2020 Midwinter Wrap-Up

Social justice and privacy issues dominated discussion in Philadelphia

February 6, 2020

Wes Moore
Author and social entrepreneur Wes Moore at the Opening Session of ALA's 2020 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits.Photo: EPNAC

The atmosphere of American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits, held this year in Philadelphia January 24–28, was thick with big ideas and big names. More than 8,000 attendees came to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to be inspired, challenged, enlightened, and connected in session after session, many of which focused on themes of privacy, technology, services for young people, and social justice.

“How much pain are we willing to tolerate when we know we don’t have to?” asked opening speaker Wes Moore, CEO of anti-poverty organization Robin Hood, US Army combat veteran, and one of many speakers who addressed race and inequality. His forthcoming book (with Erica L. Green) Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City (April) tracks several individuals in Baltimore after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody, and the forces that led to that moment.

In his talk, Moore stressed the importance of libraries in combating poverty and providing opportunities in struggling neighborhoods. “No one understands the community better, where we are, and where we’re going than you,” he said. (Watch video clips of Wes Moore.)

Photo: Chef Jeff Henderson
Chef Jeff Henderson at ALA President Wanda Kay Brown’s program at Midwinter.

During ALA President Wanda Kay Brown’s program, chef and author Jeff Henderson discussed his childhood in a dysfunctional home, during which he dreamed of buying his mother a house—a dream deferred by the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects men of color in the US. Henderson was convicted for drug trafficking and conspiracy in 1988.

It wasn’t until Henderson got to prison that “I began to understand how I was criminalized as a young boy,” he said. Books from the prison library became transformative, ultimately leading him to the top of a new profession. “I began to read about men who looked like me,” said Henderson. “I gave myself permission to dream again.” (Watch video clips of Jeff Henderson.)

At the 21st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance and Sunrise Celebration, keynote speaker Imani Perry, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, spoke of society’s inability “to meet the tragedies of the world with effective action.” One suggestion to reconnect with “the human condition,” she said, is to “wean” ourselves from our phones and remote controls, instead reaching for words and books.

Photo: Chanel Miller
Author and artist Chanel Miller was the closing session speaker. Photo: EPNAC

Closing Midwinter was speaker Chanel Miller, who as “Emily Doe” was at the center of a widely publicized sexual assault case at Stanford University, in which the assailant’s status as an athlete wielded outsize influence. In Know My Name: A Memoir (2019), Miller reclaims her identity through a narrative of trauma, survival, and hope.

“The only reason I’m here today is because people didn’t give up on me,” she added. “There are so many people who continue to propel me forward. That’s truly why I feel healthy and happy and fulfilled.”

The resilience of Miller’s spirit and humor is evident in her visual artwork as well as her writing. In a whimsical animated comic, specially made for ALA’s Closing Session, Miller hailed libraries as sanctuaries, empathy centers, and brain feeders. “Librarians are the leaders, the community builders, the welcomers to people of all backgrounds,” she said. “They make the vulnerable feel safe.”

Photo: Author Julia Alvarez
Author Julia Alvarez delivered the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture at Midwinter.

In the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture, author Julia Alvarez pointed to libraries and books as instruments of empathy in a global climate marked by political polarization and environmental degradation. She talked about the experience of having her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, challenged in school libraries, and what drove her to write Afterlife (April), her first adult novel in nearly 15 years and her first as an “elder storyteller.”

“Writing is a way for me to engage these questions profoundly through story,” Alvarez said. “What I love about stories, the best ones, is that they allow for competing truths, for complexity and nuance, for exploring the gray areas of life.” (Watch video clips of Julia Alvarez.)

One of the many ways librarians can support social justice: Encouraging patrons to complete the 2020 Census and aiding them in that process. “People are afraid to answer the census, that’s what our research has shown,” Burton Reist, assistant director for communications for the US Census Bureau, told attendees at “2020 Census: How Libraries Can Support a Complete Count.”

Larra Clark, deputy director of the Public Library Association (PLA) and ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office, moderated a panel to discuss the significance of the decennial count, marketing efforts libraries are undertaking to encourage participation, and the most common concerns to anticipate once the process is underway.

