The American Library Association will host its Annual Conference Thursday–Tuesday, June 27–July 2, at the San Diego Convention Center—the ALA’s first annual conference in the Golden State since the show drew nearly 23,000 to San Francisco in 2015. Coming off solid attendance at its last annual conference in Chicago in 2023, and on the heels of an energetic PLA conference in April, where attendance was nearly all the way back to pre-pandemic levels, ALA is looking to keep the momentum going.

While down from peak attendance levels prepandemic, when the conference would regularly draw more than 20,000 attendees (and in some years approach 30,000), the event still reigns as the largest library gathering in the world. And with the folding of BookExpo America in 2020, it also remains one of the biggest stages for authors and publishers in the country. But most importantly, amid a host of ongoing challenges facing librarians, as well as attacks on the ALA itself, a few days of education and inspiration is just what librarians need.

“I just don’t think anything is more important for librarians right now than to be together,” says ALA president Emily Drabinksi, whose term will end at the close of the conference. “We have a lot of issues we’re grappling with, not only censorship, but how to deal with AI, the complicated e-book landscape, safety and security in our libraries, and that we’re underfunded. No one can solve all those problems alone. We really need to be together to get closer to that, but we also need to have a good time. It’s been a grueling year for so many librarians, for all kinds of reasons, and the opportunity to just be together, to raise a glass, have a dance, see an old friend—the way that knits us together—it’s important right now.”

Indeed, the last ALA annual conference in California was one of its most memorable. On the opening Friday of the conference, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court released its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage. It was Pride week. As if being in San Francisco on that day, during pride week, wasn’t enough, the conference’s opening keynote speaker was Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who had argued against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) at the Supreme Court—a landmark gay rights victory upon which Obergefell built—in a decision that was handed down two years earlier to the day.

In that moment, it felt like a turning point had been reached. Even Kaplan acknowledged it, holding the Obergefell and DOMA decisions up as signs that progress was upon us, and cautioning librarians against falling prey “to a pervasive kind of cynicism.” Just 10 days earlier, however, Donald Trump famously rode down the escalator at Trump Tower in New York City, kicking off a presidential campaign—and eventually an administration—that would be based almost entirely on cynicism.

Some nine years later, the conference returns to California seeking another turning point. One more year removed from the pandemic, with membership rising again, ALA is expecting another uptick in energy at the show, even if attendancemay slip from last year’s numbers, given tight travel budgets and stubborn inflation. But amid an ongoing attack on libraries and the freedom to read, more librarians are recognizing the value of a strong national association. And ALA president-elect Cindy Hohl, director of policy analysis at Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library, said the conference has already surpassed its registration goal.

Hohl, who will be begin her year as president on the final day of the ALA conference, said she is eager to get started on what will be an important year for the association. “Unfortunately, we do have some negativity and misunderstanding that surrounds the current status of our work,” she says about the political attacks on ALA. “But we can’t get confused. We’re at a critical moment. And I believe this is an excellent time for us to show the strength of our association, and our core values.”

Featured speakers

The main speaker program will take place at the San Diego Convention Center’s Ballroom 20, and will kick off with an opening keynote on Friday by comedian and author Trevor Noah (4–5:30 p.m.). Noah, an Emmy and Peabody Award–winning comedian, is best known for his seven-year run as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, and for his first book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Noah’s forthcoming book, Into the Uncut Grass (One World, Oct.), illustrated by Sabina Hahn, is described by the publisher as an “illustrated fable” for readers of all ages.

On Friday evening, the ALA will hold its second Rally for the Right to Read at the Hilton Bayfront, Sapphire Ballroom CDGH (7–9 p.m.). The inaugural rally was hugely successful, and will once again highlight anti-censorship activities from around the nation and celebrate the 2024 recipients of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Awards.

Hanif Abdurraqib will deliver the keynote address. Abdurraqib’s most recent book, There’s Always This Year, was an instant bestseller, and his previous book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, was counted among PW’s Best Book of 2021 and was also a National Book Award finalist and the winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. The event begins with a reception at 7 p.m., followed by the program at 8 p.m. Admission is free for all badge-holding ALA Annual Conference attendees (though donations to the Unite Against Book Bans campaign are encouraged).

Artists and advocates John and Anni Furniss will open the main speaker program on Saturday (9–10 a.m.). A married couple living in southwest Washington, John Furniss is blind and has been a woodworker for almost 20 years, while Anni Furniss is a mixed-media artist (who worked at the Vancouver Community Library for 14 years) and an advocate for using art to help those with mental and physical challenges. They have created an online community dedicated to mental health awareness that now has more than two million followers on TikTok. The pair will discuss their first book, the memoir The Blind Woodsman (Fox Chapel, out now).

