Big Energy, Rescue Rabbits, and the Heart of the Library Community | PLA 2024

By all accounts the 2024 Public Library Association (PLA) conference, held April 3–5 in Columbus, OH, was a resounding success. The 7,573 participants—including 5,702 attendees, 1,518 exhibitors, and 353 virtual registrants—packed the show floor, programs, and speaker sessions with palpable enthusiasm.

large planter in conference center with heart display and textBy all accounts the 2024 Public Library Association (PLA) conference, held April 3–5 in Columbus, OH, was a resounding success. The 7,573 participants—including 5,702 attendees, 1,518 exhibitors, and 353 virtual registrants—packed the show floor, programs, and speaker sessions with palpable enthusiasm. Despite the cancellation of the April 2 welcome reception at Columbus Metropolitan Public Library (CMPL) because of a tornado warning, the mood was upbeat and engaged. Publishers reported running out of galleys, and many of the sessions were standing-room-only.

Among the attendees were 115 scholarship winners—early career librarians, LIS students, small and rural library workers, and ALA Spectrum Scholars. For some, it was their first PLA event; for others, their first library conference.

While the conference did not come with a tagline, the overriding concerns of the day were evident from the “Free People Read Freely” tote bags for sale beside the registration desk to the large planter emblazoned with a heart and banner reading “Libraries: The heart of every community” to the range of sessions covering advocacy, fighting censorship and inequity, and thinking creatively about meeting the public’s needs. Service dogs and rescue rabbits were on hand to offer a little equanimity as conferencegoers crowded into the exhibit hall.

women holding up knitting on a busy show floor
Knitters on the exhibit floor
Photo courtesy of Laura Kinser/Kinser Studios

“There was great turnout, incredible energy—I felt like people were inspired and happy to be there,” PLA President Sonia Alcántara-Antoine told LJ . “We wanted to provide them the ability to be able to recharge their batteries and to affirm to each other, and to ourselves, why it is that we chose this profession, why it is that we do this work. And I felt like the PLA 2024 conference really delivered.”



Shola Richards, author and CEO/founder of Go Together Global, gave the Opening Session keynote (Joy Buolamwini, originally scheduled to speak, canceled because of unforeseen circumstances). His message, on empathy, fellowship, “tough love self-care,” and Ubuntu—the African-original philosophy of interconnectedness—hit home for an audience of public library staff and leaders who saw a record level of challenges, pushback, and overall conflict during the past few years, both inside and out of their organizations. “We are defined by how we treat each other,” Richards reminded the audience as he sent them out into the Greater Columbus Convention Center to learn and connect.

Richards was not the only replacement speaker; Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was scheduled to deliver the Big Ideas session on April 4, was unable to appear due to illness. But those who braved an 8:00 a.m. curtain time were rewarded with an inspiring talk from Dr. Bettina Love, cofounder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network and author of Punished for Dreaming: How School Reform Harms Black Children and How We Heal . Love spoke about how children of color are stigmatized and boxed in by multiple actors, including testing companies, the banking industry, and the school-to-prison pipeline, and how educational reform needs an abolitionist mindset to drive it. “We have to resist caving in because the job is too damn heavy,” she noted, adding, “Young people give me hope every single day.”

Essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar, the April 5 Big Ideas speaker, spoke about climate grief, generational enmity, the myths around hope, and what makes a good climate story (hint: It doesn’t need to be set in the future; it’s happening here and now). Comedian Dulcé Sloan closed out the conference, discussing writing, fighting mansplaining, and being less self-critical—and offering up a library-centric confession: “I have a copy of the Magic School Bus that I might have checked out in 1991.”



Both LJ and School Library Journal (SLJ) hosted well-attended Evenings of Dialog, on April 3 and 4 respectively, featuring authors in conversation on their recent titles and signings afterward. LJ hosted Liz Moore, Dan Kois, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ally Condie, Iman Hariri-Kia, Anastasia Zadeik, Chelsea Devantez, Terah Shelton Harris, Amy Neff, and Julia Phillips. SLJ’s event included picture book authors Keila V. Dawson, Minda Dentler, and Tanisia Moore; middle grade authors Simon Boughton and Matt Eicheldinger; and YA authors Kern Carter and David F. Walker.

PLA author events with Rainbow Rowell and SLJ School Librarian of the Year Amanda Jones sold out in advance.



Sonia Alcantara-Antoine high fiving Mychal Threets onstage in front of PLA logo
PLA President Sonia Alcántara-Antoine high-fives library advocate Mychal Threets
Photo courtesy of Laura Kinser/Kinser Studios

The sessions on offer spoke to the needs of those working in the field, as well as highlighting useful and actionable information on service to patrons and community members.

Programs ranged from sessions spotlighting innovative work happening in the field—including designing community-specific outdoor games, developing and sustaining paid teen internships, building culturally responsive programming for babies and toddlers, serving incarcerated and returning citizens, choosing dementia programs and resources, navigating AI integration, and embracing romance as a genre “that is both feminist and diverse”—to the overarching issues: how libraries can stand up to First Amendment threats large and small and underscore inclusivity, providing safe and supportive spaces for BIPOC librarians and patrons, those who are LGBTQIA+, neurodivergent and intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals, teens, seniors, and new mothers, among many others.

Highlights included several informative advocacy panels, incisive conversations about Black librarianship, deep dives into patron privacy safeguards, and examinations of how libraries can interpret services and branch design to meet unique community needs. (For a closer look at a sampling of programs, see “If Not Libraries, Then Who? Conference Programs Address Advocacy, Inclusivity, and More.”)

“Giving people the opportunity and space to talk about the latest and greatest trends in libraries was always top of mind,” said Alcántara-Antoine. “But it was also about how we find the strength and the resilience to keep moving forward, even though it’s really hard to be a public librarian in this day and age.”

Thanks to PLA staff, conference exhibitors, and local partners CMPL and the Ohio Library Council, most attendees found what they came for: camaraderie, support, and a wealth of information. “It was 100 percent a team effort,” said Alcántara-Antoine, “and I think we delivered a fantastic conference experience.”

Author Image
Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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