The American Library Association’s (ALA) 2016 Midwinter Meeting, held January 8–12 in Boston, was pleasingly free of snow—even if the temperature did fluctuate enough, from nearly 60 rainy degrees on Sunday to well below freezing Monday evening, to make packing light impossible. But weather uncertainties took a back seat to the overwhelming atmosphere of positivity at the Boston Convention Center and Exhibition Center and surrounding venues during Midwinter’s 2,400 scheduled meetings and events. There was a strong sense among attendees, panelists, ALA officials, and exhibitors of libraries being poised to step into the next phase—whatever that might be. Below are some of the event’s highlights; more detailed coverage will follow.
ALL THE NEWS FROM ALA
Some 11,716 librarians, library workers, and vendors, trustees and Friends turned out to share the latest trends, updates, innovations, products, titles, and services. Of these, 8,094 were attendees; another 3,622 were exhibitors—a slight increase over last year’s 11,497 conference goers.
At the ALA Presidential and Treasurer Candidates’ Forum, candidates for the 2016–17 elections stepped up to the podium at the Convention Center Ballroom to introduce themselves and answer audience questions. Presidential candidates Christine Lind Hage, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, and James G. Neal and treasurer candidate Susan Hildreth outlined their platforms and offered their opinions on socially responsible investments for the organization; international outreach; developing a leadership pipeline; the proposed name change for the Office for Literacy, Diversity, and Outreach Services; and their involvement with ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation. In particular, candidates highlighted their visions for ALA’s three current strategic directions: advocacy, information policy, and professional and leadership development.
ALA’s new national public awareness campaign, Libraries Transform, provided a strong theme for the conference’s proceedings. A three-hour interactive session devoted to this initiative, “Libraries Transform: Understanding Change,” brought leadership trainers from Kotter International together with library leaders to answer the question, “What do I need to be doing now to move my library into the future?”
In addition, “Libraries Transform: Civic and Social Innovation” offered drop-in sessions with civic and social innovators for two forums to discuss the changing relationships of libraries and their communities. The “Creativity, Innovation and Change: Libraries Transform in the Digital Age” panel brought together Harvard Law School’s Jonathan Zittrain, ALA president (and the driving force behind Libraries Transform) Sari Feldman, ALA president-elect Julie Todaro, and director of ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) Alan Inouye to examined innovative library environments and how they can become a part of outward-facing library advocacy.
On Saturday morning the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the launch of its second Knight News Challenge on Libraries on February 24, addressing the question “How might libraries serve 21st century information needs?” Challenge winners will receive a share of $3 million in funding toward their projects, and to help guide potential entrants several winners from the 2014 challenge were on hand to discuss their experiences. Jason Griffey, developer of Measure the Future (and an LJ 2009 Mover & Shaker); Alison Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project (an LJ 2015 Mover & Shaker); Philipp Schmidt, cofounder and executive director of Peer 2 Peer University; and San José Public Library’s Erin Berman, whose Privacy Literacy project won Knight Prototype Funding discussed the challenges and learning opportunities involved in the process, and offered good advice for future applicants.
Knight Foundation trustee chair John Palfrey, author of the recent BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books) and a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker (among many other roles), sat in on another announcement: the launch of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries’ (DPL) “Aspen Institute Releases “Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library.” Palfrey joined DPL director Amy Garmer and DPL advisor (and ALA past president) Maureen Sullivan to discuss how the libraries of all stripes can use the Action Guide—the newest companion piece to DPL’s “Rising to the Challenge” report issued in October 2014—to facilitate aspirational conversation, advocacy, and action for libraries. Pilot users of the Action Guide were on hand as well, with positive reports.
An eclectic variety of high-profile speakers engaged audiences throughout the conference. Ken Burns (Grover Cleveland, Again!; Knopf Young Readers), Mark Kurlansky (Paper; W.W. Norton), and Terry Tempest Williams (The Hour of Land; Sarah Crichton) discussed national parks, their favorite anecdotes about their books’ subjects (from Burns: Andrew Jackson was a notorious practical joker who enjoyed moving his neighbors’ outhouses around), and their rituals at the end of either a draft or finished work: Kurlansky blows a conch shell, Burns and his team ring a cowbell, and Williams howls.
