It’s been a challenging few years for public libraries. After doing heroic work in their communities during the darkest days of the pandemic, librarians now face tightening budgets, surging workplace stresses and safety concerns, political attacks on library boards and library associations like the ALA, and most prominently, an ongoing politically organized attack on the freedom to read that has turned many library and school board meetings into cultural battlegrounds. But in talking with librarians ahead of the 2024 Public Library Association conference, set to run Wednesday–Friday, April 3–5, in Columbus, Ohio, a theme emerges: the nation’s public librarians have remained remarkably focused on their work.

“It’s a tough time in libraries right now, without a doubt,” says PLA president Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, director of the Baltimore County Public Library, a system that employs roughly 600 staff serving 19 branches. “I think the strong registration numbers for PLA demonstrate that people in the profession are committed and looking for community, and for affirmation that all the work we do matters. I think the PLA conference offers that. It offers practical tools and tips and resources that people need to continue to be effective in their roles and to best serve their communities. And it offers hope.”

PLA reps say registration for the conference is around 6,500 so far. And while that’s still slightly below what a PLA conference might have drawn prior to the pandemic, it’s a significant jump over the last PLA conference, held in Portland, Ore., in March 2022, which blew past expectations by drawing nearly 5,000 in-person attendees amid a spike in Covid cases. PLA says the high energy and strong attendance at the 2022 conference was a sign that PLA was getting back on track after the pandemic. And with strong registration numbers and a growing sense of excitement for Columbus, this may be the year PLA gets all the way back.

Prior to the pandemic, PLA conferences, which are held every two years, had shown a strong pattern of growth, earning the conference a reputation as a favorite fixture among librarians—including Alcántara-Antoine. “I never miss a PLA conference,” she says. “I find that it is truly the best library conference around. There’s always so much energy, and it never fails to deliver. It’s about getting inspired, getting good ideas, and getting what you need to recharge your batteries so that you can live to fight another day.”

At the same time, a look at the conference program—and a scan of the headlines on any given day—show that librarians in many communities are indeed in a fight. Last week, the ALA released its book ban data for 2023, which showed a 65% increase over 2022 in the number of unique book titles challenged. And, on a new front in the right-wing attacks on libraries, a number of states have recently introduced bills or rules seeking to cut ties with the ALA, of which PLA is a division.

Kelly Jensen, a librarian, author, and editor for the website Book Riot, says that librarians and library supporters must steel themselves for what’s still to come. Despite a few high-profile legal wins in book-banning cases to start the year, Jensen, who maintains a comprehensive rundown of book bans as part of her weekly censorship column, sees no imminent end to the attacks on libraries.

“I’ve heard from so many librarians who are like, ‘Why am I showing up?’ They love the kids and they love what they do, but they’ve been so beaten down for three and a half years. It’s exhausting,” Jensen says. “But I think it’s worth emphasizing that this is far from over.”

We recognize that librarians face a lot of really daunting challenges, but also opportunities. And I absolutely do believe that there is strength in unity.

Furthermore, while the battle is often pitched as a fight over the freedom to read—which it certainly is—Jensen says the key to pushing back is recognizing what these attacks on libraries really are: an attack on people. “The higher-level stuff is really leaning into the fact that queer people exist, that Black and brown people exist, and that their stories deserve to be told,” she says. “It is not racist to talk about slavery. It is not racist to talk about systematic discrimination in policing. And anybody who feels that it is, that’s the one who needs help. But libraries can’t help that. What libraries can do is continue to make sure that the resources are there for the people who are being targeted.”

Alcántara-Antoine agrees, and she sees PLA as in a position to help. “We have core values that unite all of us as librarians—access to information, intellectual freedom, equity, and digital equity, making sure that we’re serving everyone in our community and having diverse voices reflected in our collection,” she says. “And it’s helpful for people to have resources like the PLA conference to reaffirm our values and why we do what we do. We recognize that librarians face a lot of really daunting challenges, but also opportunities. And I absolutely do believe that there is strength in unity.”

Speaker highlights

All of the speakers in the main PLA program will appear at the Greater Columbus Convention Center Hall A. The program begins on Wednesday with a keynote by Joy Buolamwini (8:30–10 a.m.). Buolamwini—an MIT researcher and the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, a nonprofit chartered to raise awareness about the impacts of AI and to mitigate biases in the technology—advises governments at home and abroad on preventing AI harms. She is also the author of the recently published Unmasking AI: My Mission to Protect What Is Human in a World of Machines (Random House), which PW’s review called “urgent and incisive” and “a vital examination of AI’s pitfalls.”

