A Human-Centered Conference | ALA Midwinter 2019

The American Library Association (ALA) 2019 Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, January 25–29, saw uncharacteristically sunny skies, a busy exhibit floor at the Washington State Conference Center, and a host of well-attended offerings that addressed civic and social innovation, human-centered design, and support for future leadership.

conference exhibit floorThe American Library Association (ALA) 2019 Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, January 25–29, saw uncharacteristically sunny skies, a busy exhibit floor at the Washington State Conference Center, and a host of well-attended offerings that addressed civic and social innovation, human-centered design, and support for future leadership. Issues of equity, already at the forefront of the conversation, were further spotlighted by a number of reports of racialized aggression at the conference. (Further coverage of Council's response to this issue, as well as its other actions, will be forthcoming on libraryjournal.com.) Total attendance of 9,211 conferencegoers and exhibitors topped last year’s Midwinter meeting in Denver by nearly 1,200.


Speakers at this year’s conference were chosen for their civic awareness as well as box-office draw. Opening session keynoter Melinda Gates, in conversation with Nancy Pearl (LJ’s 2011 Librarian of the Year), spoke to the power of storytelling to change lives and discussed her new book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World (Flatiron). Through her work as cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she said, she not only grew to appreciate the value of the library services the foundation helped fund, but the individual heroes and heroines she encountered over the years—particularly the heroines. “One thing I know about women is that they invest in everybody else. If you want to change your society, you need to give women a voice,” Gates stated, highlighting examples from her worldwide campaign to provide contraception to women in developing countries to her own experiences starting out in tech when it was very much a man’s world (with an appealing side note about pushing for equity in her own marriage). Gates has agreed to serve as honorary chair of National Library Week, April 7-13.

Auditorium speakers Sylvia Acevedo and Rick Steves also spoke from feminist and global perspectives, as did closing keynote Isha Sesay. Girl Scouts CEO and former IBM engineer and NASA rocket scientist Acevedo noted that one of the primary goals of Girl Scouts is civic involvement, and mentioned the importance of positive books for girls. Steves spoke on travel as a political act (also the title of his book) and the choices we make when we step outside our everyday worlds.

Eric Klinenberg

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg delivered the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture, speaking to the central importance of resilient communities in bouncing back from disaster, even after accounting for poverty and other factors—and the central role that libraries play as social infrastructure in building, maintaining, and strengthening that resilience. Powerful women and girls were at the center of former CNN anchor Isha Sesay’s closing session on Monday, January 28, as well—the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by the militant organization Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014; her forthcoming book Beneath the Tamarind Tree (Dey Street Bks.) chronicles the escape and rescue of some of the girls and their rebuilt lives afterwards, with profits benefiting the girls. She also spoke to the nonprofit she started, W.E. (Women Everywhere) Can Lead, which focuses on education and leadership training for girls in Sierra Leone, interconnectedness and the need for the United States to step up and take action, and to her own need to do so: “By not taking a side you are still taking a side,” she told the audience. “That realization propelled me out of the door at CNN to keep using my voice, because I have chosen a side.” She is starting a production company to tell the stories of women and girls and amplify their voices too.

Antiracist activist and scholar Robin DiAngelo, who presented ALA president Loida Garcia-Febo’s President’s Program, addressed white fragility—the fact that most white people are so used to seeing white as the default that being asked to grapple with their privilege causes them distress and anger. “When I talk about ‘we’ and ‘us,’” she said, “I’m talking to the vast majority of people in this room, the vast majority of librarians, and the vast majority of the people sitting at the tables, making decisions that will affect the lives of people who are not at those tables.” Keeping the discussion lively and often humorous, DiAngelo emphasized that U.S. culture offers white people no substantial education on the subject of race, and that it’s easy to fall back on the definition of a racist as someone older, Southern, or ignorant, when young, educated white progressives—who are often unwilling to examine how they perpetrate racism—are the most constant cause of toxicity to people of color. “Racism is a system,” said DiAngelo, “Not an event.”


