The 2023 American Library Association Annual Conference concluded on June 27, in Chicago, with the ALA reporting a solid bump in turnout over 2022. Preliminary figures put attendance at 15,852, and while that’s well below the 23,485 the conference drew to its last annual conference in Chicago in 2017, it is a step forward from the 14,003 attendees at last year’s event in Washington, D.C., which was the ALA’s first in-person annual conference since 2019. More importantly, in the midst of a wearying, organized political attack on the freedom to read, the high-energy gathering delivered something the library community has been sorely in need of—a strong show of support.

“If ever there was a chance to say thank you, this is the year to do it,” bestselling author Judy Blume told a capacity crowd at the McCormick Place convention center in her opening keynote on Friday, June 23. “To tell you all how much we appreciate you, and to give you all our support.” In an entertaining 30-minute onstage talk with her publisher, Justin Chanda, senior v-p at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Blume, whose books remain among the ALA’s all-time most challenged, recalled her past battles with book banners. And as the owner of Books & Books, a bookstore in her hometown of Key West, Fla., Blume spoke out about what’s happening in her home state today, where, under a new state law, school librarians and teachers face losing their jobs—and even potential criminal charges—for making diverse books available to students.

“There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t have people in the store who are teachers, who are librarians, and who are being hit with this. One woman said to me: ‘This is my pension. I have worked all these years for this pension—and I could lose it.’ And what are we saying to her?” Blume said. “We have to let her know that we’re all there. That we’re all there, and that we are not going to let this happen.”

A packed program

Blume’s talk was the highlight of a jam-packed opening program. Normally a tight 90-minute affair, this year’s opening session was nearly two hours. Among the highlights, Dolly Parton was awarded an honorary ALA membership for her Imagination Library initiative, which ships two million free books every month to young children all over the world. In a video message, Parton thanked librarians for their work—and finished by singing “I Will Always Love You.”

Jessica Rosenworcel, chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, made news from the stage by announcing a new initiative to extend the agency’s vital e-rate program, which subsidizes broadband access to libraries and schools, beyond the walls of those facilities. The initiative, called Learning Without Limits, will support broadband hot spot distribution from libraries and schools across the country. Local television personalities Matthew Rodrigues and Cortney Hall of NBC’s Chicago Today announced that NBC is planning to expand its monthly banned books club, which launched in January 2023, to other media markets. And Illinois secretary of state Alexi Giannoulias, architect of the state’s recently enacted law to discourage book bans, took the stage to promote the law as a model for other state legislatures.

“Somehow, tragically, librarians have become targets of a movement that disingenuously claims to pursue freedom, but instead promotes authoritarianism,” Giannoulias said. “We are saying enough. Because authoritarian regimes ban books, not democracies.”

Over the next five days, the main speaker program featured a host of major authors, which concluded on Tuesday, June 27, with bestselling author and poet Amanda Gorman and award-winning illustrator Christian Robinson. In a 40-minute conversation with Chicago-based author and cultural organizer Eve Ewing, Gorman and Robinson spoke about their new children’s book, Something, Someday (Viking, Sept.), which touches on themes of grief, sadness, loneliness, hope, and how people can come together to make a difference.

Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, landed in headlines in May when her book, The Hill We Climb, was restricted after a Florida parent complained that it contained “hate messages.” Gorman told librarians news of the complaint initially felt like “a punch to the gut,” but she turned her grief into power, and became “emboldened” and “more inspired than ever” by the incident.

Fighting back

Onstage, in meeting rooms, and on the show floor, the fight against censorship was the major theme of this year’s conference. And there was a general sense that, after nearly three years of an organized political assault, freedom to read advocates were finally getting themselves organized, and the tide may be beginning to turn in their favor.

The tone was set early, with the ALA’s first-ever Rally for the Right to Read at the Chicago Hilton unofficially opening the conference on Thursday, June 22. Hosted by the ALA’s Unite Against Book Bans advocacy group and sponsored by EBSCO, Ingram, and Penguin Random House, the three-hour rally celebrated librarians’ efforts in defending against book bans and featured a keynote from bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi.

“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. Acknowledging that most librarians probably never expected they would wind up targets in a pernicious assault on the freedom to read, Kendi praised them as modern-day freedom fighters, and girded them for the work ahead. “We do not choose to become freedom fighters, the freedom fight chooses us,” Kendi told librarians. “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 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.”

The fight against book banning also featured prominently in the conference’s education program. Among the program highlights, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and Theresa Chmara, general counsel to the Freedom to Read Foundation, hosted a discussion on Saturday, June 24, that reviewed the legal and legislative landscape facing librarians. Caldwell-Stone reported that 151 bills designed to restrict or censor access to information and library services have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2023, with many based on the false premise that certain books and other materials are obscene or pornographic.

Chmara then walked the audience through a number of recent court cases, including Little v. Llano County, a closely watched case in Llano County, Tex., in which a group of library patrons is suing county administrators over the removal of books from their local library, and a lawsuit filed on June 2 by a coalition of 18 plaintiffs (including librarians, publishers, authors, and advocates) challenging Arkansas’s new “harmful to minors” law. Chmara said she believes “the momentum is changing” in the battle over the freedom to read, as more people now “realize what is going on” and are standing up to the would-be censors in their communities.

At a session titled “How to Fight Book Bans: Authors on Speaking Up and Fighting Back,” We Need Diverse Books cofounder and CEO Ellen Oh moderated a panel of authors, including Samira Ahmed, Jerry Craft, Ashley Hope Perez, Kyle Lukoff, and Eliot Schrefer. The authors spoke of their personal experiences with censorship and bigotry and urged librarians to stay engaged. “So much of book banning is about rolling back progress. It’s so easy to pull back,” Perez said. “I am begging you not to do that. Please keep buying the books that matter to young people.”

And on Sunday, June 25, Emily Amick, better known as “Emily in Your Phone” on social media, offered an illuminating look at the well-funded, well-organized right-wing political groups (most prominently Moms for Liberty) that are fueling the attack on the freedom to read. These groups don’t want to just ban books, said Amick, a former counsel to U.S. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, they want to take over institutions and reshape American culture to align with their ideology. Amick urged librarians to dig in for a long, hard battle. “They have a lot of money,” she said of the political actors seeking to ban books. “What we have is persistence, and facts, and community. We are on the side of freedom.”

Coming back

After weathering a historic pandemic and in the midst of an unprecedented political attack on the library community’s core values—among many other challenges, including budget pressure, sagging circulation and gate counts, and a contentious digital market—attendees at this year’s conference said they were happy to be back in person, and sensed positive momentum.

“We need to raise awareness,” said Deborah Doyle, chair of the Sonoma County, Calif., Library Commission, and the 2023–2024 president of advocacy group United for Libraries. “We’re so used to doing our work quietly. But we need to build relationships with people in our community who may take libraries for granted.”

Matthew Matkowski, head of adult services at the Palos Heights (Ill.) Public Library, agreed. “The sense of community is palpable,” he said of the atmosphere at the show. “This is the first time I’ve been back since the pandemic, and it seems just as well attended as the before times.”

On the show’s closing day, ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall sounded an optimistic note about the future. “We’re having good conversations about inclusion, and about equity and diversity, and about accessibility, and also about LGBTQIA and disability voices and history, and how we need all of that to keep our society strong and that people need to see themselves in libraries and in literature,” Hall said. “We’re happy to gather. We’re heartened. And I think we’re a little bit emboldened to imagine not just the future of our organization but what our conferences are going to look like.”

The 2024 ALA Annual Conference is set for June 27–July 2 in San Diego.