When the library community last met for the biennial Public Library Association Conference, in February 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee, an uncertain future was very much on the minds of its members. The year ahead would include a high-stakes national election. The library e-book market had grown contentious again. And the American Library Association was in the midst of an ambitious reorganization with a new executive director, Tracie D. Hall, at the helm. But no one could have anticipated what was to come just weeks later.
On February 29, the final day of the PLA conference, King County, Wash., reported what was then believed to be the nation’s first death from Covid-19. Just days later, on March 17, the ALA for the first time in its history recommended that all libraries across the nation close their doors to the public. It happened that fast. The PLA 2020 conference would turn out to the last major in-person library conference for almost two years, with two ALA annual conferences, one Midwinter Meeting, and the January 2022 debut of the ALA’s LibLearnX all forced to go virtual only.
In what feels like a pandemic milestone, the 2022 PLA Conference, set for Wednesday–Friday, March 23–25, in Portland, Ore., will be the first major library conference since Covid-19 forced much of the world into a historic shutdown. PLA is one of the largest ALA divisions (second only to the Association of College and Research Libraries), and its conference is one of the most vibrant, popular, and well-attended ALA events, frequently drawing around 8,000 attendees or more.
“I think we all need this conference badly right now,” says PLA president Melanie Huggins, director of the Richland County (S.C.) Public Library. “Registrations are really strong. We miss each other as colleagues. We need this to inspire us, to keep going and to keep doing the difficult work ahead. We are very optimistic about having a really great showing in Portland.” And perhaps most importantly, Huggins says she is confident the 2022 PLA conference will be safe. “The PLA board has looked hard at what we need to do to move forward with the in-person meeting, and we feel very good about where we are,” she says. “It’s also really heartening to see the numbers of Covid cases going down.”
Indeed, in Oregon, the declining case numbers look promising. Covid-19 infections and hospitalization rates have been rapidly dropping as the omicron variant spike recedes—so much so that Gov. Kate Brown announced on February 28 that Oregon has accelerated plans to lift its indoor mask mandate. As of March 11, masks will no longer be required indoors, although they will continue to be strongly recommended for anyone who is unvaccinated or at elevated risk.
While PLA 2022 will be the first large-scale library conference since the pandemic, it’s not the first. In October 2021, some 1,500 school librarians and administrators gathered in Salt Lake City for the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) biennial national conference. And the Association of Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) held an in-person 2021 national conference in Sparks, Nev. While smaller in scale, the impact of these events for attendees was massive.
“Arriving to the banquet hall for our kickoff keynote and meal, my emotions got the best of me,” wrote ARSL president Kathy Zappitello, executive director of the Conneaut (Ohio) Public Library, in a post-ARSL conference message to members that she shared with PW. Watching her colleagues reconnect in person, Zappitello noted, “was a magic that I felt deep in my heart and soul and one that I will never forget.”
What will the moment be like at PLA, with thousands of librarians once again gathered together for a major national conference? Special, Huggins says.
“I cannot wait to thank the thousands of public library workers who will be in Portland with me for the service they deliver,” she adds. “They deserve so much gratitude. And my hope is that the people who attend, whether in person or virtually, will be inspired to keep moving forward.”
Feel-good moments aside, there is, as Huggins suggests, “difficult work” ahead for the library community.
A glance at the 100-plus sessions included in the PLA educational program reflect some of the steepest challenges the library profession has ever faced.
Among them, the pandemic has exposed long-running issues around library worker stress and safety, which remains a critical concern given the unpredictable way Covid-19 variants tend to emerge without warning.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion remains a top priority following a social and racial justice awakening, within the profession, in our communities, and in terms of library collections.
Meanwhile, a chilling, politically-motivated rise in book banning in schools and libraries nationwide, targeted primarily at works that deal with racial and LGBTQ issues, looms as a fundamental threat.
“The book banning and censorship issues actually go hand-in-hand with diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Huggins points out. “When you look at the content that is being targeted by these organized efforts to remove items from schools and libraries, it is for and about BIPOC students and families, and members of the LGBTQ community. So the timing is great for this conference, for us to come together and talk about how we stand for intellectual freedom and how we stand for every member of our communities. We will use this time at the conference to support each other, to talk about what’s going on in our communities, and to share resources and strategies to uphold the intellectual freedom values we depend on.”
And while the pandemic may not be over, Huggins says that librarians at now least have some ideas of what they are up against, and some strategies to share.
“We’ve gotten used to things changing on a dime,” she adds. “We’ve seen this virus bubble back up after a period of thinking we might be coming out the other side, but now it’s like, okay, we know what to do here. Like the rest of the world we’re ready for this to be over. But in the meantime, we have gotten better and stronger in our decision making.”
Keynotes and Big Ideas
As in previous years, the 2022 PLA conference will feature two excellent keynote speakers bookending a packed professional program.
The opening keynote will be delivered by bestselling author and podcast host Luvvie Ajayi Jones (Wednesday, 8:30–10 a.m.). On her podcast, Professional Troublemaker, Ajayi Jones engages her guests in conversations about living life with courage and conviction. Ajayi Jones also hosts her own social platform called LuvvNation and is cocreator of the #SharetheMicNow2020 global movement, which amplified the voices of Black women by swapping social media platforms with white women with large followings. Her 2016 bestselling debut book, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, received critical acclaim, and her latest, 2021’s Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual, debuted on the New York Times list with strong reviews.
