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ALA REWIND: ALA Returns to Washington in 2022
by
Posted On June 25, 2024
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Information Today.

ALA returned to an in-person conference June 23–28, 2022, in Washington, D.C.—the site of its last in-person conference in 2019. The return was welcomed by the almost 14,000 people (7,738 librarians, library workers, and library supporters and 5,431 exhibitors, authors, illustrators, press, and staff) who thronged to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Another 834 signed up to attend virtually.

Although the event was smaller, it seemed far from tiny. It had a similar look and feel to previous, more massive ALA annual conferences. The exhibit hall was robust and lively, with most of the “usual suspects” exhibiting. Sessions were thought-provoking and covered topics timely to libraries of all types. Attendees were energized and genuinely happy to be back seeing people face-to-face rather than as squares on a Zoom screen.

As with prior ALA annual conferences, book publishers were strong supporters. In the exhibit hall, there were long lines of librarians waiting for an autographed copy of a book by their favorite authors and advance copies of new titles, particularly librarians working in school and public libraries. In addition, presentations by authors on stages scattered throughout the exhibit hall proved enormously popular.

CONVERSATIONS, NOT TALKING HEADS

ALA’s general sessions featured conversations rather than scripted speeches. No slides, just chats. In the opening general session, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel talked with ALA president Patty Wong. Rosenworcel emphasized the importance of broadband for daily life, particularly for education, and applauded the involvement of libraries in helping people get connected. She specifically mentioned the hotspots that the Eugene, Ore., public library set up and praised ALA for its information literacy initiatives. A relatively new program from the FCC is the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a $7.171 billion effort that helped schools and libraries provide the tools and services their communities needed for remote learning during the COVID-19 emergency period. It was funded as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The pandemic hasn’t been without some positive developments, Rosenworcel observed, one example of which is rich partnerships that emerged for the FCC. Although the E-Rate program has been around for years—it dates from the dialup era—Rosenworcel announced an agreement with IMLS to promote the availability of affordable broadband access programs in recognition of the role played by libraries to expand digital access and inclusion, with a particular emphasis on the underserved and under-resourced, particularly rural and tribal areas.

STRINGING PEARLS

Another conversation was between retired librarian Nancy Pearl (identified by ALA as “Library Icon and Author”) and Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. Ng talked about the plot of her third novel, Our Missing Hearts, in which a 12-year-old girl is taken from her family because of anti-Asian sentiment. She told the audience about her own childhood experience of being with her grandfather at a bus stop when they were harassed by a man shouting racial slurs at them. She explained that, in the Chinese culture, people didn’t talk about personal problems, so the incident was never mentioned at home.

Pearl asked her about the effect of the pandemic on her creativity. Ng responded that she spent time reading children’s books.

Pearl was also one of the panelists in the session News You Can Use: Unite Against Book Bans: The National Campaign, along with author Jason Reynolds, the 2020–2022 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and students from Bell High School. Alarmed at escalating book-banning efforts aimed at schools, public libraries, and bookstores, Unite Against Book Bans (#UniteAgainstBookBans) was formed as an ALA grassroots campaign to protect the freedom to read.

Book banning and censorship are hot-button topics for collection development. How balanced should a library collection be, and are there topics that should be excluded? Pearl got herself into hot water when she seemed to advocate adding Holocaust-denial books, saying she personally was offended by them and would not want to add them, but thought they were needed to understand that point of view. Considering book banning in a larger context, she said, “It’s much more nuanced, and it’s much more difficult than one often tends to think.” Reynolds responded, “The truth is, the hard truth, is that if we are going to unite against book bans, it includes all the books, and I think that’s what makes it a complicated gig.”

For most in the audience and in the social media commentary, adding Holocaust-denial books to a collection is absolutely not acceptable. They do not bring a different perspective, but give legitimacy to misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech. Both Pearl and Reynolds said after the session that they were not in favor of adding Holocaust-denial books to library collections.

CARLA HAYDEN

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden brought Nancy Davenport, a librarian who retired from American University, spent 33 years at the Library of Congress, and had other stints at the District of Columbia Public Library and the Vietnam parliamentary library, to the stage. Hayden said that the conference felt like a “family reunion” and deemed it “inspiring.” She and Davenport agreed that information literacy is more important than ever and decried the new field of “knowledge destruction,” exemplified by banning books. They concurred that librarians’ bedrock quality is that people trust them. After all, said Hayden, “We’re not in it for the money” (the audience chuckled at this). “Sometimes we’re a bit quirky” (more chuckles), but our role is to help people and be a trusted source, she added. Think about the power we have and act on it. Make connections with other organizations. Align what you do with the goals of your funders so that outcomes are meaningful to them. Hayden and Davenport acknowledged that censorship is not a new issue for librarians, but it seems to be attracting more attention.

CONQUERING MISINFORMATION

A discussion moderated by Amy Fiscus, deputy editor of The Morning at The New York Times—with panelists Nicole A. Cooke, associate professor at the University of South Carolina; Cecilia Kang, technology reporter at The New York Times; and Jim Rutenberg, writer at large for The New York Times—considered intellectual freedom, media literacy, and access to information.

Rutenberg ruefully noted that the newspaper’s stories have been called false for years, well before the current use of the phrase “fake news,” but it’s the role of the paper to defend its newsgathering and not simply stand by. When reporters do get a story wrong, “We take the hit,” he said. Rutenberg and Kang stressed the importance of reporters maintaining their objectivity, separating their byline lives from their social media lives. Cooke commented on the increasing challenges to privacy, remembering the removal of computers from libraries because law enforcement thought they were being used by terrorists. She recommended that libraries practice good data hygiene by clearing the cache, using privacy screens, and removing trackers. Stating that we are all susceptible to some misinformation and disinformation, she suggested “intellectual humility.”

Speaking in the session The Algorithm Stole My Democracy: Libraries Grappling With Misinformation in a Polarized Society, Wendy Stephens, associate professor at Jacksonville State University, noted that political polarization happens when people move to where others share their views. In her opinion, TikTok is replacing mainstream media, to the detriment of truth, and has spawned book banning and the “take back your public library” movement.

Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical professor of information at the University of Michigan School of Information, agreed. Social media encourages fear, anger, and outrage. She decried “pink slime” sources, which are not actual newspapers, and thinks attacks on libraries are not coming from algorithms, but from people with specific political views. “Librarians are battle weary,” she said. “We feel betrayed by those outside the library.” However, giving up is not an option. “Be ahead of change so you can control it” was her advice.

In another session, Christina D. Mune, an associate dean at San Jose State University, asked if AI will make your library smarter. She described the inner workings of AI, machine learning, neural networks, and natural language processing. Common applications within libraries include chatbots, robots, and recommender systems. Understanding the algorithms that drive these applications is vital.


Marydee Ojala is editor of Online Searcher (part of Computers in Libraries magazine) and ILI365 eNews. She has program development responsibilities for several Information Today, Inc. conferences.

Email Marydee Ojala

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