Next up, 18-year-old coder, app developer, entrepreneur, and author Jay’Aina “Jay Jay” Patton will take the stage, in conversation with Newbery Honor author Jason Reynolds (11 a.m.–noon). Patton will discuss her forthcoming book Dear Dad: Growing Up with a Parent in Prison—and How We Stayed Connected (Graphix, Sept.), a graphic novel that follows her young life growing up with a dad in and out of prison, coauthored with her father, Antoinne Patton, who, since coming home from prison, has become a prolific entrepreneur, software engineer, and author.

The program continues with poet, educator, producer, and author of 39 books Kwame Alexander (1–2 p.m). A regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, Alexander is also the creator and host of the Why Fathers Cry podcast. Alexander will talk about his passion for literacy and his next book, Black Star (Little, Brown, Sept.), the second entry in his The Door of No Return trilogy.

Capping off Saturday’s main speaker program will be Academy Award–nominated actor, producer, and author Taraji P. Henson (4–5 p.m.). Henson is best known for her roles in films including Hustle & Flow, Hidden Figures, and most recently The Color Purple, and for her portrayal of Cookie Lyon on the series Empire. Henson will discuss her debut picture book, You Can Be a Good Friend (No Matter What!) (Zonderkidz, June), illustrated by Paul Kellam, which the publisher said is a story that promotes “embracing the importance of standing in your own uniqueness.”

On Sunday, the main speaker program continues with Max Greenfield (9:30–10:30 a.m.), the actor known for his roles in New Girl and The Neighborhood. He is also the author of the upcoming Good Night Thoughts (Putnam BYR, Sept.), illustrated by James Serrfino, which the publisher describes as “a sweetly, funny bedtime book” about a child who is dealing with racing thoughts and anxiety.

Next up is journalist Ali Velshi (11 a.m.–noon), host of Velshi on MSNBC and a weekly economics contributor to NPR’s Here & Now. Velshi is one the media’s most ardent and dedicated defenders of the freedom to read among the national news media, hosting the Velshi Banned Book Club segment on MSNBC (and the podcast of the same name), and closely chronicling the politically motivated surge in book bans across the nation. Velshi will discuss his new book, Small Acts of Courage: A Legacy of Endurance and the Fight for Democracy (St. Martin’s, out now), which the publisher describes as “a heartfelt exploration of how we can breathe new life into the principles of pluralistic democracy.”

Maggie Nichols (1–2 p.m.) is a five-time member of the U.S. national gymnastics team and was the first gymnast to report that the team’s doctor Larry Nassar had been sexually abusing her in his care. Nichols will discuss her recently published memoir Unstoppable! (Roaring Brook) and how her life was changed by pursuing justice.

The 2024 annual ALA President’s Program (3:30–5 p.m.) will feature ALA president Emily Drabinksi for an exploration—and a celebration—of the great work librarians are doing in communities of all sizes. Joining Drabinski will be Christina Gavin, a librarian at Midwood High School in Brooklyn; Gerald B. Moore is branch manager for the Dorchester Road Branch Library in North Charleston, S.C.; Kathleen Nubel is an adult services librarian at the Des Moines (Iowa) Public Library; and Angela Watkins is director of the Aztec (N.Mex.) Public Library.

At press time, ALA reps say there are still more speakers to be added to the program.

Exhibits and more

As usual, a bustling exhibit hall—the Library Marketplace—will be the centerpiece of the 2024 ALA Annual Conference. This year’s show floor will host some 550 exhibits, with more than 300 experts, authors, and illustrators set to appear on eight live stages, as well as hundreds of Meet the Author sessions at vendor booths, 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.

This year’s conference will also debut two new features within the Library Marketplace: the STEAM Pavilion, dedicated to all things science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, and ALA @ the Beach, a place to take a breath and relax that pays homage to host city San Diego.

Among the highlights, the annual reception honoring the winners of the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction will be held at the San Diego Public Library (Saturday, 7–10 p.m.) and will feature a keynote speaker and speeches from both winning authors: Amanda Peters, who took the fiction honor for the The Berry Pickers (Catapult), and Roxanna Asgarian, who won the nonfiction medal for We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America (FSG).

Read more from our ALA 2024 Preview:

ALA 2024: Program Picks
Artificial intelligence, DEI, and defending the freedom to read are among the many themes represented in a robust ALA 2024 professional program.

ALA 2024: An Unparalleled Opportunity: PW Talks with Emily Drabinski
With her term winding down amid an ongoing surge in book bans—and after being personally attacked by right-wingers over an innocuous, since-deleted tweet—the outgoing ALA president reflects on her year at the helm of ALA.

ALA 2024 Preview: ‘That Librarian’ Fights Back: PW Talks with Amanda Jones
The author of ‘That Librarian: The Fight Against Book Banning in America’ discusses her fight for the freedom to read and her debut memoir.