PLA’s popular Big Ideas speaker series will open on Thursday with a talk by Ta-Nehisi Coates (8–9 a.m.)., the author of, among other works, the 2015 National Book Award–winning Between the World and Me. His journalism career spans more than two decades and includes the National Magazine Award–winning 2012 essay “Fear of a Black President” and the highly influential June 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” Coates also enjoyed a run writing Marvel’s Black Panther (2016–2021) and Captain America (2018–2021) comics series.

The Big Idea series continues Friday with a talk with Mary Annaïse Heglar (8–9 a.m.), a writer who focuses on climate change, climate grief, and climate justice. The cohost and cocreator of the Hot Take podcast and newsletter (which she retired in 2022), Heglar has written for major media outlets and is the author of the just-published children’s book This World Is Yours to Cherish, illustrated by Vivian Mineker (Random House Kids). Heglar is also the editor of the recently announced ’Til Earth and Heaven Ring—an all-Black climate anthology to be published by Pantheon Books.

The PLA main speaker program closes Friday evening with a talk with Dulcé Sloan (5–6 p.m).has been a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show since 2017. She is also the author of the just-published memoir Hello, Friends!: Stories of Dating, Destiny, and Day Jobs (Andscape Books), which PW’s review praised as a collection of “brash and funny reflections” on such topics as her love life, going to a predominantly white school, and the vagaries of establishing a career in comedy.

Exhibits and more

The PLA 2024 conference will feature an exhibits hall at the Greater Columbus Convention Center with hundreds of publishers and vendors. In addition to vendor booths, the show floor will have event spaces, including the popular Book Buzz stage, and the How-To stage, which will feature a lineup of 20-minute “hands-on” sessions provided by and for conference attendees.

The exhibits hall will open with a reception (Wednesday, 3–6 p.m.); the floor will then be open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. on Thursday and will close the following afternoon with another brief reception (1:30–2 p.m.). For a full list of vendors, visit the PLA website.

In addition to the main speakers, education programs, and exhibit hall events, PLA also offers a range of ticketed events for attendees. Consult the PLA website for more information and to register.

The Columbus Metropolitan Library system is regarded one of the nation’s best, and those arriving in town early will have multiple opportunities to see for themselves. On Tuesday, April 2, there are two morning branch tours (8:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m.) and two afternoon branch tours (12:15–5:15 p.m.). That evening, the PLA Host City Welcome Reception will be held at the system’s main library, a renovated 114-year-old Carnegie library.

Though so many libraries are facing challenges, the Columbus Metropolitan Library has thrived in recent years. “We have built 14 new libraries since 2014,” says CEO Pat Losinski. “We’re really very fortunate to be in Columbus, a place that really values its libraries and has a deep love for the library.” Losinski says Columbus has been eager to host a major library conference like PLA and plans to make the most of its opportunity. “I’ve been at this a long time, so it’s very rewarding to finally get it. I think the PLA folks will tell you that we didn’t sit on our hands. We got at it,” he says. Losinski is also eager for librarians to enjoy the city itself. “Skip Prichard from OCLC reminds me that I once said this: I’m in the Columbus business. I just happen to work in the library.”

The Children’s Author Breakfast (Thursday, 7–8 a.m) will feature Gennifer Choldenko, Loren Long, Daniel Nayeri, and Maleeha Siddiqui. The event is currently listed as sold out, but a waiting list is available.

The PLA author lunches offer attendees a chance to hear fascinating talks and meet and network with their colleagues from around the country. The first (Thursday, 12:30–1:45 p.m.) will feature Rainbow Rowell, the author of Eleanor & Park, the Simon Snow trilogy, and several other novels, short stories, and comics.

The second (12:30–1:45 p.m.) will certainly appeal to librarians. It features Louisiana school librarian and freedom to read advocate Amanda Jones, whose book That Librarian: The Fight Against Book Banning in America will be published by Bloomsbury in August. A veteran school librarian, Jones was awarded the John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award at last year’s ALA annual conference, which honors those who show “personal courage in defending intellectual freedom,” and she has become the face of librarian resistance for her anti-censorship work.

This year’s Audio Publishers Association lunch will feature a panel of authors and audiobook narrators, including Bettina L. Love, acclaimed author of Punished for Dreaming: How School Reform Harms Black Children and How We Heal; Molly Knox Ostertag, an Ignatz and Prism award–winning graphic novelist; and Fiona Davis and Greg Wands, coauthors of the upcoming audiobook The Gimlet Slip.

For those not able to be in Columbus, the 2024 PLA conference will once again feature an expanded virtual offering. For virtual attendees, the opening and closing sessions and the Big Ideas speakers will be livestreamed, and a selection of professional programs will be available for viewing for a year. And for those heading to the show, as always, consult the PLA website for room numbers and any last-minute additions or changes to the PLA program.

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