Looking Back at ALA's First In-Person LibLearnX Conference

ALA’s second annual LibLearnX conference (the first to be held in person) took place on January 28-30 in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the topics of censorship, equity, and activism permeated the event’s programming.

LibLearnX attendees
Event Photography of North America Corporation (EPNAC)


In its second year, and the first year in person, the American Library Association (ALA) LibLearnX conference brought together librarians, publishers, and creators in New Orleans for a weekend of panels, programming, and interactive discussions, culminating in the annual announcement of the Youth Media Awards. Approximately 1,700 librarians and library workers made their way to the Big Easy as the city launched its Mardi Gras season.

Sessions covered a broad range of topics and formats, including librarian-led presentations that engaged participants with audience Q&As and small-group discussions. Children’s book creators including Carole Lindstrom and Steph Littlebird (My Powerful Hair), Brian Selznick (Big Tree), and Willie Mae Brown (My Selma) presented their newest titles.

Censorship, equity, and activism were prevalent themes among the featured presentations and smaller sessions.


“You may knock me down nine times, but I get up 10”

Ibram X Kendi and Nic Stone (Opening session speaker)
Event Photography of North America Corporation (EPNAC)

The conference opened Saturday, January 28, with introductory remarks from ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada underscoring that 2022 saw the highest recorded number of attempts to ban or restrict library materials since ALA began tracking these stats more than 20 years ago.

The program continued with a keynote conversation between Ibram X. Kendi and YA and middle grade novelist Nic Stone, moderated by director of Indianapolis Public Library’s Center for Black Literature & Culture Nichelle M. Hayes, about their new book, How to Be a (Young) Antiracist. Kendi and Stone discussed the collaborative process of adapting Kendi’s 2019 bestseller for young readers. They emphasized the book’s accessibility for a teen audience that is actively seeking information about racial justice and how to make change. 

Why completely revise and tailor the book for teens?

“Young people have zeal and focus. As we get older and have to do things like pay bills, they still have the time and energy to effect change,” Stone explained.

That discussion set the stage for a weekend in which defending books and book access against challenges and censorship, along with cultivating spaces for community care and activism, were recurring themes.

A mainstage session on Sunday assembled a panel of librarians for “Library Workers: Organize and Activate.” Panelists Candice (Wing-yee) Mack, Elizabeth Martinez, Lesley Garrett, and SLJ School Librarian of the Year K.C. Boyd described how they became involved in activism. Mack thanked Martinez for her work in establishing the ALA Spectrum Scholarship program, which allowed Mack to attend the 2006 ALA conference in New Orleans, where she volunteered in libraries damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Panelists described how activism in a library context can take many forms—from social media campaigns to raise awareness about social justice programming and library fundraising efforts to keeping up momentum to ensure virtual accessibility for programming. Boyd, referencing Cardi B. lyrics, said that despite some losses along the way, librarians should keep fighting no matter how many times they “get knocked down.”



A powerful session on Saturday, January 28, featured a panel of Louisiana librarians (names withheld by request) alongside representatives from the Freedom to Read Foundation and the Tulane University School of Law to present firsthand accounts of challenges across Louisiana parishes, and to prepare attendees with information and resources they might need if and when similar challenges reach their libraries. Panelists emphasized the vital importance of community participation in these efforts, citing the role of citizens in defending books and book displays during school board and open meeting discussions.

Author Ellen Oh was the guest author for a live recording of an episode of the "The Reading Culture" podcast with creator and host Jordan Lloyd Bookey. During the conversation, Oh discussed the origins and efforts of We Need Diverse Books, which she co-founded and where she serves as President and CEO. She underscored the importance of campaigns such as #BooksSaveLives in centering the positive roles that books, libraries, and librarians offer young readers. Those seeking to ban books are “controlling the narrative through fear,” Oh said, adding that it is vital for supporters of intellectual freedom to find the positive narratives to counteract the negative ones.

In a session on “Creating Trauma-Informed Library Workspaces,” Lauren Comito and Christian Zabriskie of Urban Librarians Unite presented findings from their 2022 participatory Trauma Study, which included surveys and focus groups of librarians on the topic of adverse events in the workplace. The full report of this survey, including a list of recommendations based on their findings, can be found on the Urban Libraries Unite website.


Putting things into practice

Throughout the weekend, librarians shared specifics on titles and programs that had worked for their communities, from public librarians from Memphis, TN, presenting on “Rainbow Family Storytime: Yes, even in the South!” to a Deerfield, IL, librarian sharing graphic novels and manga recommendations to help tweens and teens in “Navigating [Challenging] Topics.”

In “¡Bienvenidos a la Lectura! Selecting and Leveling Books for Spanish-Language Readers,” members of the bilingual Spanish youth services team from the Multnomah (OR) County Library shared how, in response to patron requests during the pandemic, they conducted an audit, assessment, and leveling of the library’s Spanish beginning readers collection. The massive project required interdepartmental collaboration, from selectors and catalogers to branch staff. Once they could purchase and level books—bilingual, from all parts of Latin America, diverse representation, and Indigenous languages— the team also created themed bolsitas (book bags ready for check out), focusing on STEAM, popular series, and more, and grouped them into four reading levels. The Spanish Readers team shared how they navigated the process, including developing a proposal, obtaining funding, and marketing the bags.

Bite-sized learning opportunities were also available on the show floor, with short, 20- to 30-minute presentations on a variety of topics. “Making the Library a Period Positive Space” discussed how St. Louis (MO) Public Library partnered with the Alliance for Period Supplies to address period poverty, or the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual education, and other sanitary necessities, with a nongendered approach. “Intersectional Justice in Libraries,” led by Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, discussed how a deeper understanding of intersectionality can help dismantle systemic, institutional, and structural disparities in the library and the profession.

Innovative ways of implementing library programming staples were also popular programs. Staff from the Las Vegas-Clark County Sunrise Library presented on their successful take on story time in “Shadow Puppetry in Libraries: We Tell Tales in the Dark.” The youth services team scripted, illustrated, designed, voiced, and composed music for their own shadow puppet shows. The interdepartment collaboration transformed their programming pre- and post-shutdown, and the talented staff has completed 13 original puppet shows to date, traveling to rural, suburban, and urban branches, as well as presenting them virtually. They also included advice on video and recording software, light sources, and copyright issues.


A quiet but productive show

Participants, including attendees and vendors, remarked on how the smaller size of the conference allowed for more engagement on the exhibit floor. Many conference goers were impressed with the programming, appreciating the strength of the panels and the scheduled that allowed the freedom and time to attend the sessions they wanted to. The balmy weather, nighttime parades, delicious food, and catchy music also made the event memorable.

ALA has announced that the 2024 LibLearnX conference will be in Baltimore, MD, January 19-22.

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