ALA’s Virtual Reality | ALA Virtual 2020

Held online from June 24–26, ALA Virtual—Community Through Connection saw 7,349 attendees and 651 exhibitors and featured more than 50 sessions, live chats with authors and speakers, more than 75 publisher and exhibitor sessions on new titles, a virtual exhibit floor with more than 600 participating exhibitors, 11 featured speakers, and a Swag-a-Palooza with hundreds of free items.

ALA Virtual 2020 logoAfter making the decision in March to cancel its 2020 Annual conference in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Library Association (ALA) quickly pivoted to an all-virtual online conference.

Held online from June 24–26, ALA Virtual—Community Through Connection saw 7,349 attendees and 651 exhibitors and featured more than 50 sessions, live chats with authors and speakers, more than 75 publisher and exhibitor sessions on new titles, a virtual exhibit floor with more than 600 participating exhibitors, 11 featured speakers, and a Swag-a-Palooza with hundreds of free items, including e-galleys through Edelweiss. ALA Round Tables hosted networking events for attendees to chat, while “Continue the Conversation” video chat rooms gave small groups an opportunity to discuss prior sessions and to network, and a combination of Zoom plus voting software allowed the work of association governance to proceed apace.

Thanks to the support of sponsors including EBSCO, Gale, OverDrive, OCLC, Ingram, Scholastic 100, SpringerNature, and, ALA was able to lower registration fees to $60 for members; library professionals who were laid off, furloughed, or had their paid work hours cut were able to attend at no cost. Recorded content will remain accessible for a full year.



The event launched with a message from ALA President Wanda Kay Brown. She then turned the mic over to Executive Director Tracie D. Hall, whose first 120 days in the role were marked by ALA’s financial difficulties, a worldwide pandemic, and demands for a confrontation of the nation’s systemic racism. She called for the association, as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2026, to take its part as an arbiter of justice. “There is something about justice that demands that we take sides, that we make intentional decisions about whether we will work at the side of justice or opposite it,” Hall stated. “When I say let our legacy be justice, I am inviting us to explore the construct of the library as both the vehicle and driver of justice, as both a means to justice and an arbiter.”

During the inauguration for ALA’s incoming president, Julius C. Jefferson Jr., the association released a statement acknowledging ALA’s role in upholding unjust systems of racism and discrimination against Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) within the association and the profession. The statement committed to upholding the association’s core values, particularly of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and promised to reassess and reevaluate its role going forward. ALA also issued a statement affirming the rights of transgender people, stating that it “unequivocally and emphatically stands in solidarity with its transgender staff and members, transgender library workers, transgender library users, transgender authors, and the transgender members of the communities we serve.”

Other speakers throughout the conference included American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer and author Misty Copeland; serial entrepreneur, nonprofit CEO, and political leader Stacey Abrams (see link to LJ’s coverage below); UK poet and social media influencer Sophia Thakur; Caldecott medalist and author Matthew Cordell; actress and author Sonia Manzano; and actress, activist, and author Natalie Portman.



Outreach services have long been key to reaching those unable to physically enter the library. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, implementing these services became harder—but not impossible, as Cathy Zimmerman, president of the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS), and Susan Parkins, immediate past president of ABOS, explained in their ALA Session, “Out-Doing Outreach in a Post-COVID World.” As libraries physically closed their doors, “immediately outreach had to rethink their entire approach to service,” said Zimmerman.

Librarians used the ABOS listserv to seek out advice and find ideas. Children’s librarians relied on Zoom and Facebook to conduct online story times. While in the past Zimmerman spent much time visiting senior care facilities, where she read stories, played games, and chatted with residents, now she uses email to send notes of encouragement, as well as Skype and phone calls; she has also sent online resources, like virtual tours of museums and zoos, as well as brief PowerPoint programs with videos on a variety of themes, to grateful activity directors. Some things didn’t change; outreach librarians have often relied on bookmobiles and have thoroughly disinfected the inside of the vehicle, but, said Parkins, they do so with a new diligence. Parkins spoke about Little Free Libraries that continue to pop up, books by mail services, online arts and crafts demonstrations, and virtual summer reading. As Zimmerman noted, “Like water, outreach finds a way.”

In a lightning talk, “Libraries Fostering Community Resilience during COVID-19,” several librarians outlined how their libraries stepped up with community service that proved to be so useful and well adopted that they will likely outlast the pandemic.

