City of Library Love: PLA 2018 in Philadelphia

For many attending the Public Library Association (PLA) 2018 conference in Philadelphia, the biggest challenge was simply getting there, thanks to an early spring Nor’easter that dumped snow from Washington, DC to New England on Wednesday, March 21. Just under 6,000 public library professionals and supporters registered to attend in person, with 1,821 exhibitors signed up as well.
For many attending the Public Library Association (PLA) 2018 conference in Philadelphia, the biggest challenge was simply getting there, thanks to an early spring Nor’easter that dumped snow from Washington, DC to New England on Wednesday, March 21. Just under 6,000 public library professionals and supporters registered to attend in person, with 1,821 exhibitors signed up as well. Attendee registration was unchanged from PLA’s 2016 conference in Denver, and slightly up from the 2014 event in Indianapolis. Another 110 signed up for the PLA 2018 Virtual Conference. Once the in-person guests made it to the Pennsylvania Convention Center amid travel advisories and cancellations, they found offerings running the gamut from inspiring speakers to informative sessions to nearly 300 exhibit on the show floor, plus well-attended author events, the interactive “Lovey Town” art installation, and an ongoing roster of tours of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Nonetheless, the challenging political and social environment was never far from the people’s minds. On Friday morning, news watchers awoke to president Trump’s tweeted threat to veto the $1.3 trillion FY18 federal spending package; hours later he signed the bill, which, among other provisions, will keep the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and other government-funded culture and education agencies afloat through September. Emergency services’ investigation of city infrastructure near the convention center Friday morning provided a visual reminder of the possibility of terrorism, though it proved to be a false alarm. On Saturday, an estimated crowd of 15,000 gathered in central Philadelphia for the March for Our Lives gathering to protest gun violence. And throughout the conference, programs addressed issues of inclusion, social justice, digital literacy, civic engagement, and the many ways libraries turn outward to their communities. “One thing is very clear in most of the sessions I’ve attended,” one attendee wrote on Twitter on Friday. “We can’t separate the current political climate from libraries. It’s so ingrained in what we do, for better or worse.” Conference speakers included opener Sally Yates, former U.S. deputy attorney general under the Obama administration and, briefly, acting attorney general under Trump, in conversation with Pam Sandlian-Smith, 2017–18 PLA president and director of Anythink libraries, Adams County, CO. Yates identified libraries as “one of the few inherently democratic spaces we have,” and called on library workers as thought leaders and holders of truth: “Our nation, our world needs you more than ever before.” Attendees gathered early Saturday morning to hear author, policy advocate, and director of Columbia University's Poliak Center for the Study of First Amendment Issues Tim Wu—perhaps best known as developer of Net Neutrality theory—speak on what he termed the “attention crisis.” Building on the tradition of early 19th-century journalism’s use of advertising and muckraking, Wu noted, Facebook, as well as Google, Twitter, and other commercial Internet players, have commodified the time and attention of users as their business model. Companies need to bear responsibility for their public influence, he said, but in the meantime libraries are well positioned to help raise awareness among users. Other engaging talks featured author and teacher Kari Chapin, author Elizabeth Gilbert, corporate executive and motivational speaker Steve Pemberton, and comedian, actor, host, and writer Hasan Minhaj.


