ALA Annual Conference focuses on transforming libraries, engaging communities

CHICAGO — As libraries reinvent themselves by meeting the challenges posed by emerging technologies, they look for creative ways to engage their communities. These issues and more were examined at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference & Exhibition, held June 27-July 2 in Chicago.

Overall attendance was 26,362, including 15,918 attendees and 6,125 exhibitors.

The weekend kicked off with a series of preconferences, including the American Association of School Librarians’ disaster recovery workshop funded by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. Attendees evaluated their school library program’s disaster preparedness and built a plan to cover any identified gaps.

The first day of conference climaxed with long-awaited opening of the Exhibit Floor. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed attendees at the Opening General Session. Economist Steven D. Levitt, co-author of “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, and the upcoming “Think Like A Freak,” told a standing-room-only crowd, “Now, we may not lead the world in everything, but for certain our country is at the head when it comes to being able to think and to have ideas – yet I don’t think we do enough of it.”

Chicago has been plagued by gun violence. Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina’s church, located in one of Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods, opened a session on the topic of how libraries can make a difference.

Pfleger’s remarks were followed by a panel led by C.M. Winters, a librarian at Malcolm X College in Chicago. This seminar supported the ALA and The Harwood Institute’s “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities” initiative, which positions libraries as conveners and facilitators of community change.

“When somebody says to me how sad, what’s going on in our society, the first I say to them is what are you doing?  I’m so tired of people just being sad,” he said.  He called upon the members of the audience to be 'gamechangers' by volunteering and getting more involved in their communities.  We need to put our arms around each other’s children and be neighbors to each other again.”

He urged librarians to be “first responders” in the fight to improve the quality of life in communities suffering from gun violence issues.

Two Saturday sessions further explored the theme of libraries engaging communities. ALA President Maureen Sullivan and Rich Harwood, president and founder of The Harwood Institute led a panel, the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities, updating members on one of Sullivan’s key initiatives during her term. Sullivan said, “The role and contribution of libraries in ensuring informed and engaged communities is critical to our society and the future of our democracy. Now is the time for librarians to assume this important leadership role.”

The other session, “Community Engagement Conversation: Advancing Library-led Community Engagement, was a hands-on session led by the Harwood Institute’s Carlton Sears, past director at Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoming County (Ohio) and a Harwood certified coach, and another coach, Cheryl Gorman, Harwood vice president of national programs.

That day, ALA teamed up with representatives from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that will help libraries get the citizenship and immigration information they need to serve their communities.

The partnership was discussed in a panel to explore the important role public libraries play in serving immigrant communities throughout the United States. It was held Sunday and moderated by Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The impact of the digital world on libraries was top of mind during the appearance of Dr. Mark Edwards at the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) President’s Program on Saturday. Edwards, the AASL Superintendent of the Year and recent host to President Obama during the unveiling of the White House’s ConnectED initiative, has been called the leader of a “digital revolution” in the Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District, where 6,000 laptops were provided to all 3rd -12th graders. Edwards said, “To be a successful school librarian requires emotional courage,” he said.

Technology was at the forefront of the Washington Update Session, which featured former Obama special assistant Susan Crawford, who focused on a broad range of information policy, including Internet law and communications law.  Attendees learned about a new website,, that can help librarians more easily serve the e-government needs of their communities.

Crawford pointed out the need to expand broadband access and speed in the United States. She cited a statistic indicating that 41 percent of libraries have said their bandwidth is inadequate but added that the percent is actually much higher.

“High speed Internet access is our new general purpose communications network, our replacement for the telephone, and it needs to be treated that way,” she said.

One of the major contributors to literacy in America is the bookmobile, which extends the library walls into communities they serve. Bookmobile Saturday, conducted by the ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS), celebrated this tradition, highlighted by the Parade of Bookmobiles held in conjunction with the ALA Diversity and Outreach Fair.

Literacy was also highlighted by the announcement by AASL of its Best Websites for Teaching & Learning. The sites are free, Web-based sites that are user-friendly and encourage a community of learners to explore and discover.

Saturday also was the kickoff of the Auditorium Speaker Series with computer scientist, musician and digital media pioneer Jaron Lanier, author of the book “Who Owns the Future?”

Lanier spoke about the effects network technologies have had on our economy, asserting that the rise of digital networks led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class.

Lanier said a new information economy will stabilize the middle class and allow it to grow.

Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” whose new book, “And the Mountains Echoed,” is his first new novel in more than six years, followed Lanier.

During his discussion with Booklist senior editor Donna Seaman, he spoke about his childhood in Afghanistan, his family’s subsequent search for refuge in France and eventual settlement in California. Hosseini, who is currently serving as a goodwill envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and is the founder of the Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan, said, “Afghans love their homeland,” adding that when the Taliban fell, close to 7 million expats returned home, a 20-percent increase in the population in a country already struggling to provide basic services.

“I saw people living out in the open with no protection, no water, no services. They are not necessarily the kind of people who read my books, but they are the kind of people who are in my books,” he said.

Auditorium Speaker Ping Fu spoke of her journey from her childhood during China’s Cultural Revolution to becoming a top American innovator and tech entrepreneur, having founded Geomagic, a 3D digital reality solution company.

ALA was honored to present as an Auditorium Speaker Congressman John Lewis, who told how he plans to reach a new generation of Americans with the story of his legendary role as one of the so-called “Big Six” leaders in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

He talked about being inspired to “find a way to get in the way” by the example of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lewis expressed regret at the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, but closed on an optimistic note, saying, “Tell the story. Use (his forthcoming graphic novel) ‘March’ to inspire another generation to get out there and push, to be brave, to be courageous.”

Sunday began with a special message from President Obama thanking libraries for helping provide information to the public about how to enroll for health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act.