Many of the sessions offered focused on engagement, innovation, and transformation. ALA’s Symposium on the Future of Libraries offerings included “Racial Equity: Libraries Organizing to Transform Institutions,” “Algorithms, Implicit Bias, and Search Literacy: Exploring Beliefs among Computer Science Students about Search Engine and Machine Learning Models,” and “Building a Future-Ready Workforce: How Public Libraries Can Create Resilient and Entrepreneurial Communities.”

These offerings were bracketed by sessions on social and civic innovation. At Saturday’s “Libraries Transform – Social Innovation” session, Seattle-based innovators Sarah Studer, assistant director of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business, and Arnold Phommavong, AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Seattle's VP of Design for Good, discussed design for social change. Studer explained her journey from solo startup to academia, and how the trajectory has influenced her work to support young entrepreneurs; Phommavong described how design can help support local youth. Human-centered design, critical to both innovators, was a recurring theme throughout many other Midwinter sessions—Phommavong framed the concept with an Albert Einstein quote: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

In Sunday’s “Libraries Transform – Civic Innovation” session, Lesley Bain, principal and cofounder of multidisciplinary Seattle design firm Framework, explained the workings of social bridges—un- or underused spaces that can be repurposed to bring people together and encourage them to interact in a “not creepy” way. Amie Thao, civic designer at the City of Seattle’s Innovation and Performance Team, recalled her experience as the child of Vietnamese immigrants who used her own experiences as a young person who didn’t quite fit in to reach out, in her current role, to others in need in the community. Among the innovations she spearheaded: a five-minute benefits calculator to help individuals see which government services they qualify for.

Several sessions addressed the need to better prepare MLIS students for the realities of library work—and to teach those who may become leaders what they will need to know as well. “A Continuing Conversation – Public Libraries and LIS Education” convened a facilitated group discussion of what is needed in information and library science education, what has been missing, and how those on the ground can step up to help.

The power-packed “Leadership for the Future of Libraries” panel brought together Sonoma County Library interim director (and the inaugural University of Washington iSchool [UW] distinguished practitioner in residence) Susan Hildreth; Chicago Public Library commissioner and CEO Brian Bannon; King County Library System, WA, director Lisa Rosenblum; Seattle Public Library director and chief librarian Marcellus Turner; Washington State Librarian Cindy Aden, and the current UW distinguished practitioner in residence Rolf Hapel to weigh in on what makes effective leadership, and whether it can be taught. Panelists expanded on a number of points, including practicing compassionate leadership (“Everyone wants to be heard,” said Aden; if you listen, “people will follow you”), aligning with community goals, a willingness to change paths and push yourself, the need to take leaps of faith (“If you want to get [things] done you’re going to have to poke the bear and be ready to run,” said Turner), and—again—how design thinking methods can help, as leadership is about creativity as well as knowledge and expertise.

When it came to ALA’s session category “News You Can Use,” the session offered by ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom deputy director Deborah Caldwell-Stone and Freedom to Read Foundation general counsel Theresa Chmara on “Intellectual Freedom and the Law: Issues and Updates for Meeting Rooms, Drag Queen Storytimes, and Library Lawsuits” offered solid advice. The two pulled out the strands of the First Amendment—notably the establishment and free exercise clauses—as well as the ALA Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights, and explained how they come into play when confronting challenges, plus how libraries can protect themselves going forward. Several contemporary court cases were discussed and explained, and individual questions addressed.


For publishers, Midwinter was a hit. “We thought it was our best Midwinter in years both in terms of booth traffic and author program attendance,” said Talia Sherer, senior director, library marketing, Macmillan. Added HarperCollins library marketing director Virginia Stanley, “Attendance was up and we felt it. For sure it had its quiet moments, but during the no-conflict times we had a nice, steady stream of attendees.” For Stanley, “the most pleasant surprise was the never-ending line of people waiting to meet [Closing Session Speaker] Sesay.” Sesay drew 750 attendees, as did Klinenberg, keynote speaker at the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture.

