If Not Libraries, Then Who? Conference Programs Address Advocacy, Inclusivity, and More | PLA 2024

At the 2024 Public Library Association (PLA) conference, held April 3–5 in Columbus, OH, presentations were notably targeted and useful. And, as a number bore out, those concerns overlap in many areas. 

seated audience members applauding
PLA sessions engaged audiences
Laura Kinser/Kinser Studios

At the 2024 Public Library Association (PLA) conference, held April 3–5 in Columbus, OH, presentations were notably targeted and useful. And, as a number bore out, those concerns overlap in many areas. “Intellectual freedom and diversity, equity, and inclusion—it’s not an either or, it’s an and,” noted PLA President and CEO of Baltimore County Public Library Sonia Alcántara-Antoine. “Both of those concepts exist side by side.”

Several sessions presented actionable advocacy advice and resources. “Challenging Times: Unite Against Book Bans and ALA’s Policy Corps,” was moderated by ALA Public Policy and Advocacy Office Senior Fellow Kent Oliver in conversation with Erin MacFarlane, deputy director at Maricopa County Library District, AZ, and LJ editor-in-chief Hallie Rich. The panel considered the ways that language is growing more sophisticated in anti-library legislation to circumvent certain terms—“pornography” becomes “sexually explicit materials,” for example—to reduce the likelihood of legal challenges. In Arizona, said MacFarlane, a bill redefining the term “grooming” is currently moving through the legislature; if the Arizona Library Association (AzLA) publicly objects to it, that will tie libraries to grooming in the public mind, but inaction isn’t an option either. Instead, AzLA is working behind the scenes with library allies to persuade the governor to veto the bill when it comes across his desk.

Being proactive in the runup to this year’s general election was a subject that came up repeatedly; ALA, and the libraries it serves, are allowed to “educate but not advocate.” The work libraries are already doing can have an impact, Rich pointed out—voter registration, candidate conversations, and serving as a forum where local issues can be discussed. Encourage staff to advocate outside of work time—and to always be clear that they’re speaking personally, rather than for the library. And come November, give staff time off to vote.

Advocacy was the through line of the panel “Cornerstones in a Culture War: The Role of Urban Libraries in Defending Democracy,” in which Urban Libraries Council (ULC) President and CEO Brooks Rainwater moderated a discussion looking at how public libraries can engage in the runup to the election. “The urgency is now for us to get to work,” said Austin Public Library (APL) Director Roosevelt Weeks. “We can’t wait, we can’t stand back in the shadows thinking that someone is going to do it for us.”

“We know just enough to be dangerous,” pointed out Allison Grubbs, director of Broward County Libraries, FL, “and we have to use that danger to help move democracy forward.”

One place to start, panelists agreed, was to hold civic conversations in the library. Encouraging people to use their voices in that safe space empowers them to use those voices elsewhere, to advocate for libraries and other causes they believe in, said Grubbs. “We need to help people put into place a practice of living their truths.”

Brigitte Blanton, director of Greensboro Public Library, NC, spoke to the value of educating about the library as part of advocacy—from keeping policymakers apprised of what’s happening to making sure that all front-line workers understand the collection development policy and can confidently speak to the “why” of what they do. “Equip, equip, equip,” she stated. “Make sure staff don’t see themselves as victims.” And learn your library’s mission statement, advised Grubbs—it can be an important map for talking to elected officials. “When we talk to policymakers,” added Blanton, “they understand: if not libraries, then who?”

That need to educate should extend to a willingness for all to have difficult conversations—about politics, intellectual freedom, and race. “How can we talk about democracy and not talk about race and social equity?” Blanton asked. “Libraries are one of the best places to bridge the divide. We have been doing the work of providing that service to everyone, we’re a trusted institution. So if we are, why wouldn’t we be having that conversation?” APL has staff training for difficult conversations, noted Weeks. “Leaders, help your staff feel comfortable with who they are.”

Libraries also need to look beyond the institutions that can help them to those that need help, said Karl Dean, immediate past board chair of ULC—particularly small and rural libraries experiencing challenges. “Always speak out, and have each other’s backs,” he said. Weeks echoed the sentiment: “If you’re near a community where librarians’ jobs are being threatened and funding impacted, speak up for them.”



Support for those working in the library may have been at the forefront of conferencegoers’ minds, but patron needs were also a subject of concern. In the presentation “Addressing Social Determinants of Health through Community Wellness Hubs,” which looked at a library collaboration for health equity, Kristen Sorth, director and CEO of the St. Louis County Library System (SLCL), MO, and Doneisha Bohannon, director of community health partnerships & collaboration at St. Louis–based BJC Healthcare, emphasized the need to invest time in understanding the resources each partner can bring to the table as well as the true needs of the community.

BJC Healthcare’s $1 billion investment in addressing social determinants of health in St. Louis includes partnering with organizations that can help them reach targeted populations—the library was an immediate and obvious choice.

In November 2022, BJC launched “Community Wellness Hubs” in three SLCL locations that align with key geographic areas where African American residents face poorer health outcomes. The hubs have offered 114 programs on topics such as yoga and healthy nutrition—prioritized based on community feedback—and engaged more than 1,500 residents since opening. A BJC “Resource and Education Specialist” hosts regular office hours across the hub locations, where they connect people with primary care providers. For their part, SLCL’s five social workers also visit the hub branches to help residents navigate social service offerings.



As many of the conference sessions and speakers noted, equity and representation in libraries is an ongoing goal. The PLA President’s Program, “The Black Public Librarian in America” offered a straightforward discussion of how far the library world has yet to go to realize that intention. (The session “Black Men in Public Libraries” dug down even further into the issue—in the United States, Black men hold less than 1 percent of all MLIS degrees.) Alcántara-Antoine, Weeks, and Shauntee Burns-Simpson, director of youth and family services at the District of Columbia Public Library Foundation, spoke candidly about the range of challenges Black library workers face: microaggressions and overt racism, tone policing, the far smaller margin for error they are permitted, and lack of a comfort zone where they can bring their authentic selves to work.

But there is strength in mentorship, they noted. Together with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden, in a video appearance, they pointed to Black library world trailblazers past and present—“there are heroes among us,” noted Alcántara-Antoine. Weeks cautioned those starting out on their professional journeys not to let anyone pigeonhole them; his path to directorship began as a library IT staffer hoping to be a chief technology officer. Seek out mentors who see your potential, not just where you are. Associations are there for support as well—Burns-Simpson recalled that as immediate past president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), she was approached with a number of jobs, and eventually found the perfect fit.

Despite decades of calls to diversify the profession, librarianship still remains largely white, and challenges to the employment, retention, and authority of Black library staff loom large. But the work is important for precisely that reason, they emphasized. “I have to do this for the people who held the door open for me and the people behind me,” said Alcántara-Antoine.

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