More than 13,000 attendees gathered in the San Diego Convention Center on June 28 for the official start of the American Library Association’s Annual Conference and Exhibition. After remarks from ALA leadership and an opening keynote by entertainer and author Trevor Noah, the crowd participated in a Rally for the Right to Read.

At the opening event, ALA president Emily Drabinski welcomed a cheering crowd and cut a red ribbon to inaugurate the show. Drabinski noted that this year’s attendees also included 340 international participants from 51 countries, as well as 42 exhibitors from 12 countries, with Korean Library Association president Seung Jin Kwak, for instance, bringing a delegation of 22 librarians to the show. In addition, more than 450 student members are in attendance at 2024’s meeting, and Drabinski greeted them warmly: “You are our future, and we know it.”

Drabinski also reminded librarians of “the value of the work we do in the face of continued adversity.” In her year as president, she said, she watched librarians step up to speak at state legislatures and work to make libraries’ physical spaces and tools more accessible to, and safe for, all patrons. Reflecting on the increase in “organized censorship” on ALA members, Drabinski noted that, “as an out and open and proud-to-the-bone queer leader of ALA, I have been subject to some of these attacks, as so many of you have been.” But despite continuing challenges, she added, “we did it, all of us—we fought for what we know is right.”

ALA interim executive director Leslie Burger, who’s been in the temporary role for seven months, said the association is “right on track” to appoint a new ED this fall. “My seven months on the job have been an eye opener,” Burger said. “Since I took the position as interim, I knew I wanted to move quickly and nimbly to set the new executive director up for success. A strong ALA is the best way we can make libraries better,” as they support democracy and the freedom to read.

Opening night also presented California’s library community with an opportunity to tout their successes to fellow librarians from across the nation. California Library Association president Sean Thrasher, whose beachy flowered shirt and board shorts were a humorous salute to the West Coast, said he was “stoked to be here today,” cheering the “20.7 million library cards” and “74 million checkouts of physical and digital material” that CLA members make possible: “California libraries are golden indeed.” San Diego Public Library director Misty Jones wished members a productive meeting that inspires “passion and creativity.”

The presenters named several initiatives that will be touted during the gathering, including “I Love My Librarian” awards of $5,000 each, which will go to as many as 10 nominated public, school, or academic librarians; a strategy and implementation plan for the climate-focused Sustainable Libraries Initiative; the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s ongoing partnership with United Against Book Bans; and the “Reader. Voter. Ready.” campaign, an ALA partnership with the League of Women Voters to inform visitors about voting in an intense election year.

Trevor Noah Brings Main Character Energy

Former Daily Show host and comedian Trevor Noah, who has emceed the Grammy Awards for the past four years and creates the Spotify podcast What Now? with Trevor Noah, warmed up the crowd as ALA’s opening keynote speaker. ALA past president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Losada, assistant director of library, arts, and culture for Glendale, Calif., introduced and led a conversation with Noah, whose picture book Into the Uncut Grass, illustrated by Sabina Hahn, is forthcoming from One World in October. Noah became a library favorite with his general audience memoir Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood and an adaptation for young readers, It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime.

“The book is powerful, but the library is the energy behind that power,” Noah said. He recalled his childhood library as a “quiet, well-kept, organized” haven within walking distance of his home, and spoke about the continuing importance of libraries to communities facing tight finances and to children seeking information on “the world they’re inevitably going to come up against.” An anti-censorship crusader, whose Born a Crime has faced banning efforts, Noah championed the analog book format, telling a receptive audience that “there’s no clickbait in a book” and “there’s no algorithm in the library.”

Noah reflected on his work as an all-ages author, joking that “I borrowed heavily from me” when creating the inquisitive lead character of Into the Uncut Grass—a boy who asks questions and pushes back on authority. Noah said that both his memoir and picture book required “trying to find the throughline” between his memories and how others remembered living through the same experiences, and that it reminded him that everyone feels like a main character with their own unique perspective. “I always thought my mom was the side character in my life,” he joked. “And then I was like, wait a minute, I’m the side character.”

Composing a picture book, Noah said, kindled his imagination—“it’s like a plant that doesn’t need much watering”—and made him more respectful in his interactions with children. Kids “have a list of to-dos that are just as important as yours,” he told the crowd, and adults themselves are not that far removed from their younger selves: “The tantrum you throw in the office is the same one you threw when you were five years old.”

Pelayo-Losada described Noah’s books as a platform for creativity and the freedom to read, and Noah agreed that his storytelling is an effort to stimulate reading comprehension and critical thinking at all ages. “I’m writing it for me now, remembering me then,” he said of his picture book. “I’m trying to write a book that applies to both the acorn and the oak tree it’ll grow into.”