Library Leaders, Authors, Actors, and More Headline Library Conference | ALA Annual 2022

Speakers at the 2022 American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference, held June 23–28 in Washington, DC, featured an engaging lineup of leaders from within and outside the library world that included authors, actors, journalists, and creators.

Philip Lee, Jane Park, Patty Wong, Christina Soontornvat, and Linda Sue Park, standing together and smiling
Philip Lee, Jane Park, Patty Wong, Christina Soontornvat, and Linda Sue Park at the ALA President's Program
Photo courtesy of ALA

Speakers at the 2022 American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference, held June 23–28 in Washington, DC, featured an engaging lineup of leaders from within and outside the library world that included authors, actors, journalists, and creators.

A dynamic roster of writers included journalist and author Maria Hinojosa; actor and author John Cho in conversation with author/illustrator Grace Lin; comedian, actress, producer, and author Tiffany Haddish; producer, screenwriter, and author of the “Goosebumps” series R.L. Stine; author Celeste Ng talking to librarian and author Nancy Pearl; “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cocreator Kevin Eastman; actor, producer, director, and children’s book author Channing Tatum; and a discussion between authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan.

Taking the home field advantage, Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden spoke with Nancy Davenport, university librarian emerita at American University and formerly director of library services at the District of Columbia Public Library System. The two spoke about moving among multiple types of libraries—prior to her current role Hayden served as CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library, MD, and Davenport held leadership positions at the Library of Congress. Both agreed that the most critical issues at the forefront of library work, whether in a public, academic, or special library setting, are censorship and mis- and disinformation; Hayden made note of a new term, “knowledge destruction.” She added, for library workers in this day and age, serving as one of the nation’s most trusted sources is “not only something to be proud of, but can be a source of difficulty.” Both advised library staff to step outside of their own institutions’ walls and see how they can share resources with libraries and organizations of all types in their community. And, added Hayden, while what they said to the ALA audience might be interpreted as preaching to the choir, “Even the choir needs to practice.”

The ALA President’s Program, moderated by ALA President Patricia “Patty” Wong, featured Jane Park, senior content strategist for Google Kids & Families; authors Christina Soontornvat and Linda Sue Park; and Philip Lee, cofounder of Lee & Low Books and publisher of READERS to EATERS in a conversation focused on “Advancing the Asian American Story: A Conversation with Publishers, Literacy Advocates, and Storytellers.” The panel discussed their influences, their work, and the importance of representation and unlikely allies, from Sesame Street to the creators of L.A. fusion cuisine.

 

FOCUS ON THE FCC

Patty Wong and Jessica Rosenworcel seated on stage
Patty Wong and Jessica Rosenworcel at the Opening General Session
Photo courtesy of ALA

Wong also took part in the Opening General Session, in conversation with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. The FCC has been a major force for broadband service in libraries during the past decade, helping connect rural, tribal, and underserved libraries through the federal E-Rate program and working with Congress to develop the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) during the height of the pandemic.

Rosenworcel, the first woman to head the FCC, is well versed in the challenges posed by digital inequities and the technological needs of individuals and communities to participate in daily life. She has also seen firsthand how libraries have stepped up during the COVID shutdowns and beyond, she told Wong. As of April, the FCC has helped support the connectivity needs of more than 900 libraries, 11,000 schools, and 130 consortia.

The sustainability of these programs is very much on Rosenworcel’s mind as well, she said. E-rate—which she called a “quiet powerhouse”—was created by Congress in 1996 and has been updated; she hopes for more of the same. The ECF also depends on Congress for its continued funding. She recognized in 2015, while talking with librarians and school administrators, that this generation of students was struggling with the digital divide. “And then there was the pandemic,” she told Wong. “I don’t think we can stop until 100 percent of us have access at home, and that includes every student.”

Earlier that day, Rosenworcel and Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Director Crosby Kemper had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the two agencies to jointly promote public awareness of federal funding opportunities for broadband. This partnership will focus on communities where broadband access is particularly challenging, such as rural areas and Tribal lands, publicizing information and developing outreach materials and events, among other efforts to help expand digital inclusion. Rosenworcel realized the importance of outreach while working to break down jurisdictional barriers to participation in E-rate and the ECF, and feels that the new initiative will connect not only individual libraries but entire communities.

“What makes you so optimistic” about closing digital divide? Wong asked.

Said Rosenworcel, “If you are going to be in public service, you owe it to the present and the future to believe you can make positive change.”

