Monday morning I heard the music in the Hilton’s elevator and it was then that I realized the stress was beginning to dissipate. That evening, I slept through most of the train ride home yet, I was wiped out on Tuesday. ALA is overwhelming.

If you’ve never been, understand that this annual conference of librarians is so large that there are only 10 cities in the US with facilities large enough to handle it. This year, the Friday through Tuesday event had 30 official hotels. Shuttles were provided to move attendees between the facilities. Conference events included presentations, poster sessions, vendor’s exhibit halls, resume service, roundtables, town hall sessions, governance meetings, awards presentations, speeches, cooking demonstrations, author talks, book bikes, a Google Lounge and more. To help keep up, there was a website, printed guide, app and daily newspaper. In addition, there was the opportunity to network, to meet with friends you only see at the conference and numerous social events.

It’s an introvert’s nightmare and a field of landmines for marginalized people. I know that my survival requires that I avoid both a roommate and returning to work as soon as the conference ends. At some point, I’ll have to stop letting my time get so heavily booked because it gets brutal. After reading April Hanthock’s reflection on her experience and some responses to it, I began to consider my own experience at annual; I was ready to dig it.

There were a few conversations this year that brought home the fact that I’m a hybrid: while I’m old enough to be an Old Head Librarian, I’ve not been in the library field long enough for my contemporaries to be the colleagues I know best. I respect and honor their work because Claudette McLinn, Satia Orange, Paulette Brown Bracy, Deborah Taylor, Oralia Garza de Cortes, Chrystal Carr Jeter and numerous others did the work to create the safe spaces for us inside the ALA and bless these women warriors as they continue to fight the good fight! We stand on their shoulders and find security in their presence and oh, how our brown bodies, our Native, queer and disabled bodies need to feel safe, want to feel safe but Sarah Park Dahlen, April Hathcock, Sujei Lugo, Lettycia Torrones, KC Boyd, Nicole Cooke and a growing roll call of new librarians know that without the work they do to pushing forward, that fleeting security built by their predecessors will be lost. So, they push forward into the committee meetings, award dinners, plenary sessions and yes, even the exhibit hall where the microaggressions, incivility and white fragility are real. I can’t discuss all the places I’ve experienced it, but its real and I push forward so the next generation won’t have to.

Most consider conferences as a break from their routines; a place to go to learn new ways, to network and to refresh. As marginalized people, we do get some of that as we find more people like us than we do in a typical work day but we find something that girds us for another year of battle. For me, it’s the CSK Breakfast. The Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder dinner? Not so much, yet I will attend because I know my presence girds those artists on the dais for one more year. Sarah knows the panel she organized to radicalize the ALSC competencies will strengthen everyone in that standing room only space to go back and radicalize their libraries for one more year. Tad Andracki, Sujei Lugo and Angie Manfredi know that their presence on the Newbery committee will heighten the discussion and maybe, possibly hopefully alleviate misrepresentation, racism and stereotypes in the selection process. And as nice as these things sound, they leave battle scars. Our language is filled with ways to express privilege and drive down oppression and we hear and feel that. Ignorance of books we cling to as classics leads many to announce their blindness and booksellers still claim that diverse books don’t sell. We get talked over and pushed aside and in the process are reminded that too many think we are invisible.

It’s that CSK Breakfast that recharges me. Oh, it’s not without landmines of it’s own, but I find community and purpose there and I am reminded there in that space why I am a librarian.

 “There is no lack of interest in books for and about people of color. I’ve seen the faces of mothers, fathers, and children light up when they find my books and other books that reflect their skin tones, cultures, and values. How do we make sure our books are being found in stores? How do we get more people of color into the publishing industry? How do we better invest in black titles and authors that have a history of earning and are in demand? How do we support independent bookstores and school libraries in diverse communities? How do we support daycare centers and Head Start programs that need books? How do we reach a demographic that the industry was not created to reach? How do we let readers know that their dreams are possible? It will not happen until we invest in new systems that address the challenges that impede these communities from being served. The kids and the families are not broken. The system is.” Javaka Steptoe

How is that not a call to action??

How can I not think that next year, I’ll adopt a daycare and add books to their library each month and, if I can do that then why can’t a publisher, or why can’t you?

I think of all the money publishers spent wining and dining librarians and authors over the weekend and the huge inequities in this process. While marginalized authors are finally including in this circus, I look around the spaces and wonder where are the other librarians of color? How do small presses compete with this? I remember a panel I did last year and one of the questions we explored was how could publishers support libraries and librarianship. That’s a tough proposition because all of this smells of something inappropriate. Yet, there is a relationship here that reinforces what the other does. These social events provide editors, authors, publishers and librarians ways to figure each other out and find ways to ultimately get books to readers.

The conundrum of ALA is that we need the safe spaces provided by the ethnic caucuses yet, we cannot cling only to those spaces, should not have to cling to those spaces to be fully realized librarians. We owe moving forward to the past as well as to the future. And that leaves scars.

Were you there? What was your experience?

4 thoughts on “#alaac17

  1. That line in the speech about reaching a demographic that the publishing industry was not created to reach has stuck with me. How many other social entities could we say the same thing about today?

    I appreciate that you and April are willing to share the very real stress that is created by these conferences. It stands in sharp contrast to the ease with which I can navigate this type of event. I have more to do to make ALA comfortable and equitable for everyone.


  2. I was there, Edith. I presented a poster session at the Diversity Fair on books from the 2017 awards list for In the Margins Book Committee and walked the aisles passing out leftover brochures to the both major publishers and small independent presses. This year, my homemade brochures got the best response from publishers than ever before. I couldn’t believe how much more responsive they were to the brochures compared to business cards in the past. I stayed away from the meetings that cause knots to form in my stomach. For I so agree with you, it is a tense experience to have to fight for voice and representation in every path you tread. I didn’t even stay at a conference hotel. On Sunday morning, when I arrived at the tables for the CSK breakfast by 5:20 I discovered others already there, for it was our greatest honor to ensure as seamless of a program as humanly possible. I stood by the children’s book bags and even took the last few to my table to secure them, because we didn’t want any child in attendance to be overlooked. In a soldout room of 600, my table of strangers bonded with me from afar by keeping others from taking my seat, because they knew I could not sit down at the table until later. I didn’t cry when we all sung the Negro National Anthem, even though I saw all around me, others in my generation that knew all three verses because they, like me probably sung it each day in our classrooms, before integration occurred. I didn’t cry when Javaka shed tears. I broke down from the power of the spirits of the ancestors, however, when the Honorable Ashley Bryan got up and shouted to the angels the Langston Hughes poem, “My People”, for that was the next thing we recited in my classroom as a little girl, after “Lift Every Voice” was sung. I broke down in the joy of remembrance. It rejuvenated me. I took notes like a child in school when Jason Reynolds admonished to the world that youth of color seek the security of literature reflective of their lived world, a literature that keeps them safely “nestled in the dirt” and secure, for isn’t that what we all crave, a safe and secure space?


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