Though the ongoing pandemic prompted the American Library Association (ALA) to hold its 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition virtually June 23–29, there was no shortage of enthusiasm or curiosity among the more than 9,100 attendees who gathered online to hear from speakers and authors and share their experiences.
Headlining speakers talked about books, libraries, and the exchange of ideas in the greater context of major societal challenges. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and Opening Session speaker Nikole Hannah-Jones, who developed the 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine, recalled an elective course on Black studies she took as a teenager. “It was the first time I’d ever gotten any type of extensive instruction on Black Americans,” she explained. She began to wonder what else she hadn’t been taught—an inquiry that ultimately fueled the 1619 Project. For the immersive, ongoing multimedia initiative, she sought essays that connected democracy, capitalism, politics, and culture in contemporary America to the legacy of slavery in surprising ways.
At Julius C. Jefferson Jr.’s ALA President’s Program, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (author of Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents) spoke about the hierarchies that divided Americans centuries ago but still shape lives now. While Americans are not accustomed to using the word “caste” to describe our society, she said, it’s an apt descriptor for a system that assigns the rankings of competence, intelligence, and worth to entire groups, as well as whether those groups will be protected or attacked by authorities. She described Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 visit to India, where he was introduced at a Dalit school as a “fellow untouchable.” “Those who knew best what a caste system was instantly recognized caste when they saw it,” Wilkerson said. But libraries can provide an opportunity for “a second wave of education for an American public seeking understanding.”
Billie Jean King is best known for her 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match—and victory—against Bobby Riggs. The tennis icon and activist said the event “was about tennis, but not really. It was about social change.” She credits the 1972 passage of Title IX with blowing open the doors for women in sports, whom she continues to advocate for, along with LGBT issues: “I want girls in sports because it will teach them to navigate whatever culture that we’re in.”
Former US President Barack Obama, who spoke at the Closing Session, has worked to foster youth civic engagement since leaving office in 2017. Young people’s—including his daughters’—activism on issues like climate change and gender-based inclusion fuels his optimism, he said. “They’re not cynical at all about the need for change and their ability to act in the world, but they are cynical about our existing institutions and how effectively they serve their generation,” he said. “Part of the task of restoring America is not only to reaffirm some core values like rule of law and counting votes in elections, but it’s also empowering these young people or reimagining with them what do these new institutions look like.”
Celebrities in the kitchen
Prominent actors, artists, and personalities are perennial presences at Annual, and several from this year’s batch of celebrity speakers left audiences hungry for more.
Actor and viral cooking video star Stanley Tucci shared the personal stories behind his favorite recipes. “In a weird way, memoir is a hell of a lot easier than writing a cookbook,” he said, recalling that when testing a recipe for one of his cookbooks, his kids got stuck eating fettuccine with mushrooms for eight weeks until he got the recipe right.
Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi introduced attendees to her new children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela (with illustrations by Juana Martinez-Neal), which was inspired in part by her daughter asking for pomegranates in July, even though pomegranates ripen in winter. “It occurred to me that one of the collateral effects of living in a land of plenty, as we do, is that we don’t know anymore when things grow and when we’re supposed to eat them.”
Country singer Trisha Yearwood shared how the recipes in her latest cookbook, Trisha’s Kitchen, help to connect her family and keep family traditions alive. “My parents were both really great cooks, and this entire process of writing these books, doing the show [Trisha’s Southern Kitchen], has really helped keep them alive for me,” she said. “When I meet someone out in the world and they say, ‘Hey, I made your Grandma Lizzie’s homemade biscuits,’ it’s like your family becomes a part of their family, too.”
Speakers on change, legacy, and humanity
Charles Person, the youngest member of the original Freedom Riders in 1961, detailed the planned two-week journey from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. In Georgia, they met with Martin Luther King Jr. with the hope that he would join them, but King warned them they might not make it through Alabama. King was right—mobs attacked them, one of their buses was firebombed, and when they tried to fly from Birmingham to New Orleans, the plane received bomb threats. Despite this, Person said, “The Freedom Ride way is the best way. When it was all over, every city, every state” had to comply with anti-segregation laws.
Eve L. Ewing’s work as a writer and professor of sociology at University of Chicago explores racism and social inequality. Her new book, Maya and the Robot, is her first work for middle-grade readers, which makes it “one of the most important books I’ve ever written,” she said. She wanted to portray STEM themes in a relatable way, although the book also touches on the effects of gun violence. “That’s an adult topic, but every single one of those people [killed by guns] had young people who cared about them and need to process this hurt,” she said.
Author Melissa de la Cruz discussed the influence that science fiction and fantasy series, particularly Dune and Lord of the Rings, had on her growing up. “They were populated by relatable people” who showed that “there is such a thing as love and loyalty,” she said, adding that children who might not feel those things in their own everyday lives need to be shown that they are possible.
Speaking from the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas, magician David Copperfield explained that magic’s ability to transport people to places where the impossible becomes possible has had a transformative effect on humanity. “Our iPhones, computers, and robots are rooted in a magician’s idea—a magician’s motivation to tell stories in a different way,” he said. Magic has inspired thinkers, artists, inventors, and writers throughout history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Orson Welles and J. J. Abrams, Copperfield observed. While those people didn’t become magicians, magic “is a bridge to learn certain things,” he said.
Former Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) principal dancer and archivist Judy Tyrus and musician Paul Novosel discussed the company’s often-overlooked 52-year history. Founded by Arthur Mitchell, the first Black permanent member of the New York City Ballet, and his mentor Karel Shook, DTH was established to dispel the myth that dancers of color weren’t suited to classical ballet. “As an archivist, I realized that the history of DTH was excluded from books being written about classical ballet, that our history was literally being erased,” Tyrus said. “We both felt a responsibility to preserve the DTH legacy.”
