Freezing temperatures in Baltimore could not stop librarians from exchanging hot ideas at the American Library Association’s (ALA) second in-person LibLearnX conference. Held January 19–22, the four-day hybrid event drew 2,006 attendees (including 391 exhibitors and 107 in the Digital Experience).
Authors told inspiring stories and emphasized the importance of having open conversations. Presenters addressed the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), covering different ways librarians have started using the technology, as well as measuring its impact. Speakers tackled critical topics in the profession, including intellectual freedom, community engagement, and leadership and management.
A different dialogue
Opening the conference on January 20 was Peabody Award–winning journalist Michele Norris with a discussion of her new book, Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think about Race and Identity (Simon & Schuster, January). “This project has been a taproot into an America that is not always available to me, even as a very curious journalist,” Norris said.
NBC News and MSNBC correspondent Antonia Hylton talked about her new book, Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum (Legacy Lit, January). It traces the nearly 100-year history of Crownsville Hospital in Maryland, one of the nation’s last segregated asylums with existing records. As she learned more about the facility, which closed in 2004, she began to see how its history paralleled the trauma and stigma surrounding mental health care and mental illness in her family, and for Black Americans more generally.
Hylton sees this narrative shifting today. “A younger generation of Black kids and young adults coming up in this country right now are changing a lot of the dialogue,” she said.
Former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and two-time Newbery Medal recipient Kate DiCamillo told stories from her childhood and discussed her forthcoming novel, Ferris (Candlewick, March).
She recalled how her father used to tell stories that would entrance her and her brother as children; at the same time, they were afraid of him because of his unpredictable rage and emotional abuse. Before DiCamillo’s father died in 2019, she thanked him and forgave him. “And every time I tell a story, I am thanking him and forgiving him,” she said.
Comedian, actor, and author Jesús Trejo talked about how his family plays a part in his books, how writing children’s books compares with writing stand-up comedy, and how libraries have made an impact on him.
“I’m very grateful that I was able to speak and tell the story of our family,” Trejo said about his debut picture book, Papá’s Magical Water-Jug Clock (Minerva, June 2023). “This book, with every page, with every word, with every picture, just illustrates how family’s everything. If you have that… you’re winning.”
Actor, model, voice artist, and author Mia Armstrong discussed her debut picture book I Am a Masterpiece! (Random House Books for Young Readers, January) about her experience as a person with Down syndrome.
Beyond telling her story, Armstrong said she hopes her book helps readers with disabilities see themselves represented and teaches others—like their peers, family members, and the wider community—what disabilities are. “There’s nothing to fear,” she said. “It’s a disability, but don’t take it as a disability. It’s really cool, actually. Beautiful, even.”
Fighting for intellectual freedom
The library world has been grappling with threats to intellectual freedom over the past few years. At LibLearnX, presenters shared how they’re still committed to the fight.
George M. Johnson, author of All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020), discussed their journey as an anti-censorship advocate and award-winning spokesperson for intellectual freedom.
Most recently, Johnson became a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Escambia County (Fla.) Public Schools and its board. They joined a group that includes PEN America, Penguin Random House, other banned authors, and parents in suing the district for what the group says are unconstitutional removals of books (including All Boys Aren’t Blue) in its schools. In a January 10 decision, a federal judge ruled the suit can proceed.
“Sometimes these fights choose us,” Johnson said, “and we have to be ready for the challenge.”
At “Be Prepared: Program Challenges at Your Public Library,” speakers shared best practices and strategies for navigating challenges to library programs. “A lot of libraries don’t tell their library associations at the national or state level what they’re suffering from,” said Sukrit Goswami, president of the Freedom to Read Foundation and director at Haverford Township (Pa.) Free Library.
Goswami encouraged librarians in the audience to report when programs, services, or materials at the library receive challenges. “If we have these statistics, we can talk to our politicians about what’s going on and what support we need,” he said.
Asking about AI
Where is generative AI heading? And how does AI fit in with information literacy instruction? These are just a few questions librarians Melissa Del Castillo and Hope Kelly had when they conducted a recent survey of library professionals on how they are teaching about—and using—AI-powered tools like ChatGPT in instruction.
At the standing-room-only session “ChatGPT Is a Liar and Other Lessons Learned from Information Literacy Instructors,” Del Castillo and Kelly shared the survey’s results. While AI tools are easy and useful for a lot of instructional tasks, “we’re also getting very wary of [them] due to both practical and ethical concerns,” Kelly said. “So there are lots of feelings, lots of concerns.”
Navigating misinformation and weighing ethical and privacy issues in AI were prominent for the panelists at “AI and Libraries: A Discussion on the Future.” Dray MacFarlane, cofounder of AI consulting company Tasio, said the level of technical skill needed to use AI is dropping, making this an ideal time for librarians to begin learning about it.
“One of the reasons that you need to get involved with this technology now, despite the risks that we’re talking about, is because this is actually the least risky time that it’s ever going to be,” MacFarlane said. “[AI will get] more and more powerful.”
Panelists agreed that AI is an emerging technology that will soon become as prominent as the internet, growing at a pace that’s hard for all to keep up with.
“When the internet was new for librarians, they were often the ones that were having to train people on what it was about and how to use it and whether or not to trust it,” said Nathan Flowers, professor and systems librarian at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. “Same thing here. Everybody’s going to have to be aware of what is going to be available for those patrons when they come to you and have a question about it.”
Keeping the community strong
Library workers are constantly developing new ways—and fine-tuning old ways—to engage with each other and the communities they serve.
