Showing Up: LibLearnX 2024 Conference Recap

Many of the topics that came up at the 2024 American Library Association LibLearnX conference, held in Baltimore January 19–22, were not surprising to anyone following library issues. People talked about the ongoing and increasing number of book challenges and how to handle them, the opportunities and challenges presented by artificial intelligence, and how to diversify a field whose demographics remain stubbornly flat, to name a few. One subject also on everyone’s mind, however, was the size of the show.

four women standing on stage at LibLearnX president's panel
Donnelly Public Library District Dirctor Sherry Scheline, DC Public Schools School Media Specialist Eboni M. Henry, ALA President Emily Drabinski, and Brooklyn Public Library Branch Manager Nicole T. Bryan at the LibLearnX President's Panel
Photo by Lisa Peet

Many of the topics that came up at the 2024 American Library Association (ALA) LibLearnX conference, held in Baltimore January 19–22, were not surprising to anyone following library issues. People talked about the ongoing and increasing number of book challenges and how to handle them, the opportunities and challenges presented by artificial intelligence (AI), and how to diversify a field whose demographics remain stubbornly flat, to name a few. One subject also on everyone’s mind, however, was the size of the show.

LibLearnX, created to reimagine ALA’s longstanding Midwinter event as an educational opportunity for library professionals, debuted virtually in 2022 and in person in 2023. While the new conference never reached the numbers of pre-pandemic gatherings—Midwinter 2020 in Philadelphia, which took place shortly before COVID closures went into effect, saw some 8,000 attendees—even the smaller conference’s attendance has not shown signs of growth. The 2022 virtual event had 2,183 participants, surpassing ALA’s target of 2,000. LibLearnX 2023, held in New Orleans, hosted 1,712 library workers and supporters and 757 exhibitors, authors, illustrators, press, and ALA staff, with 190 online attendees.

This year’s LibLearnX had 2,006 total registrants, 107 of whom were virtual, and 408 exhibitors and exhibit staff. A number of factors likely contributed to the small size of the conference, including the weather—Baltimore saw two snowstorms in the week leading up to the conference, accompanied by icy temperatures, and travelers across the country experienced delays and cancellations in their home cities. In addition, registrants with an eye on their travel budget may have opted to attend the Public Library Association (PLA) Conference in Columbus, OH, in April—a larger, more centrally located event with potentially fewer weather worries.

But despite modest attendance and a noticeably sparse show floor, conferencegoers were upbeat. Many reported enjoying the less hectic atmosphere and the time to catch up with colleagues and vendors, and the weekend’s speakers, awards ceremonies, and informational sessions featured strong content. While no one may have come up with definitive solutions on how to tackle censorship, AI, or a lack of diversity, the message that surfaced in a range of different contexts was that the first step to taking on any issue is to just show up—and for those who showed up at LibLearnX 2024, there were many rewards.



The conference kicked off with the I Love My Librarian Awards ceremony, celebrating 10 librarians of all stripes from across the country, followed by the opening reception. On Saturday, January 20, the winners of the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were announced, honoring Amanda Peters’s The Berry Pickers (Catapult) for fiction and Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America World (Farrar).

The Main Stage Opening Session on Saturday morning featured ALA President Emily Drabinski in conversation with journalist Michele Norris, founding director of the Race Card Project, a Peabody Award–winning narrative archive of people’s six-word reflections on race and identity that started off as a series of pre-addressed postcards distributed across the country in 2010. Those thoughts have recently been published in book form, Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity (S.&S.).

For the Main Stage President’s Panel on Sunday, January 21, “It’s All Happening at the Library!”, Drabinski invited three librarians to talk about their work: Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) Branch Manager Nicole T. Bryan; DC Public Schools School Media Specialist Eboni M. Henry; and Donnelly Public Library District, ID, Director Sherry Scheline. Each discussed the challenges they face, from Bryan’s urban Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to the wide mix Henry encounters in the Washington, DC area, to Scheline’s remotely rural mountain town (two hours from the closest Walmart, McDonalds, or hospital). And they reveled in the wonderful opportunities found in the communities they serve, including BPL’s mom-a-thon, a spa day celebrating local mothers; the DC book fairs that make sure no student leaves without a book; and the two teepees that are part of Donnelly Public Library—one where adults set the rules, the other where the kids are in charge.

