Redefining Libraries, Librarianship, and ALA | ALA Midwinter 2018

The 2018 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter meeting returned to Denver for the fourth time since 1982, offering attendees a range of programming from high-name-recognition speakers to a controversial President’s Program to a lively assortment of forward-looking symposia sponsored by the Center for the Future of Libraries.
The 2018 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter meeting returned to Denver for the fourth time since 1982, offering attendees a range of programming from high-name-recognition speakers (Dave Eggers, Junot Díaz, Bill Nye) to a controversial President’s Program asking “Are Libraries Neutral?” to a lively assortment of forward-looking symposia sponsored by the Center for the Future of Libraries (CFL). The weather was similarly varied, from a balmy 62 degrees on Thursday to a Saturday that saw a high of 20 degrees, with a day-long snowstorm that blanketed the big blue bear outside the Colorado Conference Center. Attendance numbers just above 8,000 continued Midwinter’s downward trend, seeing an 11 percent decline from last year’s January meeting in Atlanta—this year’s enrollment was the lowest since 1992. Those present, however, enjoyed a program strong on advocacy and proactivity, on a local scale and in the fight for library funding nationwide.


Scenes from the show floor
Photo credit: Kevin Henegan

As of Monday, February 12, the conference had booked 5,345 attendees and 2,691 exhibitors, for a total registration of 8,036. This is nearly a thousand fewer than attended 2017’s Midwinter meeting in Atlanta (8,995) and slightly more than 3,600 fewer than Midwinter 2016 in Boston (11,681). Conversations on social media revealed several anecdotal reasons for low registration numbers. Many cited cost, a lack of institutional support from libraries that don’t allow for professional development or travel, and limited staff availability to cover absences. Others stated that large conferences such as Midwinter held less relevance for them than smaller, more targeted events such as the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) biennial conference, or the upcoming Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Philadelphia. In a bad flu season, several Twitter users noted that they were forced to stay home for health reasons. K.G. Schneider, dean of the at Sonoma State University Library, CA, and a member of ALA Council, has posted a spreadsheet tracking Midwinter attendance over the past 40 years by number, year, and percentage of membership. This year’s numbers represent the second lowest percentage of member attendance more than 30 years, at 13.8 percent (only 13.27 percent of members attended Midwinter 1992, in San Antonio). “On the positive side,” Schneider noted, such disruption offers “interesting opportunities for organizational growth and change in how we as an association participate, learn, and govern.” The organization as a whole is thinking along precisely those lines; Council 2 broke out into small groups to discuss the organization’s future and how it can best re-envision itself, and participants were also asked to fill out forms with individual feedback. The resulting more than 300 suggestions—many of them, if verbal commentary is representative, focused on eliminating redundancy and increasing transparency—will be digitized, amalgamated, and presented back to Council for further action. In the meantime, ALA President Jim Neal says ALA also plans to seek guidance from an organizational efficiency consultant.


The programs and sessions on offer engaged with many topical issues libraries currently face, including opioids, the need for commitment to open access initiatives in academic libraries, and services to immigrants and refugees. Perhaps the most pressing, however, is the ongoing need for advocacy. Library supporters nationwide spent much of 2017 fighting to keep funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and while they not only held the line, but actually obtained a budget increase, that work is far from over—a fact underscored by the president’s budget request to Congress for FY19, released during the conference, which once again proposes defunding IMLS and a host of other programs of relevance to libraries. “The administration’s FY2019 budget is out of touch with the real needs of Americans and the priorities of leaders in Congress who represent them,” ALA president Jim Neal said in a statement following the announcement. “The president miscalculates the value of more than 120,000 libraries across America, just as he did in his FY2018 budget proposal…. ALA members will continue to highlight the value of libraries to our elected leaders in every U.S. congressional district. And we are confident that our congressional leaders will continue to protect the federal programs that invest in our communities.” ALA’s advocacy machinery leapt into play, deploying and sending out a call to action mere minutes after the announcement dropped. By the time of Council 3 on Tuesday morning, more than 5,000 emails to representatives had already been sent through the tool, in addition to others channeled through library political action committee EveryLibrary and, of course, others sent directly. ALA has revamped its advocacy toolkit, and Midwinter was strong on resources for attendees to make their voices heard. ALA’s Libraries Transform campaign, now in its third year, hosted several sessions that explored ways libraries could use the public awareness initiative to engage different stakeholders in the spheres of education, civic innovation, and policy, as well as using the campaign toward developing more diverse and equitable services. Brainstorming sessions invited representatives from libraries of all kinds to imagine how they might use the Libraries Transform toolkit during the 60th annual National Library Week (April 8–14) and beyond. The campaign, originally slated for a three-year run, has been extended through 2020. Some 8,500 members have signed up to participate since Midwinter 2017, more than doubling participation.