Other speakers included writers Andre Dubus III and Chelsea Clinton, designer and media star Isaac Mizrahi, activists Mary Frances Berry and Lizzie Velasquez, library advocate Nancy Pearl, former Library of Congress COO Jo Ann Jenkins, and U.S. Senator Cory Booker, whose closing keynote drew a standing ovation for his call to libraries to help America live up to its not-yet-delivered promise of equity and justice.
A standing-room-only crowd attended the We Need Diverse Books panel. Moderated by YA author Malinda Lo (Inheritance; Little, Brown), this panel featured four additional YA authors: Kody Keplinger, whose bestseller The DUFF (Poppy) was turned into a film of the same name in 2014; Adam Silvera, author of the bestselling More Happy Than Not (Soho Teen); and debut authors Marieke Nijkamp and Heidi Heilig. Silvera shared the frustrations of trying to find a publisher, as he was asked to create a gay character or a Puerto Rican character, but not both. Arguing that labels can be harmful and misleading, Keplinger chatted about her upcoming novel, Run, describing it as a story about friendships instead of a “disabled book” or an “LGBTQ book.” All panelists agreed librarians should promote diverse books to their patrons as they would any other book, since characters can be relatable regardless of gender or genre. By the end, nearly 100 people packed the room with several others standing and listening just outside. The takeaway was to be open to learning and listening before writing about cultures other than your own.
On Sunday morning, the Books on Tape team presented upcoming audio releases, incorporating discussions of titles that had been chosen as Library Reads and those that are part of BoT/Listening Library’s Hear Diversity initiative. The presentation also included footage of narrators in the recording booth, both authors reading their own work such as Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me; Spiegel & Grau) and Helen Ellis (American Housewife; Doubleday) and professional voice actors such as January LaVoy, Mark Bramhall, and Marc Thompson, whose character impressions made clear why he’s cast to narrate many of Books on Tape’s Star Wars novels.
PROCESS AND POLICY
Library Freedom Project director Macrina partnered with privacy advocate Nima Fatemi for “Pay No Attention to the Librarian Behind the Curtain: Virtual Reference and Privacy in Libraries,” a Reference & User Services Association Emerging Technologies Section (RUSA ETS)–sponsored talk on privacy safeguards that libraries can implement. The two discussed a number of services useful for protecting the privacy of patrons and citizens at large—particularly the Tor Project, free software that routs Internet communication along a series of servers worldwide, allowing users to communicate and use the web anonymously. Macrina and Fatemi explained the Tor Project’s nuts-and-bolts operation, defused some common concerns about both its legality and practicality, and provided information for anyone interested in using the Tor browser or installing a server in their library; audience members offered lively advice and encouragement.
First Amendment rights are a critical component of any librarian’s knowledge base, and ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Freedom to Read Foundation “Lessons in Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students’ First Amendment Rights” presented a useful overview of First Amendment issues in schools, from K–12 through higher education. George Washington University professor of law Catherine J. Ross drew on her recent book of the same title (Harvard Univ.) to outline the basic legal principles underpinning free speech in schools, and summarized the important modern cases that shaped the law. Ross touched on book challenges, hate speech, and trigger warnings, ending on a profoundly library-friendly note: “Maybe I sound a little naïve, but I think more speech is better.”
ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG) presented “Glass Half Full: What’s Next for Digital Content?”—a panel discussion looking at the shifting state of ebooks in libraries. DCWG cochairs Carolyn Anthony and Erika Linke joined Book Industry Study Group (BISG) executive director Mark Kuyper, Publishers Weekly Senior Writer and Features Editor Andrew Albanese, and Kelvin Watson, chief innovation and technology officer for Queens Library (QL), New York. Discussion centered on “Digital Content in Public Libraries: What Do Patrons Think?”, the recent report issued jointly by BISG and ALA on library patron interactions with ebooks, as well as consumer trends in e-reading and the innovations in virtual access being pioneered at QL. The takeaway was that while readers still prefer print overall, and libraries continue to compete with Amazon, Netflix, the web, and bookstores, there are still many ways libraries are ideally positioned to win hearts and minds when it comes to digital content. As Albanese pointed out, “Don’t forget: the product is READING.”