ALA Cancels 2020 Annual Conference, Citing Safety Concerns

On the evening of March 24, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that the 2020 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition, scheduled for June 25–30 in Chicago, has been canceled because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be the first time the Annual conference has not been held in 75 years; the last cancellation was in 1945, during World War II.

Notice: ALA has made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Annual Conference. Read moreOn the evening of March 24, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that the 2020 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition, scheduled for June 25–30 in Chicago, has been canceled because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be the first time the Annual conference has not been held in 75 years; the last cancellation was in 1945, during World War II.

“ALA’s priority is the health and safety of the library community, including our members, staff, supporters, vendors, and volunteers,” said ALA President Wanda K. Brown in a statement. “As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, it’s become clear that in the face of an unprecedented situation, we need to make tough choices.”

A number of vendors, including EBSCO Information Services; Follett | Baker & Taylor; Gale, a Cengage Company; HarperCollins; OverDrive; Penguin Random House; ProQuest; and Simon & Schuster also offered words of support for the decision.

 

“WE CANNOT PREDICT, BUT WE CAN PREPARE”

ALA has had to take other factors into consideration for past Annual conferences. In 2003, ALA chose to go ahead with the conference in Toronto although the city had undergone an occurrence of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus, and in 2006 the association chose to keep the conference in New Orleans as the city rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

COVID-19, however, presented a very different situation, ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall told LJ. Hall has a background as a strategist, and had been keeping an eye on the virus as it emerged in Asia. “When it was still mostly something that was happening outside of the U.S., knowing about travel and the ways disease moves, immediately that's when I started to deploy small teams” within ALA, Hall said. “One of the things I always say is that we cannot predict, but we can prepare.”

They first used the SARS outbreak as a template, looking at how ALA planned and considered at the time. “And then it was very clear that this was something altogether different,” Hall explained. “After running a lot of different scenarios, and realizing that our Governor [J.B.] Pritzker, who's been very proactive, and our Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot were advising a shelter in place policy, and that we couldn't be sure when that would be lifted, [we knew] what we needed to do. It was that simple. We had to take care of our members; we had to take care of our stakeholders, we had to take care of our staff, and we had to take care and be responsible to the residents of the city”—as well as the reputation of the Annual conference as a place where people from across the profession could convene without worry.

“We wanted to also make sure that we didn't compromise, or have people doubting the safety, even if there was to be a change tomorrow,” said Hall. “We want to continue to have our Annual conference be the place where [everyone] comes together.”

And even if restrictions were lifted, Chicago’s hospitality infrastructure might not be up to an influx of conferencegoers, Scott Walter, university librarian and professor, university copyright officer, and co-interim chief technology officer at Illinois Wesleyan University, pointed out on Twitter—and institutional bars on travel might still remain in place.

 

ALTERNATE OFFERINGS

Leaders and divisions across ALA have already begun working to develop virtual alternates to the in-person gathering, and what ongoing engagement with the association’s members will look like. “We want to continue to be that space where people come together,” Hall told LJ—not only this summer, and for future Annual gatherings, but for the final Midwinter conference in 2021 and beyond. (Next year’s annual conference is also scheduled to be held in Chicago.)

“How do we open up our meetings to have even more members, even more people in the profession, even more stakeholders take part, and what might that look like for Midwinter?” wondered Hall. “In some ways this is going to give us an opportunity to try new things, and to be even more collaborative and adventurous when it comes to trying things out, and reaching beyond the usual suspects in terms of our usual collaborators."

The staff of United for Libraries is working on virtual programming for trustees, Friends, and foundations in lieu of Annual, said Executive Director Beth Nawalinski. In the meantime, United is finalizing details on two upcoming webinars related to COVID-19, and will provide information once the dates are confirmed.

United and ALA have invited any Friends group, foundation, or library to share their stories about virtual services they are providing while libraries are closed via ALA’s online form.

“One of our greatest strengths is our ability to adapt and reinvent ourselves when needed the most,” said Brown. “May these challenging and uncertain times find us working even closer together so that our libraries, our communities, our association and our families will all thrive.”

ALA is not the only organization having to make hard choices about events, Hall noted. “I think what's happening now is inviting all of us, not just ALA, into the future,” she told LJ. “We've been saying that we want to rise to that level. Everybody that I have talked to has reflected that we are faced with an opportunity to unleash some thinking and escalate some planning—and we're going to take advantage of it.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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