The Colorado Convention Center's Big Blue Bear with a dusting of snow on Saturday
Photo credit: Kevin Henegan

On Saturday, February 10, the ALA Presidential Candidates’ Forum brought together the two candidates for the 2019–20 term, Wanda Kay Brown, director of library services for the C. G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University, NC, and Peter Hepburn, head librarian at College of the Canyons, a community college in the Los Angeles suburbs. Brown has served as the president of the North Carolina Library Association and the Black Caucus of ALA, and Hepburn as served a three-year term on the ALA Executive Board. Moderated by ALA past president Julie Todaro (2016–17), the two presented their platforms and answered audience questions on such subjects as their support for virtual conference participation, ideas for ALA revenue enhancements, plans for advocacy in Washington, and thoughts on inclusion within the organization. Both candidates and Todaro stressed the importance of voting; in addition to deciding the presidency, the member vote will determine whether the new ALA executive director should be required to hold an MLIS or the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)/school librarian equivalent. Electronic balloting begins March 12, polls close on April 4, and the results will be announced April 11. The much-anticipated President’s Program, held on Sunday, February 11, asked the questions, “Are libraries neutral? Have they ever been? Should they be?” Speakers convened by Neal included Em Claire Knowles, assistant dean for student and alumni affairs at Simmons School of Library and Information Science in Boston, and James LaRue, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, arguing in favor of neutrality, and Chris Bourg, director of libraries at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and R. David Lankes, director of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, arguing against. A second panel, providing commentary, included Emily Drabinski, coordinator of library instruction at Long Island University, Brooklyn; Kathleen de la Peña McCook, professor at the University of South Florida School of Information, Tampa; Emily Knox, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Information Sciences; and Kelvin Watson, director of Broward County Libraries, FL. Both sides stressed inclusivity, access, and choice in libraries, with the differences hinging, often, on definitions of the word neutral. From LaRue’s statement that “Neutrality is about the refusal to deny people access to a shared resource just because we don’t like the way they think” to Bourg’s “A library as an institution represents a decision about how a community spends its resources and those decisions are never neutral—they are value-laden and they reveal what the community (or at least the powerful actors in that community) thinks is important.” The debate called out fissures in the way librarians define their mission—as well as critiques of how the debate was framed in the first place—but also demonstrated there can sometimes be more common ground on concrete action than there is in the theory surrounding it.


Many of Midwinter’s offerings were simply celebratory, as well. The Symposium on the Future of Libraries, sponsored by CFL, highlighted a range of creative programming and collaborations as well as speculative looks at the far future of urban development. In addition to plenary sessions with local civic, equity, and education leaders, discussions included reports from library partners such as Chicago Collections, StoryCorps, Libraries Ready to Code, and the Chattanooga Memory Project. The series also featured critical topics such as refugee resettlement work done through IMLS’s Project Welcome, managing security in the face of the opioid epidemic, eliminating fines, and intellectual freedom. The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Fiction and Nonfiction were announced on February 11, with Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (Scribner) and Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir (Little, Brown), an LJ Best Book, taking the respective categories. The 2018 Youth Media Awards, including the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz honors, were bestowed on a host of diverse authors and illustrators on February 12. And LJ’s celebrated its Librarian of the Year, Lance Werner, in a warm and upbeat event on Friday night. Speakers Patrisse Cullors, founder of the global #BlackLivesMatter hashtag movement, and Marley Dias, who began the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign when she was a sixth-grader, launched the main conference on February 9 with a spirited discussion of the issues that propelled them into action. Author and McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers kicked off the Auditorium Speaker Series on the morning of February 10, and later the same day poet Elizabeth Acevedo gave the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture. On February 11, author Junot Díaz spoke on his newest work for young readers. And the conference wrapped up Monday with a keynote from Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and author Gregory Mone, celebrating the values of science, empowering children with knowledge, and the magic of looking things up at the library. The Midwinter meeting reflected a response to disruption by taking on an ambitious agenda of self-redefinition as institutions, an organization, and a profession—we look forward to seeing its first fruits at ALA Annual, to be held June 21–26 in New Orleans. Stay tuned for more detailed coverage of Midwinter events from LJ and SLJ.
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