LibLearnX Debuts with Strong Attendance

The first iteration of the American Library Association’s new LibLearnX conference more than met its attendance goals despite having to debut virtually rather than, as originally intended, in person. Just shy of 2,183 people attended, 109 percent of the goal of 2,000. 

LibLearnX logoThe first iteration of the American Library Association’s (ALA) new LibLearnX conference more than met its attendance goals despite having to debut virtually rather than, as originally intended, in person. Just shy of 2,183 people attended, 109 percent of the goal of 2,000. On finances, however, it fell short—attaining only 73 percent of its fiscal target.

Still, on the whole, ALA finances are healthy, reported treasurer Maggie Farrell. The organization is running at a surplus despite a projected FY22 budget shortfall of about three quarters of a million dollars, because its federal coronavirus recovery loans more than cover it and have already been forgiven. Farrell also reported that the strategy of adjusting expenses to income through the year is bearing fruit. Farrell anticipates not only no more furloughs for ALA staff in the 2022 and 2023 budgets, but a raise.

The conference, intended as a “right-sized” replacement for the Midwinter Meeting, utilized a different technology platform from previous ALA virtual events, and debuted a variety of educational session formats, ranging from 15-minute mini-sessions to multi-hour workshops, and categorized by their degree of attendee engagement. These were complemented by a roster of big-name main stage and theater speakers from inside the profession and out, including Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick and National Library Week honorary chair Molly Shannon, as well as Texas school, public, and academic librarians Tamiko Brown, Dean Hendricks, Shirley Robinson, and Ramiro Salazar discussing new approaches to doing equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) work in that environment, and school librarian Cicely Lewis as part of a panel of young adult authors.

The new conference does maintain some Midwinter traditions, in particular the book awards. Tom Lin and Hanif Abdurraqib won Carnegie Medals on the adult side. The 2022 RUSA Book & Media Awards were announced Sunday, including the Notable Books, Reading, Listen, CODES Essential Cookbooks, Outstanding Reference Sources lists, and the Sophie Brody Medal. See School Library Journal for complete coverage of the Youth Media Awards including the Newbery, Printz, and Caldecott.



During the conference opening session, ALA President Patty Wong interviewed U.S. Senator from Hawaii Mazie K. Hirono, the first Asian American woman and only immigrant in the Senate, and author of the memoir Heart of Fire. Hirono spoke to the inspiration she drew from her mother, who escaped a bad marriage, immigrating to Hawaii from Japan and bringing her children and, later, parents. She addressed what drove her into public service—questioning the United States for the first time because of the Vietnam War and learning of the challenges faced by Native Hawaiians. And she spoke to her evolution from a quiet efficacy into becoming more outspoken, despite cultural pressures, in response to President Trump.

“Once you start using your voice in that way,” she said, “there’s no turning back.” She strongly critiqued objections to teaching the history of racism, noting that the same issues facing school boards and libraries are happening in Congressional committee hearings, saying, “I push back, and I think we all have to.” She closed by sharing a vision of a country which is appreciative of, and not afraid of, diversity, and confronts “the racism not far below the surface,” and applauded ALA’s efforts towards that goal.

At the beginning of her conversation with author Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, actress, comedian, and SNL alumna Molly Shannon noted that being named honorary chair of National Library Week felt like “a tip of my hat” to her mother, a librarian, who was killed in a car accident—along with her little sister and cousin, with her father at the wheel, when she was four. Despite starting out on such a tragic note, however, Shannon’s account of her life and career—detailed in her upcoming memoir Hello, Molly!—was entertaining, touching, and very funny. Her upbringing, with an unconventional (and, we later find out, deeply closeted) father, was free-spirited: At 12, she and her best friend snuck aboard a plane to New York from Cleveland—dressed in tutus—and only called home after they were unable to check into a hotel without money. Early in her career, she and a friend came up with the “Mamet scam,” each calling agents on the other’s behalf pretending to be David Mamet’s assistant with fake recommendations from him. “It was win-win,” she explained—the agents were delighted that Mamet was thinking of them, “and they got to meet us!” Hijinks aside, Shannon spoke engagingly about her work, and her refusal to treat her characters with disdain or detachment. If their struggles aren’t a bit embarrassing or difficult to share, she asked, why bother? “I love my characters and care about them,” she said—and throughout her career, her fans have felt the same.



Thematics of the education sessions included EDI; how to improve libraries’ internal culture to address stress, trauma, burnout, and bullying; technology; and how to cope with the dramatic rise in challenges, particularly in schools and particularly to books focused on BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ experiences—many of these, of course, interrelated.

Many of the shorter educational sessions some live and some on-demand, focused on a single speaker sharing their own experience with a potentially replicable project. For example, Elaina Norlin, professional development/diversity, equity, and inclusion coordinator at the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries and author of The Six Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement, in a 15-minute session addressed reasons that EDI programs might fall short: primarily, that they are separated from leadership and focused on awareness. As a result, she said, the people doing the work get frustrated by lack of results and quit. More effective structural change, Norlin advised, focuses on people over policy, handling conflict rather than avoiding it, addressing previous trauma, and aims at transforming the culture and unwritten norms.