The 2022 PLA closing keynote will be delivered by writer, actor, and former White House staffer Kal Penn (Friday, 5–6 p.m.). Perhaps best known for his starring roles in Designated Survivor, House, Mira Nair’s The Namesake, and the Harold and Kumar franchise, Penn took a break from his acting and writing from 2009 to 2011 to work in the Obama administration. His first book, a memoir, You Can’t Be Serious, was released in 2021.
The Big Ideas speaker series—billed as PLA’s version of TED Talks—returns to kick off each day’s conference program with a thought-provoking, inspirational talk. The PLA 2022 series begins with bestselling author, attorney, and entrepreneur Brittany K. Barnett (Thursday, 8–9 a.m.). With a focus on transforming the criminal justice system, Barnett founded two nonprofits to carry out her life’s work: Girls Embracing Mothers, dedicated to empowering girls with mothers in prison, and the Buried Alive Project, which fights for people serving severe sentences because of outdated federal drug laws. Barnett’s dedication has resulted in freedom for numerous people serving extreme sentences for federal drug offenses—including seven clients who received executive clemency from President Obama. Her 2020 book, A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom, was selected as an NAACP Image Award nominee, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, and was chosen by Amazon editors as the #1 book of 2020.
Record-setting Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider will kick off PLA’s last full day of programming (Friday, 8–9 a.m.). With an impressive 40-game winning streak, Schneider became the most successful woman ever to compete on the show, and the second most successful overall, trailing only Ken Jennings. Schneider is also the first openly transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions. Raised in a Catholic family, Schneider suppressed her gender identity well into adulthood, but now uses her celebrity to stress the importance of trans representation, shifting the focus from trans oppression to trans accomplishments.
Exhibits and more
Just as in pre-Covid days, the PLA 2022 conference will feature a bustling exhibits hall, with hundreds of publishers and vendors registered to exhibit at the Oregon Convention Center. The show floor will feature vendor booths, as well as event spaces, including the popular Book Buzz stage, the career center, and the How-To Stage, which will feature a lineup of 20-minute “hands-on” sessions provided by and for conference attendees.
The exhibits hall will open with a reception (Wednesday, 3–6 p.m.); the floor will then be open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. on Thursday and will close the following afternoon with another brief reception (Friday, 1:30–2 p.m.). For a full list of participating vendors, visit the PLA website.
In addition to speakers, education programs, and exhibits, PLA will once again offer a range of ticketed events for attendees. The always popular Children’s Author Breakfast (Thursday, 7–8 a.m.) will feature Dhonielle Clayton, Alex Gino, Rex Ogle, and Traci Sorell.
Also popular are the PLA author lunches, which offer attendees a chance to hear fascinating talks and to socialize and network with their colleagues from around the country. The first lunch will feature Clothilde Ewing (Thursday, 12:30–1:45 p.m.). A journalist by training and a former member of the press team for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, Ewing’s debut picture book, Stella Keeps the Sun Up (Simon & Schuster, Mar.), is the first book in a series featuring a young girl who schemes to keep the sun up in the sky so she won’t have to go to bed.
Friday’s author lunch will feature Linda Holmes (Friday, 12:30–1:45 p.m.). A novelist, pop culture correspondent for NPR, and one of the hosts of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, her bestselling 2019 debut, Evvie Drake Starts Over, follows the unlikely relationship between a young woman who’s lost her husband and a major league pitcher. PW’s review called the book a “satisfying crowd-pleaser.” Tickets are $60 and are still available for both events. Visit the PLA website for more information, and to reserve seats.
In what figures to be one of the most fun events of the show, this year’s Audio Publishers Association Press Play (Thursday, 5:30–6:30 p.m.) will celebrate all things audiobook, and it’s free and open to all attendees. The event—which has become a favorite among past PLA Conference attendees—will feature a panel discussion and q&a with popular authors and audiobook narrators—and will be immediately followed by the PLA 2022 All-Conference Reception (Thursday, 6–7:30 p.m.).
Set to appear at APA Press Play: Jordan Ifueko, author of the bestselling Raybearer series and other stories, including short fiction in Strange Horizons; popular British actor Gildart Jackson, who has narrated more than 300 audiobooks and is the winner of an Audie and multiple Earphones Awards—although you may also know him as Giles the Butler from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Emmy winner Sonia Manzano, the actor who defined the role of Maria on Sesame Street; and bestselling author Brian Selznick.
And for those not traveling to Portland, the 2022 PLA conference will feature an expanded virtual conference, with live programming across all three days, including livestreams of the opening session with Ajayi Jones, the Big Ideas series, and the closing session with Penn. There will also be at least 11 time slots of educational programming, each featuring two live sessions to choose from. The virtual program will also feature a host of author interviews, a virtual conference happy hour, and more.
For virtual attendees, on-demand access to recorded programs will be available for one year, except for the opening session, the Big Ideas series, and the closing session, which will be livestreamed only.
Most PLA 2022 conference events—including all preconferences and concurrent program sessions—will take place in the Oregon Convention Center, with some events at the Hyatt Regency Portland at the center. Check the PLA conference website for last-minute changes or additions.
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A version of this article appeared in the 03/07/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Together Again