In the midst of a wearying, years-long assault on the freedom to read, librarians and library supporters unofficially kicked off the 2023 American Library Association Annual Conference with a shot of moral support. On June 22, the ALA’s first-ever Rally for the Right to Read, held on the eve of the main conference program, featured an inspiring program of librarians and freedom to read advocates who spoke of the need to fight censorship—including a keynote from bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi, who praised librarians as modern-day freedom fighters.

“I want to applaud library professionals, library workers, and your supporters for your everyday freedom fight, fighting for our freedom from censorship, our freedom from book bans, our freedom from ignorance, our freedom from homophobia, our freedom from sexism, our freedom from racism,” Kendi said. “There can be no greater compliment than to call a human being a freedom fighter. And if you’re fighting book bans, if you’re fighting against censorship, then you are a freedom fighter.”

In his enlightening 20-minute talk, Kendi connected the actions of would-be book banners today to the actions of the segregationists and enslavers of the past. “This atmosphere of conspiracy theories, of alternative facts, of misinformation, of great lies to control people through ignorance have their antecedents in the enslaving south,” he told librarians. “Today we are fighting an old fight from new segregationists... As much as this era is new, it is old. As much as we may feel alone fighting book bans, you have generations of company, and generations of Americans cheering you on in this freedom fight.”

Kendi also girded librarians for the hard work still to come, acknowledging that most never expected librarianship would land them on the front lines of such an essential fight.

There can be no greater compliment than to call a human being a freedom fighter. And if you’re fighting book bans, if you’re fighting against censorship, then you are a freedom fighter

“Let me tell you this: it is those people who had no intention, no desire, no plans to be freedom fighters who typically make the best freedom fighters,” Kendi said. “We do not choose to become freedom fighters, the freedom fight chooses us. The freedom fight has chosen you. The freedom fight has chosen every single library professional in the country. The freedom fight has chosen every single American who reads the Bill of Rights beginning with the First Amendment, not the Second. The freedom fight has chosen every single person who treasures books, who treasures knowledge, who treasures the truth. The freedom fight has chosen every single American, who recognizes that an institution without books about racism, without books about homophobia, without books without books about the Holocaust, without queer characters, without books by authors of color, is not a library—it is a propaganda shop masquerading as a library."

Librarians Honored

Kendi's appearance was one of several highlights from the three-hour Rally for the Right to Read program. The evening kicked off with remarks by Vickery Bowles, City Librarian of the Toronto Public Library, who set the stage by speaking of the importance of libraries in a democracy, the library's essential commitment to equity as a core value, and a fraying political discourse. "Fundamentally, what we’re seeing is growing intolerance for difference of opinions, and polarized disagreements have taken the place of informed and respectful discussion and debate," Bowles noted. "And the way the attack on libraries has been politicized by state legislatures and local authorities has taken these challenges to a whole new level."

Next up, the program honored the work of librarians on the front lines. Legendary school librarian Pat Scales was honored with the Freedom to Read Foundation's Roll of Honor Award; University of Illinois professor Emily Knox was presented with the Eli M. Oboler Award, which honors outstanding scholarship in the field of intellectual freedom; Louisiana school librarian Amanda Jones was presented with the John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award, which honors those who show personal courage in defending intellectual freedom; and the Michigan Library Association was presented with the Gerald Hodges Intellectual Freedom Chapter Relations Award for their work in defense of the freedom to read.

The program then included a short panel featuring three librarians on the front lines of the battle: Texas school librarian Becky Calzada, a founder of the #FReadomFighters; school librarian Jamie Gregory, who found herself the target of attacks after she defended Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer in a tweet; and Leila Green Little, lead plaintiff in a closely-watched lawsuit of the banning of books in Llano County, Texas, Little v. Llano County.

ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall got the room to join her in shouting what has become something of the official motto of the library of community's response to book banning: "Free people read freely." And to close the evening, ALA president Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada introduced some special guests: three courageous students who are fighting the banning of 97 books in their local high schools in Beaufort County, S.C., and are the subject of a forthcoming documentary. The students showed a short trailer, and received a standing ovation from the packed ballroom.

And in another unannounced addition to the program, longtime ALA director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom Deborah Caldwell-Stone was honored for tireless efforts to help librarians battle book bans. Caldwell-Stone said she was honored and humbled to help librarians who fight the battle and do the hard work in their communities.

The event was hosted by the ALA's Unite Against Book Bans advocacy group, and was sponsored by EBSCO, Ingram, and Penguin Random House. In her closing remarks, Pelayo-Lozada praised the work of advocates who are coming together to defend the freedom to read, and urged more cooperation and coordination. "No one of us, no single organization, can do this alone," she said.

Main Program

Meanwhile the 2023 ALA Annual Conference main speaker program kicks off Friday afternoon in the McCormick Place Chicago convention center auditorium, with author Judy Blume in conversation with Simon & Schuster senior v-p and publisher Justin Chanda. The discussion promises to explore a number of important topics and issues, including the freedom to read, as 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.

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.

And a bustling exhibit hall—the Library Marketplace— will host some 600 exhibits, and more than 300 experts, authors, and illustrators are 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.

You can check out the full program, including an education program with more than 200 sessions over five days, here. As always, check the online program for exact times and any last-minute changes.

Of course, the freedom to read will be a major topic of discussion at this year's conference. PW has rounded up some panel picks from dealing with the freedom to read here.

ALA officials say they expect more than 15,000 in-person attendees at the conference, which runs through June 27.

This article has been updated for clarity.