Another short session, on Diversifying Your Romance Collection, featured Brigid Black, reference librarian at Lucius Beebe Memorial Library in Wakefield, MA, sharing her basic actionable tips, from looking on NetGalley to see which books are buzzing with bloggers so you know what titles will be big on BookTok and Bookstagram in a few months, to trawling Wattpad to find what the next trends will be instead of chasing them once they hit. She recommended seeking out well-priced indie authors on OverDrive and Hoopla whose work may be available only in digital formats, but cautioned against buying too many titles only in digital, since not all readers have access to e-reading, and subgenres available only electronically may be perceived as lesser. She also recommended sites to follow, including Girl Have You Read, WOC in Romance (no longer being updated, but offering a robust backlist), Reads Rainbow, and Book Riot, as well as following romance authors on Twitter, before closing with a list of must-buy authors in the historical, contemporary, and paranormal/fantasy categories, which can be seen on her slides.

A longer session, Anchoring our Communities, was presented by Alexandra Howard, a business librarian at University of Louisville, MO. She focused on the role of anchor institutions—traditionally universities and hospitals, but now broadened to include smaller places such as public libraries—in benefiting local communities through employment and purchasing power. Her goal, she emphasized, is mutually beneficial collaboration with the local community, an equal partnership. To that end, she wanted to connect local entrepreneurs and business owners to the university’s resources in a way that built on the expertise of local Black business owners. To do so, she partnered with a community development organization to meet with their staff, and then attended a city event for Black business owners to speak with more than 20 local entrepreneurs. From there, she developed a research needs assessment Google form and created visiting scholar accounts so that businesspeople would not be limited to one-hour sessions. So far, she has created 10 such accounts and had four visits to take advantage of library resources. Her main advice to librarians looking to create similar projects is to listen, to treat people as experts on their own experience, and to focus on what librarians can learn from them, rather than launching into what libraries can offer—and not to reach out unless you can commit to having the time to follow through.

Howard has also been working with faculty to create student research projects related to community engagement with historically oppressed groups. One class is partnering with one of the entrepreneurs she’s been meeting with—Aaron Jordan, founder of Black Complex. At his request, the students are developing plans for market research, a membership plan, grants and fundraising, and HR onboarding.

In the second half of the session, Howard challenged participants to work as a group to create a community engaged project with a group of incarcerated women, through a structure focused on how to include the members of the group as equal partners.

Sessions were also strong on on-the-ground guidance (see “How-Tos at LibLearnX 2022 Tackle Cultural Change”) and tech news (see "KCLS, BiblioCommons Machine Learning Pilot Profiled at LibLearnX").



Probably the biggest decisions brought before the ALA Council this conference were the recommendations of the Transforming ALA Governance (TAG) special committee, the latest iteration of the multi-year project which began with the Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness and continued through the Forward Together Working Group. TAG brought forward three independent motions for Council to vote on in concept, with details to be worked out later and voted on again at Annual, followed by a vote of the full membership. Council approved the first two – creating a mechanism to periodically take the pulse of ALA membership and units, and defining cultural goals for a Body of Knowledge (an advisory assembly), including that recommendations should be set by consensus if possible.

However, the third and highest-stakes recommendation, that Council transform itself into such an advisory body and invest the Executive Board-turned-Board-of-Directors with sole policy making authority, was first postponed to a later Council session and then not addressed at that session owing to lack of time. The debate and vote has been postponed to a new Council session, to be held no later than March. A nonbinding straw poll indicated that, prior to debate, a majority of councilors were not in favor of the change. Other new business also postponed to that new meeting includes a proposed resolution to support school and youth services librarians facing increased intellectual freedom challenges, a resolution to promote EDI efforts in the American Association of School Librarians while addressing historical effects of racism, a resolution calling on the United States executive branch to drop all charges against Julian Assange, and a resolution related to structure, composition, purpose, and meetings of ALA council.

Council did pass some smaller restructuring moves, approving an organization-wide dues structure for roundtables, simplifying the membership structure from 11 types to four (student, individual type one, individual type two, and supporter), and increasing the salary threshold for non-salaried memberships from $30,000 to $45,000 to make ALA membership more accessible to lower paid library workers.



ALA Council formally approved the EDI Scorecard developed by the Committee on Diversity and released that year, after some debate noting that it currently focuses only on race and on other identities such as disability or sexual orientation. Among many other updates, Executive Director Tracie Hall reported that ALA staff’s numerous EDISJ initiatives will coalesce around these priorities: Identifying and implementing strategies to strengthen equitable and inclusive hiring practices; creation of an ALA fellowship or residency program to serve as a career accelerator for early to mid-career LIS professionals interested in LIS and/or association management; growing ALA’s capacity to produce original research and analysis of the state of EDISJ in the LIS profession; and adoption of the scorecard. The Joint ALA/ARL Building Cultural Proficiencies for Racial Equity Framework Task Force is seeking feedback by March 2.



In addition to a conference session on Reading & Writing Reviews in a Climate of Book Challenges, LibLearnX served as the platform to spotlight the many things ALA is doing to support libraries through an unprecedented rise in the number of book challenges. The Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 330 unique cases in a three-month period alone, comparable to the full year number for 2019 and nearly twice that of the full year 2020. ALA provided confidential counsel in 275 of those cases and launched a rapid response team. In addition to working with individual districts, the organization is developing a toolkit to prepare libraries for challenges to antiracist materials and trainings. ALA also convened a state legislative summit to address “adverse laws” in October, and released a state legislative toolkit as well. A webinar on managing book challenges in your community from the Freedom to Read Foundation is available online.

In other intellectual freedom news, the Intellectual Freedom and Social Justice Working Group’s term has been extended, continuing its work reviewing neutrality rhetoric and identifying alternatives centering social justice, including in an interactive conference session. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee also presented a Q&A document about problematic authors, and the Freedom to Read Foundation is planning a symposium on “where intellectual freedom and social justice meet” in the form of two half-day virtual events this July.

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