Given the challenges public librarians have endured over the last few years, perhaps it’s no surprise that the 2024 Public Library Association Conference, which opened on Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio, would kick off with a few challenges of its own. On Tuesday evening, a Tornado warning forced the last-minute cancelation of the much-anticipated welcome reception at the Columbus Public Library. This after opening keynoter Joy Buolamwini was forced to cancel late last week due to unforeseen circumstances. But at Wednesday’s well-attended opening session, Buolamwini's last-minute replacement, author and workplace civility expert Shola Richards, stepped up and delivered the talk that so many public librarians have needed to hear for so long—a message of empathy, unity—and unbuntu.

“For people who love to worry, this is a great time to be alive,” Richards, author of the bestelling Go Together :How the Concept of Ubuntu Will Change How You Live, Work, and Lead, began his talk, to laughter. “The good news is, and I'm going to tell you this from the realness of my heart, the only way we're going to navigate these challenges is to come together as a united front.”

He then introduced the African concept of unbuntu—which he said translates to “I am because we are”—along with another African saying: “If you want to fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Over the next 45 minutes, Richards told his personal story of escaping a toxic workplace and offered a roadmap for public librarians—who have been feeling the stress of their ever-expanding work long before the current surge in book banning and political attacks began—to cope with the challenges in their own workplaces.

Richards told librarians that there were three questions at the core of unbuntu that are essential to achieving a sustainable, positive balance in their work and personal lives: Is it kind? Is it true? And is it necessary? And he encouraged librarians to practice what he called “tough love self care.” Before we can be kind to others, we must be kind to ourselves, he emphasized.

In a moment that clearly resonated with librarians in the audience, Richards talked about the importance of boundaries. “Maintain healthy boundaries,” he insisted. “You cannot be a functioning adult in this world if you do not have clear boundaries. Clear boundaries matter. Please stop apologizing for enforcing your boundaries. The only people who will be upset with you for enforcing your boundaries are the people who benefit from you not having those boundaries in the first place.”

Addressing the question of truth, Richards said it was more about building trust, something especially important for those in leadership positions. “How in the world can we expect people to do things that we are unwilling to do ourselves in the workplace, especially in libraries? We have to figure out how to model the behavior we want to see in others,” he said.

Richards urged librarians to focus on creating an environment of “psychological safety,” which he defined as “the belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas questions, concerns, or mistakes.” And he urged librarians to choose “curiosity” over judgment.

The only people who will be upset with you for enforcing your boundaries are the people who benefit from you not having those boundaries in the first place.

“All bad behavior is simply an unskilled expression of an unmet need,” he said. He encouraged librarians to lean into that belief, and to be more curious than judgmental of people in the library “behaving in a way that you do not understand.”

In addressing what’s necessary, Richards leaned on the words of wisdom from his late father, who, when Richards was struggling, told him to be more be like the buffalo and not the cow. When a storm approaches, the buffalo presses forward, he explained, while the cow turns and tries to outrun the storm. The net effect is that the buffalo gets through the storm faster by facing it, while the cow prolongs its time in the storm.

“Is it hard to face the storm? Yes,” Richards said. “But you get stronger from the experience.”

In her brief opening remarks, PLA president Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, director of the Baltimore County Public Library, acknowledged the difficult times librarians have faced in recent years. Richards acknowledged this point in his talk, emphasizing a major theme of the conference as necessary to meeting the challenges librarians face—community.

“It is not going to get easier. The only thing that's going to change is your capacity to do the hard things a little bit better. And the only way to do things a little better, is to do them together,” Richards offered. He closed by seeking to reorient librarians who may be feeling overwhelmed by their day-to-day struggles, whether personal or professional, internal or external, or all of the above.

“You don't have to do the right thing every day,” Richards said. “You just have to do the right thing today.”

As of Friday morning, PLA officials said attendance had surpassed 7,500, well over the 6,500 attendees expected to attend, and nearly all the way back to pre-pandemic attendance levels for the conference.