The topic was further explored that afternoon, when the Washington Office teamed with several organizations and governmental agencies to host Libraries & Health Insurance: Preparing for October 1, a session teaching library leaders how to serve patrons with the new Affordable Care Act program.

The Washington Office also presented a program, WE TOLD YOU SO…Proven Use of the Library Provision, in which Michael German, senior policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, informed participants about the latest wholesale use of Section 215 by the Administration to get cell phone records from cell carriers and how those carriers turned over all subscriber phone records.

Sunday was a day for demonstrating more ways that libraries can help usher their communities into the digital age.

A new Digital Literacy Tool website was launched Sunday. is being undertaken in partnership with ALA’s Office of Information Technology and Chief Officers of State Library Agencies. The online resource builds upon the efforts of libraries and community organizations as they work to increase digital literacy across the nation. The new website is managed by the Public Library Association (PLA) and funded by an IMLS grant.

AASL announced the recipients of Best Apps for Teaching & Learning, honoring apps that foster the qualities of innovation, creativity, active participation and collaboration and are user friendly to encourage a community of learners to explore and discover.

How will libraries survive in an age when ebooks are changing the library landscape? That was the “$84 Question” raised at the annual PR Forum sponsored by the Public Awareness Committee. David Vinjamuri, brand expert and New York University (NYU) professor Sunday was the guest speaker. In January, he wrote a two-part post about libraries and ebooks on his blog. His presentation focused on the importance of branding in libraries.

Vinjamuri, who is the author of, “Accidental Marketing,” led several hundred  forum attendees through a history from 1450 and the emergence of the printing press, to the present age of ebooks and the conflict between libraries and publishers.

Libraries, he said, are the “keystone species” of reading, the very reason that reading is an important leisure activity.

He said libraries need to spread the results of a Pew study that states that there are 1.6 billion visits yearly to libraries and 2.4 billion loans of materials – at a cost of only $42 per person, the most efficient use of tax dollars in the country.

Sunday’s Auditorium Speakers also included Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2 in 1949 and is now one of the world’s most influential, accomplished and well known adults with autism. Grandin, a bestselling author, doctor of animal science and autism activist, brings her singular perspective to her new book “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.”

The Autism spectrum includes everyone from the “talented, quirky kids” who are high-functioning to those who may live in a supervised setting all their lives.

“With all these different labels, we’ve got to make sure kids don’t become their diagnosis. You’ve got to get to where you are looking at the kid and not the label.”

She advised librarians to participate in activities that allow children to practice social skills, as well as create an environment that is sensitive to children with autism.

Author Ann Patchett delivered the keynote speech in the Public Library Association (PLA) President’s Program. Patchett, who founded the independent bookstore Parnassus Books in Nashville, spoke about her passion for connecting readers with books.

Also on Sunday, the Task Force of the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) welcomed attendees to record their reflections on the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. The video tributes will be played as part of the 2014 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunrise Celebration held during ALA’s Midwinter Meeting on Jan. 27 and will be shared on YouTube.

The ALA President’s Program featured Dan Cohen, founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). He focused on the role and contribution of the DPLA to ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s ongoing initiative The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.

During the conference, ALA launched an advocacy campaign that engages authors in taking a stand with libraries in their quest for equitable access to ebooks.

“The heart of the issue is that access to authors’ works through libraries is being restricted – hurting discovery, reading choice, literacy and the simple love of reading,” Maureen Sullivan said. “Many ebooks are still not available to most libraries at any price. Of those we can buy, the library frequently pays 150-500 percent more than the consumer prize, forcing libraries to purchase fewer copies for library readers.”

The campaign is being kicked off with the involvement of bestselling authors Cory Doctorow, Ursula K. Le Guin and Jodi Picoult.

On Sunday night, the ALA, known for its Youth Media Awards, celebrated the best of the best in adult books, with the second annual Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, which are funded through a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

Richard Ford’s ”Canada” received the medal for fiction, and Timothy Egan’s ”Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” received the medal for nonfiction.

The awards, established in 2012, recognize the best of the best in fiction and nonfiction for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year and serve as a guide to help adults select quality reading material. They are the first single-book awards for adult books given by the American Library Association and reflect the expert judgment and insight of library professionals who work closely with adult readers.  Nancy Pearl, librarian, literature expert, NPR commentator, and best-selling author of “Booklust” serves as chair of the awards’ selection committee.

Ford and Egan accepted their medals and $5,000 prizes in person at the event.

The Auditorium Speaker series concluded on Monday with filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick talking about their recent joint project, “The Untold History of the United States,” as well as what they see as the sorry state of history books available to middle and high school students.

They were followed by Alice Walker, poet and author of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple.” Walker has often talked about not being aware that there was a public library in her hometown of Eatonton, Georgia, until she was 50 years old. She said that many people of color had no idea that there was a public library, and if they had stumbled upon it and gone inside, they would not have been welcomed. “This was a terrible burden to feel, that to even gain knowledge by reading was not something that people of color were expected to want, to deserve, or to have,” she said.

Tuesday concluded with the passing of the gavel from ALA President Maureen Sullivan to her successor, Barbara Stripling, assistant professor of practice at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

Sullivan said farewell to her term by commenting, “The American Library Association in fact is the oldest and largest association. But it is rapidly becoming the most effective and meaningful association to advance the work of librarians, library staff and libraries throughout this country. And it has been a real privilege for me to be a force in moving that forward and helping that to happen.”

Later, Stripling conducted an interview with actress Octavia Spencer who won an Oscar for her role in “The Help," at the Closing General Session. During the interview, Spencer described the 15-year process of becoming “an overnight sensation.”

The American Library Association will hold its 2014 Midwinter Meeting Jan. 24-28 in Philadelphia.

The next Annual Conference will take place June 26, July 1 in Las Vegas.