Also on Sunday, Mia Armstrong, a 12-year-old actress, model, and voiceover artist with Down syndrome, was joined by her editor, Sara Sargent, and her mother, Cara Armstrong, to discuss her debut picture book I Am a Masterpiece! (Random House Young Readers), which focuses on Mia’s daily life. When asked what she wants people to know about her and her book, Mia said that we shouldn’t think of Down syndrome as a diagnosis and explained how happy she is to be herself. “It’s really cool, actually. I’m really flexible. I can do middle splits.”



Information sessions covered a solid mix of important topics, including fighting censorship, helping build a diverse library workforce, digital equity strategies, sustainable development, and helping communities during and after natural disasters, among others. Several moderators in sessions on advocacy noted that they were very likely preaching to the crowd, but attendees were interested to hear of current developments nonetheless.

Caroline Kravitz, Sophie McGrath, Fatimah Fatih, and Maxine Wynter from BPL presented on “Creating Diverse Pathways to Librarianship and Leadership,” the system’s innovative program that supports staff getting their MLIS while working and helps eliminate many of the barriers they may encounter. The program includes scholarship money, schedule flexibility to attend classes and complete assignments, mentoring and tutoring, and the support of a cohort. Although BPL has been fortunate in the funding it has received toward the program, panelists offered suggestions for ways that other libraries could get started on a similar program, and all emphasized its value. It’s critical to the library’s mission, Wynter pointed out, because “Our mission is customer service, and diversity is customer service.”

At the “Using Federal Funds to Move from Digital Equity Plans to Implementation” program, the big takeaway was that libraries need to engage now, if they haven’t already, to ensure they can access funding through the Digital Equity Act. This federal investment is administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and will help improve accessibility and provide digital literacy and digital skills training in communities across the country.

As an example, Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) CEO Sonia Alcantara-Antoine shared the library’s work with the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) funding to lend hotspots and Chromebooks. Another look at BCPL’s digital initiatives was offered by Digital Equity and Virtual Service Manager Alexandra Houff in “Building a Digital Equity Strategy from the Ground Up.” Houff discussed how that connectivity funding is put into action in an intentional way using data, collected stories, and community partnerships.

ALA Council introduced two motions related to events in Gaza. The first, the Resolution on Damage and Destruction of Libraries and other Cultural Institutions in Gaza—which focused on condeming the destruction of libraries and other cultural institutions—was brought forth by the International Relations Committee, and passed. The Resolution Calling for an Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza, brought forth by an individual councilor, was defeated for being outside of the association’s purview. 



The show also featured several shorter sessions held in small areas on the show floor. Overflow crowds spilled out of the 30-minute “ChatGPT is a Liar and other Lessons Learned from Information Literacy Instructors” presentation on Saturday morning. Melissa Del Castillo, virtual learning and outreach librarian for Florida International University, and Hope Kelly, online learning librarian for Virginia Commonwealth University, discussed—among other things—how generative AI tools such as ChatGPT can generate inaccurate information. “These are some of the issues with ChatGPT,” Del Castillo explained. “Bias…because it’s garnering content from the web, and everyone knows the web is full of bias, racial profiling, misinformation, malinformation…. Add that to the ‘hallucinations’ [when a generative AI tool presents false information as facts]. So, if you’re doing a research paper, and…it can’t find a book to support your hypothesis, it will create [a fake] one.” Librarians need to help students and patrons understand these issues and how to use these tools effectively.

Kelly and Del Castillo also shared results of their recent survey of library professionals in which 65 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that instruction with ChatGPT is a good idea, but only 43 percent felt that studying with ChatGPT is a good idea. An even greater majority—72 percent—agreed or strongly agreed that they intend to use ChatGPT in instruction, while 67 percent intended to use it in other areas of work, and 79 percent intend to use it in the future.

Bart Schmidt, digital projects librarian for Drake University, also hosted an overflowing 20-minute show floor session on “Teaching Information Literacy Using Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation.” Schmidt discussed the three-credit information literacy course that he has been teaching to first-year college students for the past seven years. “We work on critical thinking, information literacy, and writing,” he said. “Why conspiracy theories? We’re exposed to them all of the time,” he added, noting as an example that many right-wing U.S. politicians have begun publicly espousing the “great replacement” theory. “It’s important for people to be able to figure out when they’re hearing a conspiracy theory…. [And] there’s good research that shows people generally find patterns where there aren’t any.”

Additional reporting by Matt Enis and Hallie Rich. LJ will continue with more in-depth coverage of LibLearnX throughout the next week; stay tuned.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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