Not Neutral | ALA Annual 2022

The 2022 American Library Association Annual Conference returned as an in-person gathering at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, June 23–28. While participants and exhibitors were largely enthusiastic about seeing each other face to face, often for the first time since the Annual conference in June 2019, COVID, the erosion of abortion rights, and a range of intellectual freedom challenges and privacy issues were front and center in many conversations—both in person and online.

masked conference attendees packing the show floor
Conferencegoers pack the show floor on opening day
Photo courtesy of ALA

The 2022 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference returned as an in-person gathering at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, June 23–28. While participants and exhibitors were largely enthusiastic about seeing each other face to face, often for the first time since the Annual conference in June 2019, events were overshadowed by the June 24 announcement that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, and many attendees turned out to protest in front of the Supreme Court building.

Final attendance totaled just over 14,000 registrations—8,023 in-person attendees, 5,133 exhibitors, and 834 signed up for the Digital Experience only. The numbers represented a sharp dip from the last in-person Annual, also held in DC, which saw a total of 21,460 registrations (according to an ALA spokesperson, the association usually has a goal of 10,000 attendees at Annual). Nonetheless, exhibitors on the show floor reported good traffic and good business, particularly on Saturday and the early parts of Sunday.

The conference’s Digital Experience, for those who did not attend in person, offered access to more than 70 sessions. These included four Main Stage sessions and two virtual speakers, 43 educational sessions, 13 News You Can Use sessions, and nine governance meetings—though not the Membership Meeting, to some attendees’ dismay.

At least part of the low attendance can likely be attributed to people’s reluctance to spend time in a group situation—including travel—while COVID still presents a threat, especially now that mask mandates on planes and trains are a thing of the past. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test were required for admission, and masks were mandatory in the conference center, but several conferencegoers on Twitter reported seeing vendors and presenters unmasked. Almost immediately, reports began to surface on Twitter of people testing positive when they returned home. Attendees advised one another not to ascribe sore throats and headaches to “conference crud” even if they initially test negative, and to continue to test and isolate if they have symptoms. ALA asks attendees to notify them by email at confs@ala.org if they experience any symptoms or test positive at any time during or up to 14 days after the conference. That information will be held strictly confidential and will only be used to inform other attendees of the possibility of exposure.

COVID and the erosion of abortion rights weren’t the only concerns setting the tone for the conference. Recent anti-LGBTQIA+ attacks on Pride Month programming and displays, intellectual freedom challenges, and privacy issues were front and center in many conversations—both in person and online.

 

OF BOOKS AND BUNNIES

masked woman on petting brown and white rabbit with conference show floor in background
Peacebunny Island offers attendees a chance to relax and pet comfort-rabbits-in-training
Photo courtesy of ALA

Despite the lower-than-usual turnout, exhibitors were reportedly positive about the traffic on the show floor. “The book publishers’ booths were packed throughout the show,” said LJ Advertising Director Roy Futterman. “The authors’ lines were as crowded as I have seen in many years. Exhibitors were glad to be back at the show interacting in person for the first time” since 2019.

More than 270 authors and illustrators presented their books and signed copies, with continuous programming from eight live stages. The Zine Pavilion offered zines and chapbooks, videos and readings by creators, and the chance to connect and craft. The Now Showing @ALA Film Program screened nearly a dozen full-length documentaries. And attendees could watch a wide range of authors record podcasts at the Live From the 25 Podcast Booth.

One of the most popular exhibits was Bunny Island, an oasis of Astroturf in the center of the show floor, with a cohort of comfort-rabbits-in-training sponsored by Peacebunny Island. For a $5 donation, conferencegoers could take a break from the ideas, worries, and general busyness of Annual to sit down for a moment to commune with Oliver, Cinnamon, and a host of other gentle rabbits. Once trained, they will be sent to give comfort to the children of Uvalde, TX. (What makes a good therapy bunny candidate? “The ones that don’t bite,” one of the handlers told LJ.) And while the 2022 ALA Annual conference offered a wide range of deeply important subjects for the library community to think and talk about, given the many concerns and questions in the air, stopping to pet the bunnies provided a needed—and welcome—pause in the proceedings.

 

ROE ROLLBACK

Masked protesters outdoors holding up signs reading
Librarians for Choice and other protesters outside the Supreme Court
Photo by Emily Farrell

Many first read the news of the ruling to end constitutional protection for abortion on their way to Annual, and on Friday evening many conferencegoers gathered outside the Supreme Court building with pro-choice signs and an abundance of outrage. The peaceful protests continued into the night and over the weekend.