Actor Danny Trejo spoke about his new book, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood, with coauthor and actor Donal Logue. “I really want kids in juvenile hall, youth authority, and prisons to understand that all the secrets that they got—from their parents, their neighbors—those things don’t matter,” he said. “They make us who we are, but we can get over that; we can get past that.” Trejo also shared memories of going to Los Angeles Public Library’s Central branch as a kid, and how devastated he was when it was destroyed by fire in 1986.
Lawyer, speaker, and author Savala Nolan talked about her debut collection, Don’t Let it Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body. As someone who is multiracial, who has known privilege and poverty, who has been thin and fat, Nolan draws inspiration from those in-between spaces. “The body is where it happens—that’s where we experience race and class and gender,” she said. The body is “the site of really deep knowledge and pain and humor and insight and epiphany. The personal and political are in constant collision in our bodies.”
Advancing the profession through core values
Equity of access was a major theme among other presenters. Mississippi State University Digital Projects Specialist Emily D. Harrison and Metadata Librarian Lauren Geiger spoke about collection accessibility at “Accessible, Not Just Discoverable: Ensuring Accessibility in Digital Collections.” Harrison recommended using the World Wide Web Consortium’s tiered Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a framework. “We want to have all of our materials fully accessible for any person to view them, but that isn’t the reality most institutions can meet,” Harrison said. “By knowing how you can meet the WCAG requirements, you have a foundation from which you can build.”
The on-demand session “Continuing to Serve: Librarian Veterans Serving Military Patrons,” discussed how libraries can help veterans, many of whom face difficult transitions from military service to civilian life. “Libraries are where veterans go for help, or where veterans are sent to receive help,” said Brian Conn, lead medical librarian at Minneapolis VA Healthcare System. Panelists recommended resources such as the Veterans Health Library and My HealtheVet for consumer health information and medical records, as well as collaborating with local veterans’ outreach offices and the US Army’s network of Morale, Welfare, and Recreation libraries to provide services.
Library Freedom Project Director Alison Macrina discussed the thorny concept of viewpoint neutrality—the idea that libraries must provide equal access to collections, services, and spaces without regard for the entrenched power dynamics that often shape library policies and outcomes, in “Intellectual Freedom is Meaningless without Social Justice.” She argued that many marginalized people have never had true intellectual freedom or First Amendment rights, while people with the most objectionable views are seldom at real risk of being silenced. “Without making this distinction in our conversations about free speech, we will only continue to perpetuate injustices against marginalized people’s intellectual freedom,” Macrina said.
The on-demand session “Confronting the Myth of Neutrality: Academic Libraries, Advocacy, and Free Speech,” also addressed the concept of neutrality. “The act of education is an act of vulnerability, the willingness to open up to the possibility of a new worldview,” said panelist Stacy Collins, research and instruction librarian at Simmons University in Boston. “But do we expect to have to take on that vulnerability in every single space?” There is a difference, she said, between exposure that expands worldviews and content that casually dehumanizes.
At the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Celebration, Frank Morrison, winner of the Illustrator Award for R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, described the struggles of his ancestors, including a father who fled from the Ku Klux Klan and started his own business in the North. “I realized that I come from a line of entrepreneurs, so I paint for them. I illustrate for them. I dance for them. I father for them. And yes, now I’m a grandfather for them,” he said.
The panel discussion “Building Equity through Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” highlighted programs from three Institute of Museum Library Services grant recipients that built STEM partnerships to serve middle school students. Among these were “STEAM Off,” a partnership between Durham County (N.C.) Library’s Stanford L. Warren branch and Durham County Youth Home, that involved local partners leading events on computers, robotics, and science experiments for underserved students.
The deaths last year of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others catalyzed a program series for children at Chatham County (N.C.) Public Libraries. Youth Services Librarian Katy Henderson and Youth Services Assistant Kathleen Pierce introduced the Kids’ Club for Social Justice, a monthly Zoom discussion for children in grades K–5 and their families. While not all community members may be supportive, Pierce said. “Ignoring these problems is no longer an option.”
The on-demand program “Social Justice Requires Broadband Access” asserted that affordable high-speed internet is a human rights issue. “Geography should not impose barriers to information,” said panelist Erin Hollingsworth, librarian at North Slope Borough School District in Utqiagvik, Alaska. “I have seen internet bills from the previous COVID-19 months ranging from $250 for limited, slow connectivity, up to thousands of dollars for individuals trying to maintain streaming for work and school.”
In “What’s in a Name? LGBTQ+ and Latinx Perspectives on Access Terminology,” a panel discussed the challenges of problematic subject headings, naming terms, and search terms, which reflect the biases of their creators and may demean marginalized groups. Progress may not be entirely feasible, said Emily Drabinski, interim chief librarian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, but it’s a balancing act: Teaching people to use the systems as they exist, and demonstrating that they are made by human beings and could be different.
In “Jazzy Outreach: Connecting with Your Community after COVID-19,” Scott County (Iowa) Library System Bookmobile Associate Catherine G. Zimmerman offered outreach tips for libraries as they enter the post-pandemic world. “We need to remind people that, at one point, we were the community’s home, and we need to get back to that,” she said. “We need to reassess their needs and how we as a library can provide for them.”
Amy Franco, adult department assistant director at Glen Ellyn (Ill.) Public Library, focused on compassion fatigue—the diminished ability to empathize with others due to emotional and physical exhaustion—in an on-demand session. “I think we can all agree that when you’re helping a vulnerable patron you feel the effects of their trauma,” she said. “It’s very difficult to walk away from a stressful day at work and not take that stress home with you.” She recommended library workers and supervisors be mindful of their challenges and boundaries as they balance a drive to serve with their own mental health.