 

THE FIFTH FREEDOM

Reginald Dwayne Betts, Randall Horton, and Tracie Hall seated on stage
Reginald Dwayne Betts, Randall Horton, and Tracie D. Hall in the panel discussion "Defending the Fifth Freedom: Protecting the Right to Read for Incarcerated Individuals"
Photo courtesy of ALA

ALA is currently revising its standards for library services to the incarcerated. With that work in mind, Executive Director Tracie D. Hall took the stage for “Defending the Fifth Freedom: Protecting the Right to Read for Incarcerated Individuals” with writer and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts, founder of Freedom Reads; San Francisco Public Library Jail and Reentry Services Librarian Jeanie Austin; poet and University of New Haven Professor Randall Horton; and Enrique Rivera, a bilingual outreach specialist at Multnomah County Library, OR.

Although the panelists had all had encounters with law enforcement as young people, their circumstances varied widely. Austin, Betts, and Rivera grew up in under-resourced households—“I was a legit baby genius,” said Betts, but was always told as a child that he would end up in prison—while Horton’s parents were professionals who encouraged his love of reading. Betts, Rivera, and Horton spent time in prison; Austin encountered her first detention center as part of a library school program.

When Betts was in prison, he noted, he had to work for a month to be able to buy a paperback book. In 2020 he founded Freedom Reads, which builds microlibraries of 20 to 40 books in prisons—because books on a shelf alone, he said, don’t create reading communities. He worked with architects to design wood shelves that could be adjusted to fit different spaces, and tapped friends to help him curate a collection to serve different populations. Betts has brought writers into prisons across the country, sending 200 copies of their books along with them.

Often, others pointed out, there are books but no support for those selecting them. During his six years in prison, Rivera recalled, there were books but few that were representative of his lived experience—mostly, he noted, because not a lot of staff shared it. Horton participated in a writing program while incarcerated, noting that reading “made me feel like a more complete human being” and helped him, on release, reimagine his life. He has been working to help install recording studios and creative centers in youth facilities, and added that it’s critical that those incarcerated and those who hold the keys can find a common language to communicate with one another.

Austin, who has advocated extensively for providing materials and information within prisons, noted that the carceral system and social problems such as the drug crisis are deeply intertwined and need to be addressed together. As far as their work around access, “We need to look outside of what a library is and think about a whole social support system,” Austin said. “We have to hold a big picture of what’s going on so that we can hold the humanity of the people who are inside of jails and prisons.”

 

CHOOSING COURAGE

Nicole A. Cooke and Luvvie Ajayi Jones standing together
Dr. Nicole A. Cooke and Luvvie Ajayi Jones at the Closing General Session
Photo courtesy of ALA

For the Closing General Session, Dr. Nicole A. Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science talked with author, speaker, and podcast host Luvvie Ajayi Jones.

Jones, who recently published Rising Troublemaker: A Fear-Fighter Manual for Teens—a book Cooke called “a great manual for allies, and hopefully accomplices”—wants to recruit more troublemakers to help fight injustice, both in and out of the workplace. “We live in a world that often finds us shellshocked and stunned, and oftentimes feels like a dumpster fire,” she said. “How do we exist in this world with hope?” The way to make a positive impact is through disruption, she noted, invoking civil rights activist John Lewis and his directive to engage in “good trouble.”

“To be a troublemaker in a deeply unjust world is to be somebody who is actively pushing against what’s not OK,” said Jones, urging people to engage despite fear of consequences, feelings of disengagement, or just being tired of being the person who always speaks up. She understands, she said, but wants to challenge those attitudes—“Any room that you are in, it’s your business.” Acknowledge your power, she said, and assess the reality of what the punishment you fear might actually look like. “If you thoughtfully challenge an idea in a room and that gets you fired, you were working in a cage anyway,” she noted.

There’s a difference between niceness and kindness, Jones pointed out. “Nice” is weaponized against women, but we need to be more intentional about kindness, she said. Speak up for those not in the room and honor who they say they are, whether they’re watching or not.

Jones also addressed the realities of doing this work, and how being fearless can get people of color labeled as angry, or “not a good fit.” “How can organizations be more inclusive in actions, not just words?” asked Cooke.

Prefacing her answer with the caveat that she’s self-employed and hasn’t worked for someone else for years—“Don’t let me get you fired”—Jones went on to address who might see themselves in her comments, urging them to separate out someone’s disagreement or body language from their perceptions of aggression. “Kill the fragility,” she said, and “kill the idea that I’m supposed to sound just like you.”

As for self-care and collective care tips, Jones advised audience members to always have moisturizer in their bag, and to know when to retreat; for community care, make sure to check in on each other often. “This whole thing is scary, but in the absence of fear there is no courage,” she said. “The next time you’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, remember: You’re being asked to choose courage. It’s not an indictment, it’s a challenge.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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