“The census represents literal social inclusion,” said Ana Ndumu, assistant professor at University of Maryland, College Park, whose Counted In project focuses on immigrants—a historically undercounted group in the census—and includes a toolkit and marketing materials. “Not everyone [in the US] can vote, but everyone can fill out the census.”

Privacy concerns

Technology helps libraries provide indispensable services, but it can also threaten patron privacy. University of San Francisco’s Elisa Rodrigues and Anders Lyon led a session titled “Disrupting Tech While Being Pro-Tech,” part of the Symposium on the Future of Libraries, exploring how attendees can find technology that helps communities without compromising patrons’ rights.

What types of technology should librarians be critical of? All types, presenters stressed. Rodrigues and Lyon observed that librarians should be careful of any technology that collects and stores user data, and discussed privacy breaches that have occurred at libraries.

Privacy was also a primary topic at the Library and Information Technology Association’s Top Tech Trends panel discussion. The panel was moderated by Ida Joiner, librarian at Universal Academy in Irving, Texas. Victoria Blackmer, assistant director of Robert R. Jones Public Library in Coal Valley, Illinois, spoke on the internet of things, noting that user data collection and privacy are its fundamental weaknesses. Panelist Marshall Breeding, an independent library consultant, discussed how libraries provide security and privacy—or not—through their websites.

Photo: Theresa Chmara
Theresa Chmara, general counsel of the Freedom to Read Foundation, spoke about First Amendment issues and technology.

A different aspect of privacy was discussed during a session led by Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), and Theresa Chmara, general counsel for the Freedom to Read Foundation, who focused on the responsibilities of the public library in moderating social media commentary and regulating photography and videotaping on their premises.

In the last several months, libraries across the country have reported experiences with self-proclaimed “First Amendment auditors” attempting to capture government wrongdoing and perhaps gain YouTube fame. “The folks doing this are going to be aggressive and they’re going to put your staff in a tight spot,” Chmara said, highlighting the importance of staff training and carefully written policies. “You want them to know exactly how to handle it.”

What’s up with ebooks

Photo: Macmillan CEO John Sargent
Macmillan Publishers CEO John Sargent invited Midwinter attendees to ask questions about the company’s ebook embargo.

A panel discussion updated members on the ongoing #eBooksForAll campaign that began in response to Macmillan Publishers’ eight-week embargo of new ebook titles for libraries. As PLA President Ramiro S. Salazar, director of San Antonio Public Library, noted, ALA has been building alliances with stakeholder groups in an effort to push back against Macmillan.

“We don’t have a sense at this time that other publishers are considering an embargo,” said panelist Sari Feldman, ALA senior policy fellow and former ALA and PLA president. Feldman said the panelists were hopeful that Macmillan will drop its embargo.

Macmillan Publishers CEO John Sargent participated in a separate question-and-answer session, saying, “What we are trying to do is find a way to rebalance the ecosystem given the digital disruption in our industry.” He maintained that a drop in ebook sales but steep curve in ebook lending—55% of Macmillan’s ebook customers read them through the library, he said—would make the previous model untenable within the next few years.

Technology talk

Photo: Felicia Smith
Felicia Smith of Stanford University Libraries researches virtual reality.

In a session on the potential of virtual reality (VR), Felicia Smith, head of learning and outreach at Stanford University Libraries, described how real-life scenarios, presented through VR, can help teach critical evaluation skills. “Learning should be fun,” Smith said. “Our world has changed so dramatically since the 19th century, from telephones to transportation. Classrooms are pretty much the same: a chalkboard and rows of chairs facing the teacher. We’ve got to try and do better.”

While much of the focus on makerspaces highlights their function as a center for STEM learning, introducing a more holistic approach can help students feel more comfortable while enhancing social-emotional skills. In “The Library, Not Just for Books: Connecting Library, Maker, and Social Emotional Learning,” Velear Schrupp, library director at TVT Community Day School in Irvine, California, shared her approach to combining social–emotional learning with information literacy and maker practices.

Children and teens

Stress can have detrimental effects on early childhood brain development, but some libraries are taking steps to help prevent it. At “Toxic Stress, Early Brain Development, and What Libraries Can Do to Support Young Children Experiencing Adverse Childhood Conditions,” librarians from Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library (BPL) and a research scientist from University of Oregon reported on the programming they have developed to engage children and caregivers.