The decision was the subject of wide-ranging discussions throughout the conference. “I know that yesterday, millions of activists were born,” journalist Maria Hinojosa said in her speech on June 25. Twitter users shared resources on the #ALACC22 hashtag such as the #LibrariesResist Free Speech, Intellectual Freedom, & Protests list. On June 27, a Council vote on a Resolution on Body Autonomy, Equity and ALA Conference Sites, which proposed to stop holding conferences in states that have banned abortions, was defeated; many librarians from trigger ban states expressed their personal anger at the ruling, but also that they now, more than ever, need continued support and solidarity from ALA and the field while bearing the brunt of attacks on books by and about queer and BIPOC people, which includes holding events where they can afford to attend.

For those remembering past conferences, it was difficult to escape thoughts of the joyful atmosphere at the 2015 Annual during Pride Weekend in San Francisco, when the Supreme Court had just ruled to guarantee same-sex marriage throughout the United States—a ruling now potentially under threat, given that Justice Clarence Thomas called for the Court to reconsider Obergefell v. Hodges in his Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion. “Can we get in our time machines and flee #ALAAC22 for #ALAAC15?” asked one Twitter user.

 

CONSIDERING NEUTRALITY

As book challenges and bans escalate across the country, mis- and disinformation proliferate, and issues around censorship and privacy receive increasing attention, the question about whether libraries are or should be neutral is amplified—and Annual was no exception.

In addition to meetings of ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation and Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), sessions examining related topics included a look at how libraries can help patrons parse the information they encounter on online platforms (“The Algorithm Stole My Democracy: Libraries Grappling with Misinformation in a Polarized Society”); how library workers can use the information-gathering techniques used by journalists (“Intellectual Freedom, Media Literacy, and Access to Information: A Conversation with The New York Times”); and a session sponsored by ALA’s Library Instruction Round Table (LIRT) on working with a variety of populations to question the systems behind the creation, production, and dissemination of information (“Critical Information Literacy Applications for Academic, Public, and School Libraries”).

One of the most discussed, and most controversial, sessions was “Unite Against Book Bans,” which featured OIF Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone with author and 2020–22 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds, former librarian and author Nancy Pearl, and Jorge Flores, Library Ambassador from Bell High School, Washington, DC. The conversation circled around librarianship, freedom of expression, and book challenges. Reynolds recounted responding to a critic at a reading with patience and grace. Pearl addressed collection challenges, noting that taking books off library or school shelves silences voices that need to be heard. Part of that process, she said, was “facing up to your own prejudices—what did I not want to add to the collection?” Her answer, in the instance she was discussing, was Holocaust denial books, which she personally found offensive, but thought that the library needed in order to understand those viewpoints. Banning books, she added, is much more nuanced and it’s much more difficult than one often tends to think.” Later in the discussion, Reynolds agreed with the need to consider the complications around book bans.

Pearl’s statement angered many who heard it, with responses ranging from Twitter comments to an article in the Jewish Insider pointing out that Holocaust denial is harmful misinformation, and others took up the commentary. Some took issue with Reynolds being tagged along with Pearl in critical comments; author and CEO of We Need Diverse Books Dhonielle Clayton tweeted, “We needed to report what happened w/Nancy Pearl’s comments, however, this lack of clarity led to days of misinformation & led to an entire community thinking Jason Reynolds co-signed this.” Reynolds later spoke with writer Liza Wiemer, who posted that “under NO CIRCUMSTANCES does Jason Reynolds support inclusion of Holocaust denial books for Holocaust education…. Like many of us, he grapples with our legal system and the protection of rights.”

Pearl also tweeted that Reynolds “had nothing to do with my ill-chosen example,” adding, “I’m horrified that I gave the impression that I advocate buying books that deny the Holocaust for a public or school library. I do not” (although at least one person responded to Pearl’s statement by posting a 2017 article in The World in which she states that she has put such books on her library’s shelves).

Pearl addressed the article, and her comments at Annual, in a recent statement to School Library Journal. “The statements I made as a panel member and in the Tulsa World reflected how long ago I went to library school and how long it’s been since I worked in collection development. I got my MLS from the University of Michigan in 1967, where I was taught that libraries were value neutral and should include all viewpoints in their collections…. [T]imes change and libraries and librarians live in a very different world today, something I didn’t really have to consider until the ALA panel,” Pearl said. “Were I involved in collection development today, I would make different decisions. There is obviously a tension between the ‘value inclusive/include all viewpoints’ ethic and the ‘dangers of misinformation’ ethic, and the changing views within the library profession now appropriately reflect our changing information environment.”

Despite the wide range of concerns in play during the 2022 Annual conference—many of which encompassed both the personal and political at the same time—conferencegoers came prepared to engage with each other and the issues of the day. For in-depth looks at sessions and speakers, stay tuned for more conference coverage from LJ.

Author Image
Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?

We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?