Amid tight budgets and an ongoing right-wing political attack on the freedom to read, it’s been something of a dark time for the library community. But a well-attended, high energy ALA Annual Conference, which closed on July 2 in sunny San Diego, offered librarians plenty of reason for optimism.

ALA interim executive director Leslie Burger put preliminary attendance figures for the show at 13,523. While that’s down from the 15,842 who attended last year’s conference in the ALA’s hometown of Chicago, it’s a strong turnout for a Southern California ALA event. Burger said this year’s conference surpassed both the ALA’s target attendance and revenue goals by more than 100%.

“This is absolutely amazing—this is a sea of people,” Burger said to a standing-room-only ballroom at the conference’s opening session on June 28. She reported that plans to have a permanent ALA executive director in place by September are on track, and thanked attendees for their engagement. “Your membership supports us and our efforts to fight book challenges, something we’ve had a lot of practice doing this past year. It’s helping us to get the vote out in this election year, and to support library funding and librarians during these difficult times,” Burger said. “Please remember that nothing is more important than libraries’s foundational support for democracy.”

In her remarks, outgoing ALA president Emily Drabinksi—whose appearance at ALA was the culmination of a cross-country road trip visiting libraries—spoke of an eventful year at the helm in which right-wing politicians in a handful of states personally targeted her—a self-described “proud-to-the-bone Queer leader of ALA”—in an effort to force their state libraries to cut ties with ALA. “I want to say how grateful I am to all of you for your support,” Drabinksi said, conceding that being “weaponized against the people and institutions I care about most in the world” was painful. “I will continue my work with all of you to fight for libraries, and the fullest sense of what we can do and who we can be,” she said. “And I know that we will win, because we are right and because we are united on behalf of the most important public institution in this country—and that’s the library.”

The conference’s opening keynote was delivered by comedian Trevor Noah, who spoke with former ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Losada about his forthcoming picture book Into the Uncut Grass, illustrated by Sabina Hahn (One World, Oct.). “The book is powerful, but the library is the energy behind that power,” Noah said. An anti-censorship crusader (his bestselling memoir Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood has faced numerous bans), Noah spoke movingly about books and libraries, telling attendees “there’s no clickbait in a book” and “there’s no algorithm in the library.”

Over five days, the conference featured an impressive professional program, with more than 175 sessions on a wide array of topics, including AI, DEI, library e-books, library worker safety, and policy and advocacy efforts. Defending the freedom to read took center stage, however, including the second-ever Rally for the Right Read, which was keynoted by Hanif Abdurraqib, who recalled his experience as a 10-year-old picking up a copy of Toni Morrison’s Jazz at the Livingston branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

The Carnegie Medal–winning author said his mother—and the librarians in Columbus—taught him that “there’s nothing you don’t deserve to witness and understand,” noting that when “the language of censorship is pressed into someone,” they can grow up unable to tell their own stories. “The world is becoming more cruel,” Abdurraqib said. Without more inclusiveness, he warned, the world “will be less survivable not just for people at its margins, but for all of us.”

At a panel on June 29, Leila Green Little spoke of her fight against censorship in Llano County, Tex., where she and a group of plaintiffs filed a successful lawsuit to have 17 books that had been pulled from library shelves returned, a move that made national headlines. Asked what inspired her to file the suit, Green Little spoke of her personal values—being brought up in a home where “all reading is good reading”—and specifically of Maurice Sendak’s book In the Night Kitchen, which she said she first discovered on a banned books display.

“I saw that book, and read it with my children. It became a family favorite. We checked it out a lot. We’d pull it off the shelf at the library and read it on the floor,” Green Little said. “And that book was censored from the library. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.” Green Little said the experience turned out to be life-changing: it inspired her to get her library degree, which she completed this year. “I have small children, but they’re gonna get older,” she said. “And there’s no way I could expect them to stand up and do the right thing if I didn’t do the same.”