At “Ideas for Increasing Library Student Employee Training, Engagement, and Retention,” Abby Vande Walle, coordinator of circulation services at University of Notre Dame’s (Ind.) Hesburgh Libraries, offered various strategies to increase students workers’ engagement in their jobs at the library.
Vande Walle talked about hosting a lormal, a library formal event that celebrates student workers at the end of the school year. “All of our students got really animated about this, and they started making campaign posters to be lormal king or queen,” she said. “It turned into prom.”
Library Specialist Nanci DeLa Cruz Aguayo and User Experience Librarian Lauren Johnson, both from Nevada State University in Henderson, shared how they revamped their library space during “Bite-Sized Improvements: How to Make Small, Meaningful Changes to Library Space.”
To help them identify trends in how the library space was being used, Aguayo and Johnson conducted surveys and generated heat maps. “It was a lot of hard work zoning out the library,” Aguayo said. “But you really get to know the space and how people use it.”
During “Creating Welcoming and Supportive Libraries for Asylum Seekers and People Experiencing Homelessness and Poverty,” speakers shared strategies for serving various groups of library users that intersect with poverty, particularly unhoused people, asylum-seekers, and those who lack access or the ability to purchase menstrual products.
“This is the first step,” said Brenda Bentt-Peters, community outreach supervisor at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library. “We want the library to be a place where they know they can come in and feel welcome.”
Honing one’s leadership skills was another focus of LibLearnX. At “Navigating Leadership: Perspectives on Purpose-Driven Careers,” which closed out the conference on January 22, panelists discussed how anyone can lead from wherever they are by having the ability to bring colleagues together.
“Management is making sure people do things the right way,” said Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, CEO of Baltimore County (Md.) Public Library. “Leadership is making sure they’re doing the right things.”
Alcántara-Antoine was joined by Cindy Hohl, ALA president-elect and director of policy analysis and operational support at Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library, and Tamika Barnes, associate dean for Perimeter Library Services at Georgia State University Library in Atlanta.
Jenny Meslener, head of the social sciences team and Mason Square Library at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, shared her experiences of being thrust into a leadership position at the session “Oh, Crab! I’m a Director, Now What?!” She presented alongside Ashley Ruby, director of the Learning Commons and academic success at Garrett College in McHenry, Maryland.
“The single greatest thing you can do in a leadership role,” Ruby said, “is find a mentor. Someone who you can turn to with questions—particularly confidential questions that you may not feel comfortable asking in an open setting.”
Celebrations and awards
ALA held a celebration for the 10 recipients of the 2024 I Love My Librarian Award, nominated by library users for their expertise, dedication, and impact in their communities. Three academic librarians, four public librarians, and three school librarians were selected this year. “These ten honorees are inspiring examples of what is possible in our profession, and their stories are a testament to the profound leadership, ingenuity, and expertise of our nation’s librarians,” said ALA President Emily Drabinski at the January 19 ceremony.
The Berry Pickers (Catapult, 2023) by Amanda Peters won the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2023) by Roxanna Asgarian won the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. The selections were announced at the Reference and User Services Association’s (RUSA) Book and Media Awards event, sponsored by NoveList.
During the Youth Media Awards, ALA announced the top books, digital media, video, and audiobooks for children and young adults—including the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, and Printz awards. The Eyes and the Impossible (Knopf Books for Young Readers and McSweeney’s, 2023), written by Dave Eggers and illustrated by Shawn Harris, was named the 2024 Newbery Medal winner. Big (Little, Brown and Company, 2023), illustrated and written by Vashti Harrison, was named the 2024 Caldecott Medal winner.
The theme of the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance and Sunrise Celebration was “The Three Evils of Society by Martin Luther King Jr.” This year would have marked King’s 95th birthday. More than 20 library leaders took the stage to read passages from King’s speech at the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, an anti–Vietnam War event held one year before the city’s Democratic National Convention.
The celebration’s keynote speaker was David Delmar Sentíes, author of What We Build with Power: The Fight for Economic Justice in Tech (Beacon Press, 2023) and founder and former executive director of Resilient Coders, a nonprofit coding boot camp for people of color from low-income backgrounds.
“We need the doers,” Delmar Sentíes said. “The restless, the relentlessly optimistic, who still believe in an America in which we all belong, and who will not let it be taken from them.”
ALA Council approved a motion from the Membership Committee to update the personal membership model and dues starting fiscal year 2025 (CD#39).
During the Council I meeting on January 20, At-Large Councilor Mandy Nasr brought forward a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza (CD#48).
Councilors voted to postpone the conversation and vote until the end of the Council II meeting on January 21, after the International Relations Committee (IRC) presented its own resolution on the subject. During Council II, IRC Chair Julius C. Jefferson Jr. presented the committee’s report (CD#18) and its resolution to condemn the damage and destruction of libraries and other cultural institutions in Gaza. The motion passed 143–2, with three voters abstaining.
With a majority of opposers noting that the scope was outside of ALA’s purview, the resolution to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza (CD#48) was defeated. A motion to refer the IRC and Committee on Legislation to explore a further statement on this topic by ALA’s 2024 Annual Conference or sooner was also struck down.
In reports from special committees, Freedom to Read Foundation President Sukrit Goswami (CD#22) and Core Values Task Force (CVTF) Cochairs Sara Dallas and Erin Berman provided updates (CD#34). CVTF’s report included a proposal to replace ALA’s Core Values of Librarianship with updated ones: access, equity, intellectual freedom, privacy, public good, and sustainability. CVTF’s action item also included a recommendation that ALA’s Executive Board assign groups to write interpretations for each value. After a motion to extend the feedback phase another six months was defeated, Council approved both actions.