Tyson Barker, of University of Oregon’s psychology department, detailed how the human brain develops over the course of a lifetime. He highlighted the importance of creating positive spaces in which children can be introduced to new activities and stimulation. “If you teach new skills, then you change the brain,” he said. Luckily, he added, librarians have the tools they need to effect change: “You already use neuroscience in your practice.”

Rachel Payne, coordinator of early childhood services at BPL, and colleagues Revere Joyce and Maribel Nunez, early literacy outreach associates at BPL, shared details about Brainy Babies, a BPL program funded by a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation. The programs feature storytimes, sing-alongs, and other activities designed to encourage brain development, social–emotional skills, prereading skills, and early-learning practices in kids.

Photo: Scott Simon
Veteran broadcaster Scott Simon spoke about his latest book, his first for children.

Revered radio broadcaster, journalist, and author Scott Simon joined Matthew Winner, host of The Children’s Book Podcast, for a live taping of the show before a packed crowd. Simon has authored eight fiction and nonfiction books for adults; his new book Sunnyside Plaza (January) is his first for kids.

“Books you read as a middle-grader stay with you the rest of your life,” he said. “I felt if I could tell this story for this age of reader, I may accomplish something.”

Photo: Maia and Alex Shibutani
Authors and Olympic ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani are honorary chairs of National Library Week.

Siblings and Olympic ice dancing medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani, announced at Midwinter as honorary cochairs of National Library Week, spoke about their collaboration, their inspirations, and their shared love of storytelling in an Auditorium Speaker Series session. Their novel Kudo Kids: The Mystery of the Masked Medalist (May), the first in a series of mysteries for middle-grade readers, follows a brother–sister pair of superfans visiting Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Summer Games.

“It’s an event that brings the whole world together,” Maia said of the setting. “You’re exposed to so many different cultures, you see people’s dreams come true, you see people’s challenges. If we can take readers on that same journey through our book, that’s what we want to do.” (Watch video clips of Maia and Alex Shibutani.)

Photo: Author Echo Brown
Author Echo Brown’s new book combines elements of autobiography and magical realism.

In another Auditorium Speaker Series session, author Echo Brown (Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard) relayed her “origin story” to attendees. Born during the mid-1980s crack epidemic in one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods, she says her first memory is of her mother unconscious from an overdose while the family’s apartment was on fire.

Brown eventually started healing her past by working with teens, telling her story, and encouraging them to tell theirs. “I see you out there doing your part,” she said of librarians, whom she called keepers of the “alchemical process” of reading. (Watch video clips of Echo Brown.)

Melissa Bennett, Luke Kirkland, and Alexandra Remy—all librarians at public libraries in Massachusetts and cohort members of Harvard University’s Democratic Knowledge Project—knew they wanted to engage teens around local politics, community service projects, and social issues. So they started at ground zero: ordering pizza.

“I knew I wanted to do something about civics, but I didn’t know where to begin. I bribed [teens] with pizza,” Remy, supervisor at Springfield City Library’s Forest Park branch, told attendees at “Young Changemakers in 21st Century Libraries.” Remy soon learned what mattered to teens in her library—and what didn’t. What resulted was YOUth Matter, a project to connect teens to two stipend-funded civic engagement projects—one with the district attorney’s office to highlight the dangers of vaping, and the other a cleanup project to beautify the Forest Park neighborhood.

Photo: Rae-Anne Montague
Rae-Anne Montague led a discussion on queer realities in school libraries.

Rae-Anne Montague, assistant professor at Chicago State University’s department of information studies and chair-elect of ALA’s Rainbow Round Table (RRT), led a session designed to help school librarians incorporate LGBT history into curricula. She highlighted the role of mindful collection development in educating about LGBT issues, pointing to the Stonewall Awards and other resources (many available on RRT’s site) for identifying relevant, age-appropriate titles.

Young adult authors I. W. Gregorio, Beth Kephart, Sharon Huss Roat, Gail Silver, and Abigail Hing Wen gathered to discuss mental health and young readers in “Books in Our Age of Anxiety: Using Literature to Help Kids Navigate Their Lives,” joined by Lauren Caldwell, director of the American Psychological Association’s Children, Youth, and Families Office.