As the University of North Florida, Jacksonville, transitioned to remote services, the library made sure to get the message out through social media: “The library might be closed, but it’s here for you.” Student Outreach Librarian Maria Atilano highlighted several successful campaigns, such as Our Librarians Are Online!, which featured information about the university librarians and let them showcase their personalities; Ask Me Anything prompts on Instagram; and games like haiku contests, bad joke contests for April Fool’s Day, prompts for pet photos, and a library trivia game. The library also included stories from campus partners such as the counseling center and student clubs, encouraging healthy habits for remote students, as well as university initiatives around Black Lives Matter.

Sarah Gluck, assistant community library manager at Queens Public Library, NY, shared a number of community programs that reinforced the library’s core values and pulled in local resources as well—for both patrons and staff. It’s important to be both resourceful and flexible, Gluck stressed, and programs should serve more than one purpose at a time; a Mommy & Me virtual activity time morphed into a successful chat for caregivers who needed some adult time. Other programs that evolved from staff interests included Motivational Mondays, where library workers and patrons would go for walks separately around the neighborhood and check in on goals; an Educators’ Meetup for local teachers; a Curator’s Coffee Chat, a discussion forum that focused on Black history and topics; and Good for Your Soul: A Cooking Show, led by library staff and community members, which featured mostly healthy meals that could be made from common pantry supplies—the library hired a local Jamaican chef for several cooking shows.

Children’s Librarian Liza Purdy and Library Assistant Eleanor Stevens, both of Santa Clarita Public Library, CA, reached out to local bloggers and parenting groups to find out what kinds of programming people wanted. With ideas in mind, they connected with the library’s communications team for advice on how to shoot and edit videos. They suggested investing in equipment such as good lights and tripods for phones, and with a little experimentation even inexperienced staff were able to produce high-quality videos for summer reading programs, story times, educational programs partnering with local teachers and community groups, and activities like mediation and coloring. The City of Santa Clarita was also able to shift some library equipment funding from print books to electronic resources, and the library waived fines, instituted holds lockers, and relaxed regulations for getting library cards.



Becky Spratford, readers' advisory (RA) specialist for RA for All, and Robin Bradford, collection development librarian at Pierce County Library System, WA, shared the message that getting a diverse range of books into the hands of your patrons is work—and it’s your job—in their session, “Suggesting Own Voices to All Readers: EDI and RA Service.” Bradford addressed building an inclusive collection, pointing out that books by diverse authors featuring diverse characters are for all readers all the time. “These stories don’t have to teach a single lesson about the evils of slavery or racism or whatever,” she said. They can just be for the sake of entertainment.” Bradford also pointed out that it is librarians’ job to “open the floodgates, not be a gatekeeper,” when it comes to new content that patrons may love.

While diversifying your collection may seem overwhelming, she said, the most important thing is to start somewhere. She suggested choosing an area that circulates well in your library (police procedurals, for example) and looking for diverse materials in that subgenre first. And she stated that librarians are responsible for finding, reading, and buying diverse materials for their collections: “Diverse books exist and have for years. You are the bridge that gets them into patrons’ hands.”

Spratford discussed diversifying RA practices, beginning with drafting an equity, diversity, and inclusion mission statement and reading widely, both books themselves and material about books. She urged viewers to think like readers, rather than like library workers—instead of considering circulation numbers and reviews, she said, think about what readers like and dislike about books. Spratford went on to explain that once you’re reading widely, you have to start suggesting widely. One way to make sure that you’re doing that is to institute an OwnVoices requirement in your in-person suggestions, displays, and lists online. She also suggested adding keywords to entries in the library catalog to improve discoverability, and including more staff input in RA, since that leads to more organic diversity. She ended by reminding viewers that this is a marathon and that librarians need to set an example; your work and collections have to represent the world at large.



In “Libraries and the Disenfranchised,” moderated by Deborah Yun Caldwell, diversity resident librarian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Katherine Ellena, senior global legal advisor at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, explained the difference between enfranchisement in the law and in practice, and spoke about who is likely to face restrictions of their voting rights around the world—including felons, dual citizens, those with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, Indigenous people, internally displaced people, women, military, and police.

Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, Washington, DC, reviewed the history of American lawmaking specifically aimed to disenfranchise those convicted of those crimes lawmakers thought Black men were more likely to commit, and their continued disproportionate impact on Black voting rights. She also discussed the variation of voting rights for felons from state to state, and urged public librarians to organize public discussions, especially in states that have made recent changes to these laws. She suggested partnering with civic groups such as the ACLU and the League of Women Voters to offer online discussion, materials, and one-on-one conversation to clarify misconceptions and help with voter registration.

Leslie Purdie, a prison librarian at Folsom State Prison who used to work in public libraries, shared her own experience with offering a voting rights presentation in the prison, starting by consulting the inmate clerks. Purdie said she knows she is an outsider, and relies on the clerks to “give brutally honest opinions” of her ideas. Most had thought their voting rights would never be restored, and were interested in the program. Purdie emphasized the importance of personalizing the conversation and providing examples that apply to inmates’ lives, as well as conveying that “their opinions matter; they have a unique and valuable perspective; they can make a difference; and there are people outside the walls who want to hear what they have to say.” The program was overwhelmingly well received, said Purdie—the most popular one she ever offered. She got thoughtful questions and people came afterward to ask for more information. Most had not known they would get their voting rights back.

For public libraries, Purdie recommended partnering with prisons to bring information inside, especially in print format and at lower Lexile levels, since many inmates have lower print and tech literacy, as well as with local nonpartisan organizations such as the county board of elections. She also suggested marketing materials and programs on felony disenfranchisement for reentering patrons. Some inmates may be released early to reduce the spread of COVID-19 behind bars and may be unclear on their rights, so she suggested webinars aimed at that audience.



Nancy Kranich, professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, and Mary Ghikas, senior associate executive director of ALA, moderated the live chat “Reopening Libraries—Smart Strategies for a Healthy Restart.” George Coe, president and CEO of Brodart Co., shared the nitty-gritty of the vendor’s own process, from shutting down the cafeteria and reexamining the workflow to reducing touchpoints, working with customers to consolidate orders, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to enforcing a strict return policy for those without a doctor’s note to prevent favoritism, though Coe said the experience of the pandemic has spurred the company to consider more working from home in the long term.

Next up, Dana Hollins of the American Industrial Hygiene Association gave granular guidance to libraries looking to reopen. She stressed that the local public health department, because it is most familiar with local conditions, remains the go-to source, along with broader resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, and recommended that libraries appoint someone to be in charge of checking the evolving recommendations from those sources and serve as a focal point for questions. Beyond that, she said library leadership should conduct a hazard assessment, not only for the buildings but also for each different activity and service. Such an assessment uses a hierarchy of controls, she said: first, physically removing the hazard; where that is not possible, isolating people from the hazard; where that is not possible, changing the way people work to prevent exposure to the hazard; and finally, where that is not possible, using PPE.

Much of her advice will be familiar: reopen in phases, offer only limited services such as curbside, let only certain employees into the building, limit open hours, limit staff, encourage staff to work from home when they can, consider staggering shifts, and limit how long patrons can remain in the library, all with the goal of reducing the number of people in the building. At each stage, she said, libraries should stop and reevaluate.

For physical spaces, in addition to separating work locations and installing dividers, she suggested working with a local HVAC contractor to evaluate the library’s system to increase ventilation, fresh air, and filter efficiency—something she said can be further supplemented with portable HEPA filters, though they aren’t a complete solution. She also suggested limiting person fan use, since they can spread aerosols and droplets; wearing disposable gloves when disinfecting surfaces; isolating materials for 72 hours; and wearing cloth face coverings. For those who can’t tolerate gloves, such as people with a latex allergy, alternative hand sanitizing procedures are fine; for those who can’t wear a mask, she said, face shields are a good option.

She urged management to encourage those who are sick to stay home, and to look at sick leave policies to make sure they are not incentivized to come to work when not feeling well. Some employers, she said, are even prescreening with a touchless temperature check or a short health questionnaire, but she cautioned those who go that route to be mindful of HIPAA regulations. Patrons, too, should be urged to stay home if they’re sick, via posted signs at the entrance and throughout the library. It will be challenging for employees to communicate these changing rules to patrons, she said; clear and consistent communication, both internal and external, is key.

For more LJ coverage of ALA Virtual sessions, see:

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