Books that moved on the floor included Casey McQuiston’s debut rom-com Red, White & Royal Blue (St. Martin’s Griffin), Literary Hub columnist Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things (Tin House), and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy (Liveright), following her celebrated debut, Here Comes the Sun. Grove Atlantic drew attendees with John Zada’s In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch; Karl Marlantes’s Deep River and G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, both highly anticipated second novels; and Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, chronicling his four decades in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. Among the in-demand titles at the HarperCollins booth: Chanel Reynolds’s What Matters Most: The Get Your Shit Together Guide to Wills, Money, Insurance, and Life’s “What-ifs,” debut novelist Juliet Grames’s The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, Joshilyn Jackson’s Have I Ever, Jacqueline Winspear’s The American Agent, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, the playwright/YA author’s leap into literary fantasy.

For the first time, United for Libraries (United) scheduled its Midwinter Gala Tea, sponsored by ReferenceUSA, on Sunday rather than Monday afternoon, with great success. The event featured authors Wayétu Moore, Juliet Grames, Chris Pavone, Annie Ward, Clare Mackintosh, and G. Willow Wilson in an elegant setting. “We had more than twice the number of ticket sales and got great feedback from both attendees and sponsors/publishers,” confirmed Jillian Wentworth, United manager of marketing and membership. While the Gala Tea will continue to be held on Monday at Annual, the switch to Sunday at Midwinter is permanent.


The news from ALA’s Washington Office (WO), presented at “Libraries & Public Policy After the Midterm Elections and the Midpoint of the Administration,” was guardedly good, according to WO associate executive director Kathi Kromer, senior director of public policy and government relations Alan Inouye, deputy director of government relations Kevin Maher, and moderator Kent Oliver, director of Nashville Public Library.

The situation on the Hill may not have looked good for libraries at the opening of the 115th Congress in January 2017, said Kromer, given the administration’s threats to cut the budgets of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and a number of other education and library-friendly agencies. “We were at the bottom of a really steep hill,” she recalled.

But out of 13,556 bills introduced in those two years, five of the 443 that were signed into law were ALA priorities: a provision directing the Library of Congress (LC) to establish a public website for free access to Congressional Research Service reports; reauthorization of the Museum and Library Services Act of 2018; and passage of the Music Modernization Act, the Marrakesh Treaty, and the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act. IMLS funding was increased by $10 million despite the agency being targeted for elimination in each of the president’s budgets. And S. 1010, the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act—which would have made the position a presidential appointee—was stopped in the Senate; “Stopping bad policy is as important as getting priorities passed,” Kromer told LJ.

All agreed that much credit goes to ALA’s strong grassroots advocacy and coordination with WO. But there is still much work to be done. While IMLS or LC was not impacted by the recent government shutdown, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget was, which means that the 2020 budget may be late. Assuming that the administration will once again attempt to zero out funding for the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and education, any delay will hamper upcoming advocacy work.

Although the newly Democrat-controlled 116th Congress is largely good news, said Maher, and there are many education and library champions within the House and Senate, the 101 new members of Congress will need to be educated about libraries’ needs—“Most of them have probably never heard of LSTA,” noted Maher. Libraries will have to make a strong case alongside other Democrat-favored concerns like healthcare.

Upcoming issues will include broadband access and funding, copyright law, the upcoming 2020 census, and the possible reintroduction of the Register of Copyright Selection and Accountability bill. At the time, an appeal to examine net neutrality rules had reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (oral arguments were heard by a three-judge panel on February 1; ALA submitted an open letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on February 6 requesting enforceable net neutrality protections).

ALA will also be changing its advocacy strategy, said Kromer, moving away from petitions in favor of year-round grassroots action both in Washington and at the local level. A new website will offer a checklist for monthly advocacy activities and talking points for events like town halls. Find out what your local official’s platform is, she suggested, and reach out to make sure they’re aware of the library connection. “I guarantee you whatever their platform is, there’s a program and a library that supports it.”

Because ALA’s Annual Meeting will be held in Washington, DC, in June, rather than holding its annual National Library Legislative Day at the same time ALA plans to bring in select groups of members at the end of February. “We need everyone’s help to get out to districts,” noted Kromer. “This is from the ground up.”

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.



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