Three out of four people in the US with mental-health issues show signs before age 24. Caldwell recommended posting helplines from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in public spaces and stocking their free resources; sponsoring programs on mental health with medical professionals and counselors; curating books on mental health topics; and, most important, being genuine, thoughtful, and sincere in interactions with kids.


A perennial highlight of Midwinter is the announcement of the Youth Media Awards (YMAs). New Kid by Jerry Craft is the winner of the 2020 Newbery Medal for most outstanding contribution to children’s literature. The Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children went to The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson and written by Kwame Alexander. The Coretta Scott King Book Awards, which recognize African-American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults, also went to New Kid (author) and The Undefeated (illustrator). Dig by A. S. King won the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults. (For more coverage of the YMAs, visit The Scoop.)

Also announced were the winners of the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, which went to Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, which went to Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham.

For the first time, ALA presented the annual I Love My Librarian Awards, which honor 10 librarians for outstanding service, in a ceremony at Midwinter. This year’s recipients include three academic, three public, and four school librarians, each nominated by peers and patrons and chosen from more than 1,900 submissions. (Meet the winners here.)

Council matters

ALA President Wanda Kay Brown introduced the first Lois Ann Gregory-Wood Fellow: Tashia Munson of Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Brown also introduced Tracie D. Hall, ALA’s new executive director, who assumes office February 24.

Latrice Booker, Larry Neal, and Alexandra Rivera were elected to three-year terms (2020–2023) on the ALA Executive Board (CD#11.2).

Lessa Pelayo-Lozada, chair of the Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness, and Jim Meffert of Tecker International updated Council on the committee’s activities (CD#35).

A proposal to change the name of the Melvil Dewey Medal to the ALA Medal of Excellence (CD#31) passed. A resolution ensuring intellectual freedom and the right to peacefully assemble at ALA events (CD#40) passed. A second motion to suspend CD#40 until the end of the ALA fiscal year was defeated.

A resolution that Council Forum become an official subcommittee of the ALA Council Orientation Committee passed (CD#27.1). A motion (CD#39) to grant the Polish-American Librarians Association affiliate status with ALA passed. A resolution in opposition to charging prisoners to read (CD#41) passed. A resolution (CD#18.1) congratulating the American Library in Paris on its 100th anniversary passed.

A resolution on access to library resources and services regardless of sex, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation, an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (CD#19.4), passed. A resolution on forming a working group to align vendor privacy policies with ALA policies (CD#19.5) passed.

A resolution in defense of the free speech of supporters of the movement for Palestinian rights (Annual 2018–2019 ALA CD#49) was reopened for debate and was defeated.

Rob Banks, chair of the Committee on Legislation (COL), presented the COL report (CD#20), including the increase in funding for the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the confirmations of Crosby Kemper III as IMLS director and Hugh Halpern as director of the Government Publishing Office, and ALA’s work on the 2020 Census. National Library Legislative Day will be held May 4–5.

ALA Treasurer Maggie Farrell presented the Association’s FY2020 programmatic priorities (CD#13.1). A motion to approve the programmatic priorities, which are the basis for developing the FY2021 budget, passed.

In the third Council meeting, Brown read a report on behalf of the Executive Board regarding financial questions raised by councilors during Council II. The Executive Board acknowledged “significant missteps” and pledged to hold themselves to a greater level of accountability. Board members will use ALA Connect as a portal to collect questions by February 25 for the Executive Board and Budget Analysis and Review Committee meetings in April.

Memorials were read for Learned T. “Dag” Bulman, Ellen Greenblatt, Hilda L. Jay, Willis Bernard “Bill” Lukenbill, Carolyn A. Markuson, Jennifer Ford Paustenbaugh, and Bill Ptacek. Tributes were read to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Florida Library Association and to honor Dita Kraus, “The Librarian of Auschwitz.”


Caldecott Medal, The Undefeated

2020 Youth Media Award Winners

Top books, video, and audiobooks for children and young adults revealed at Midwinter in Philadelphia

Homa Naficy at the 2020 I Love My Librarian Award Ceremony

I Love My Librarian Awards

Highlights from this year’s ceremony