitely leveled up its online programming during the pandemic, and those skills have since helped level up the virtual conference experience for members who can’t travel. Once again, the 2023 ALA Annual Conference will feature a robust online component, dubbed the Digital Experience, with simulcasts of the main stage speakers, dozens of education sessions, and some high-profile, virtual-only speakers.
Graham Norton will headline this year’s virtual programming with an exclusive online talk. A broadcaster, author, and comedian, Norton is the host of The Graham Norton Show on BBC One. He is also the author of multiple novels, including Forever Home, which will be published in the U.S. by HarperCollins in September.
A bustling exhibit hall—the Library Marketplace—will be the centerpiece of the 2023 ALA Annual Conference. This year’s show floor will host some 600 exhibits, and more than 300 experts, authors, and illustrators set to appear on eight live stages, as well as hundreds of Meet the Author booth sessions, book and galley giveaways, and autograph and selfie opportunities.
The exhibits open with a reception on Friday at 5:30 p.m., immediately following the opening session.
And finally, check the conference website for a host of available tours and ticketed events—including a reception honoring the winners of the ALA’s adult book award, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Fiction and Nonfiction, on Saturday, 7–10 p.m., at the American Writers Museum. Presented by Booklist and RUSA (and supported by NoveList and a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York), this year’s reception will honor winners Julie Otsuka and Ed Yong, and will feature acclaimed novelist and poet Chris Abani as the keynote speaker. The event will kick off with a cocktail hour and close with a reception and book signing.