Space to Connect | Editorial

LibLearnX made space for needed conversation.

LibLearnX made space for needed conversation

Lisa Peet headshotOne thing that has always fascinated me about conferences is how they develop personalities. They begin as a series of parts—boxes of books, chairs in rows, tired travelers lining up to check into hotels, badges and lanyards and guidebooks—and then over the course of three or four days, golem-like, the conference as a whole animates into a fully formed entity. Some you leave with a slight feeling of letdown; others turn out to be far more than the sum of their parts. It’s always a bit of a mystery walking into the convention center that first day: Everyone knows what the conference is, but what will it be?

LibLearnX started out as more of an enigma than most. In 2020, when the American Library Association (ALA) announced that it would replace its Midwinter Meeting with a new event—LibLearnX: The Library Learning Experience—many wondered what a reimagined winter conference might look like. We would have to wait a while to find out: The inaugural LibLearnX, held in January 2022, was offered exclusively online because of COVID-19 restrictions, and while the virtual version was safe and accessible, it didn’t quite have a vibe, either.

This year’s event was hybrid, offering both a virtual experience and an in-person option in New Orleans. And while the town had spirit to spare, LibLearnX itself, at first glance, felt a bit austere. Awards ceremonies and some programs were split between the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the New Orleans Marriott; vendor booths were spaced farther apart than usual; and when the show floor opened, it was missing the energy of aisles tightly packed with tote bag–laden conferencegoers pushing past one another to get to the next book signing.

But austerity turned out not to be the vibe at all.

“One of the things that I love about smaller conferences like this is you pass people multiple times, because you’re on such a smaller footprint,” ALA President Lessa Kanani‘opua Pelayo-Lozada told me. “You’re feeling like part of a community.” (ALA will collect feedback and conduct focus groups in coming months to gauge the conference’s—and the hybrid model’s—overall success.)

Speakers, programs, lightning talks, and panels are the beating heart of any conference. But you can also learn a lot on the show floor. Publishers, for example, are a good barometer. They will let you know if the show is falling short of being worth the time, energy, and money they expended to be there. And what I heard multiple times was that while foot traffic was lower than hoped for, the quality of the exchanges they had with curious, engaged, and enthusiastic conferencegoers made up for the smaller attendance. The less-frenetic pace opened up space for more interaction, and people seemed to open up a little.

Nor were conversations in the exhibit hall business as usual. While there was plenty of talk about databases and new releases, it went deeper as well. We were there to talk about library resources. But because the business of libraries, and those who serve and supply them, is freedom of information and equitable access—concepts increasingly under attack in an increasingly polarized country—talk rapidly moved to the broader landscape of censorship and fearmongering. We were, after all, in Louisiana, home to some of the more egregious challenges being leveled at libraries, and an attorney general who recently set up an online “tip line” to report books people disapprove of in library collections.

Colleagues with whom I had only ever talked shop wanted to share the challenges their organizations were weathering and wanted to know what I was hearing. “When did providing information to people who want it become left-wing?” one head of marketing asked me, shaking his head. It was a question without a set answer, but one we’re all burdened with this year.

These conversations were as much pressure valves as they were exchanges of information. We may not have come up with plans to foil censorship on the spot, or bridge the political divide, or change the world—how to do that remains to be seen—but we did affirm that we’re all fighting on the same side.

We all have a lot on our minds these days. LibLearnX was the right-sized event, at the right time, to give people the space to connect. It was a good vibe.

Lisa Peet signature


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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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