At the end of every summer, when the temperatures are getting cooler at night and the leaves on the trees are starting to change color, there comes a time in the library world known as conference season. During this time, librarians descend on conference centers and hotels in all areas of the U.S. with an unbridled passion and energy for the work they do serving their communities. Right now, conference season is in full swing, and a stellar example of this passion and energy was found at the 2018 NLA/NSLA (Nebraska Library Association/Nebraska School Librarians Association) Joint Conference held in Lincoln, Neb., Oct. 4–6. I attended as a speaker, but I was also able to get to some interesting sessions.
Whereas most library conferences held in the early 2000s had a strong focus on technology, makerspaces, programming, and other very library-ish topics and services, there was a hint of change in the air at this year’s NLA conference. While these topics were still widely discussed, the focus was clearly on subjects such as politics and social justice. Absent from NLA were librarians asking, “What’s your favorite social network for connecting with your patrons?” Instead, most of the librarians at NLA concentrated on action, with questions about how they could best serve every single person in their community. For some great takeaways, browse #neblib2018 on Twitter.
Proof of Value = Funding
The first day started with a fierce and fiery roundtable titled Voices of Our Leaders: The Relevance of Public Libraries to the State, which featured four politicians from around Nebraska talking about the importance of libraries and offering advice on how librarians can better advocate for more funding. The common thread connecting everyone on the panel was that not only were they involved in politics, but they were also frequent library users. Angie Lauritsen (Gretna city council member) drove home the importance of libraries in her area by saying, “A library helps keep a sense of community. People want to understand why they live where they live. The library is a place that brings together a community and helps them understand why they are here and what they’re doing.” She elicited claps and exclamations of joy from the crowd.
As the roundtable participants dug in their heels, the questions got tougher and turned toward funding. There was an urgency that washed over the crowd, and it became very clear that this was why they were here: to ask the tough questions about funding to those who control the money. Every politician on the panel stressed that libraries need to get better at proving their worth, with Lauritsen going as far as saying, “Never let up on your message; beat them over the head with your message, and prove your worth.”
Leroy Hollmann (a trustee for the village of Verdigre) spoke bluntly about the hard realities that libraries face in these days of crunched budgets: “No matter what you do, you’re always going to get passed up on budget increases over things like public safety, police, and fire departments. Libraries need to never take their foot off the gas pedal. They need to constantly prove their worth.” Ending the roundtable with a bang was Galen Hadley (retired speaker of the Nebraska Legislature): “If they’re not supporting you, vote them out. You have a voice. Use it.”
Facing the Opioid Crisis Together
Another widely discussed topic in library circles these days is the opioid crisis and how communities are responding to it, so it was not a shock to see the subject come up at NLA. The Opioid Epidemic: Is It Relevant for Nebraska Libraries? was moderated by Scott Childers (director of the Southeast Library System) and featured not only library leaders in Nebraska, but also University of Nebraska Medical Center clinical associate professor Allison Dering-Anderson and Nebraska state senator Adam Morfeld. The question of how libraries should respond to the opioid crisis is a divisive issue, and Dering-Anderson started off the roundtable by pushing the discussion even further, asking librarians to not call it an opioid epidemic because “this is not a disease that gets passed from person to person” and to instead see it as crisis that communities, politicians, and professionals need to tackle together.
Morfeld stressed the importance of laws that protect individuals and libraries from being charged with crimes when they help someone who overdoses, noting that Nebraska has these laws in place and that librarians should do their part to understand and communicate them. He said, “Libraries have always been in a great place to educate their communities, and this is clearly something that needs to be communicated with many folks in our communities.”
Nebraska: The Library State
There was positivity in the air at NLA, and a lot of that can be attributed to the leadership and organization of NLA’s immediate past-president, Andrew Cano, and current NLA president and Library Journal Mover & Shaker Rebecca McCorkindale. Throughout the conference, whether it was at the beginning of a workshop or during informal chats between sessions, they both brought up how their teamwork and the energy they put forth were key in pulling together the conference. “I want to make Nebraska known as the library state,” McCorkindale mentioned during a conversation with her. “We want everyone who works in a library in Nebraska to feel that their actions have meaning and that their input can empower their libraries and our state library association to make change a priority.” (Learn about McCorkindale’s Libraries Are for Everyone initiative here.)
A positive and forward-thinking attitude is what brings great energy to any situation, and NLA, a conference that was very much a product of our time, had a special energy throughout. Every time Cano introduced a panel or guest, he started with, “I’m sorry to have to break up such great conversations that are happening everywhere. I know how important those are.” It wasn’t just a line he used to get the audience smiling; he was genuinely sorry to stop them. The success of this conference is a sign of great things to come in the years ahead for Nebraska libraries and the communities they serve.
Image courtesy of Rebecca McCorkindale