Librarian art at Lovey Town
Photo credit: Meredith Schwartz

Sessions looked at the myriad ways libraries serve their constituents, and how they can expand both offerings and mindsets to meet community needs. Many offered eye-opening and practical suggestions for libraries working with underserved groups, such as immigrant populations, incarcerated individuals, and millennials. There were also several panels addressing high-need and relevant issues including homelessness and the opioid crisis. At the reflective “Push Comes to Shove: Supporting Patrons of Color in Your Institution,” presenters Kristyn Caragher and Tracy Drake of Chicago Public Library and Aisha Conner-Gaten of Loyola Marymount University challenged participants to examine whether library policies already placed patrons of color at a disadvantage before even entering the library space, pushing them to explore whether procedures unintentionally sustained systems of white supremacy, racism, and bias. At “Applying an Equity Lens: Shifting Resources to Reach Low Income Audiences” Seattle Public Library (SPL) staff spoke to a packed room about equality—providing resources and services to everyone equally—vs. equity—reallocating resources while taking into account existing injustices in the community. Panelists focused on how two recent initiatives, book mobile services and “One-City Reads,” were revamped and restructured in order have a more equitable impact, stressing the importance of training staff in implicit bias and engaging community members. At the session's end, Tom Fay, SPL’s director of library programs and services, called out the “elephant in the room.” “We’re two white people talking about racism,” he said. “We recognize that.” It is part of a structural and institutional issue, he said. SPL's youth and family services manager, a woman of color, was originally scheduled to be part of the panel but couldn’t attend because of the snow. Even had she been there, said Fay, that doesn’t lessen the impact of the bigger problem of a lack of diversity in library staff and leadership—and he stressed that directors take care not to put extra pressure on staff of color when it comes to diversity issues and programming. “Libraries Aren’t Neutral: Programming and Resources for the Political Climate” examined three Illinois libraries’ roles in creative civic engagement programming that includes classes and workshops, information- and event-based programs, “office hours” for state representatives, book and film discussions, as well as tips for facilitating by library staff. In addition to the opportunities presented through civic programming, panelists discussed some of the challenges—in particular, the need for transparency precipitated by the cancellation of the "Know Your Rights" workshop scheduled by the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, IL. Rumors that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representatives would be present led the library to cancel the program out of concern for the safety of participants, customers, and staff. When community members rallied in protest, the library responded with a dedicated web page explaining the decision, the library's programming process, and the original program's content, so that "the story didn’t end at the cancellation and backlash." “To Connect and to Serve: Building Community with Law Enforcement,” discussed the ways Salt Lake County Library Services (SLCLS), UT, engaged with community law enforcement in both directions, inviting local officers into the library and managing busy libraries inside two area jails. Police officers appreciate the chance to come into the library, noted Magna Branch manager Trish Hull, and interact with the public on a non-emergency basis. “They’re not like firemen, who get to do fun stuff too.” Jail library manager Vern Waters offered his detailed nuts-and-bolts approach to setting up libraries inside correctional facilities, speaking with obvious pride of his successes and the prisoners' appreciation. "The only thing prisoners have is time," he explained. "We’d like them to re-enter society more educated." Cedar Rapids Public Library staff talked about how they “Take Summer Reading to the Streets: Partnering to Reach Children with Barriers to Library Access,” outlining how their program teams up with local summer camps and day care centers for low-income families to bring books and related activities to the children. The room erupted in an extended round of applause when programming manager Kevin Delecki said they decided that they didn’t care about lost materials; the worst thing that could happen, Delecki said, is a kid who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a book now has one he loves at home. Applicable tools were top of mind as well. Lee Rainie, director of Internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center, presented an overview of several Pew surveys highlighting library engagement that would be of use to any library leader wishing to make a case for funding or political support. “How One Small Library Strives to Be the Community’s University” offered detailed information on how the Upper Dublin Public Library, PA, provided robust services for children, teens, and adults with a shoestring staff through imaginative local partnerships. And Hollie Trenary, operations manager at Cedar Rapids Public Library, IA, presented on the nimble Swiss Army Knife of a spreadsheet the library uses in “Operationalizing Your Strategic Plan.”


LJ/SLJ Author Party, featuring panelists Beck Dorey-Stein and Falguni Kothari, with moderator Barbara Hoffert

Practical and engaged conference goers still had time for fun—and books. Despite the snow, Booklist’s Book Buzz on Wednesday, March 21, was standing-room-only. A number of additional Book Buzz events took place at the Association of American Publishers’ Book Buzz Stage throughout the conference. On Wednesday evening at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the LJ/School Library Journal Author Party attracted a crowd of over 150 (in a cliffhanger, the museum was closed for the day owing to the weather but opened for the event). Lisa Scottoline and daughter Francesca Serritella could not make it to discuss the latest in their New York Times best-selling essay series, but all the other authors were in attendance. Divided into three groups moderated by LJ Prepub Alert editor Barbara Hoffert, they included Beck Dorey-Stein (From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir, Spiegel & Grau) and Falguni Kothari (My Last Love Story: A Novel, Graydon: Harlequin), who discussed drawing on the personal to write fiction and nonfiction alike; Malcolm Hansen (They Come in All Colors, Atria), Richard Lawson (All We Can Do Is Wait, Razorbill), Tom McAllister (How To Be Safe, Liveright: Norton), and Fatima Farheen Mirza (A Place for Us, SJP: Hogarth), who discussed leaping into other states of mind in novels mostly touching on social issues and/or featuring young protagonists; and Walter Mosley (Down the River Unto the Sea, Mulholland), Elizabeth H. Winthrop (The Mercy Seat, Grove), and Cutter Wood (Love and Death in the Sunshine State, Algonquin), whose works addressed issues of social justice and personal relationships. Bridging literature and service innovation, on Thursday morning the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) hosted a demonstration of its new Short Story Dispenser in the grand foyer of its Central Branch. The ATM-like kiosk provides users with free one-, three-, or five-minute stories, in a range of genres, on a sheet of paper the size of a receipt. At the PLA How-To Festival, library staff from all over presented 20-minute sessions of practical programming and workshop advice in the PLA Pavilion, from How To Create an Escape Room to How To Make Slime, Stress Balls, and Other Sensory DIYs to How To Enroll in Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Librarians from FLP’s Culinary Literacy Center presented an hour-long session on Culinary Literacy 101, profiling the dynamic and innovative work of the center—the first of its kind in the country—to build a facility, partner with community organizations, train staff, and find presenters to create a robust and inclusive lineup of educational and aspirational programs around culinary literacy and food safety. They also offered practical, nitty gritty advice for anyone thinking about establishing a kitchen classroom in their libraries, and provided instructions for creating a movable kitchen in a box. The Bubbler at Madison Public Library, WI, and Anythink teamed up to commandeer an interactive artists’ space they called Lovey Town. With the help of guest artist Michael Velliquette, a cheerful crowd created miniature artworks and mini-me paper dolls for the gallery, while learning about ways to engage local artists for programming in their own communities. If social media is any indication, librarians left PLA 2018 energized and full of ideas to bring back to their own libraries—and, to everyone’s satisfaction, by the conference’s end there was no snow left to slow them down.
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