2019 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting Report

By Pam O’Sullivan

I want to thank you, Edmonds Friends, for allowing me to attend the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Seattle in January.  It was an amazing—and educational—experience. A real eye-opener.

Before I go any further, I want to pass along to you a couple comments about Friends.  At a panel discussion, I’d identified myself as a Friend of Edmonds Library and asked a question. All of the panelists, who were from across the country, were emphatic in comments about how important Friends of libraries are in general and how much they help fund important programs for libraries. After the session, a librarian from Whatcom County came up to me and raved about what she’s heard about the Friends of Edmonds Library—what a strong and amazing group we are. At another session, a librarian sitting next to me from one of our Sno-Isle libraries said she’d heard glowing reports about the Edmonds Friends.  Well…she’d just lunched with our very own librarian, Richard, who had been boasting. But now she’s one more person who knows about the important work we do. So, both locally and broadly, Friends are really, really important, necessary, and supremely appreciated.  And you, in particular, have a growing reputation!

After attending the conference, I’m a little embarrassed to say that my experience of libraries over my lifetime, from a little kid on, has been of important buildings filled with stacks of books and welcoming library staff who give information and guidance–all for free. In recent times, my husband and I have tried to visit libraries where we travel, both locally and across the country, such as in DC, the magnificent Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library in Manhattan.  But again, it’s been the books, the stacks, the collections, and, in some cases, the amazing artwork I see.  Which I now know are only a small piece of what libraries are and offer today.

I’m guessing some of you might have attended ALA conferences in the past.  Can I see hands, if so?  And that some of you are now or have been librarians or staff in a past life–? Hands? Well, for those of you who answered yes, you have probably experienced up close the transformation of libraries over time. 

For me, this ALA Midwinter Meeting gave inspiring new insights into libraries and librarians in today’s world.  They’re vital community-service hubs that provide much more than books and information. And they face immense and evolving challenges as our communities and world change.  Today, some libraries are even beginning to hire social workers to help with their changing customer base.

I have to admit that I was a little overwhelmed by the flood of information that was presented in the sessions I attended.  My life work didn’t give me context for the specific library information I heard. I took tons of notes, just wrote what I heard and hoped I’d understand more of it later, afterwards, once home.

That didn’t happen as much as I’d hoped, but I can give you a peek into my general take-aways from the conference:

I attended seven sessions, part of a committee meeting and part of Robin DiAngelo’s powerful talk, based on her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.  A packed room and an inspiring, timely talk about race.

In the sessions:

I learned about the importance of taking our library’s surveys, and not passing them by. They provide valuable feedback to help our own library system better assist patrons and make changes, but also to provide data to boards of directors and for use on funding applications.  Surveys for our local libraries can also provide valuable information to help the library field at large track and meet changing societal needs. 

I also learned that libraries can be great equity equalizers.  Such as programs that provide early access to technology for young children under five.  Through story time, and by making tablets, proprietary devices and e-readers available for check-out in- or outside of the library, giving access to kids who don’t have them at home. These are purchased by libraries’ operating funds, grants and monetary donations.  Again, Friends came up as vital funders of these media resources.  Note The Seattle Times today had an article on newly released World Health Organization guidelines for screen time for children under five.  This session at the ALA did note the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for this age group, which they noted.

Another session talked about how libraries are competing against our increasingly Amazoned world of tailor-made experiences.  Customers today expect to get what they want, when they want it—which is now. 

This speaker used the analogy of Stitch-Fix–an on-line shopping service. It surveys customer interest in apparel, gathers sizing and style information, and once a month, automatically delivers a box of clothes personally selected to meet those expectations. The customer selects from the box, purchases what they want, and returns what they don’t. This helps the service better refine the customers’ interests.  New boxes are delivered monthly. Then, of course, there’s Alexa, which gives immediate answers to customers’ questions or requests.  The speaker noted that the tailor-made experiences of Stitch-Fix and Alexa, for example, are what the library is competing against today. It has to deliver to customers what they want, and anticipate those “wants” as quickly as possible. So, she asked, what if your library experience were like shopping at Stitch-Fix? She suggested libraries have the opportunity to survey patrons to gather their reading interests, such as:

  • What genre do you like?
  • What do you dream about?
  • What do you like to read?

And, like technology, anticipate and deliver books to meet those needs and interests—now, before they ask.

The point is, she said, not to change who libraries are, but how they deliver the experience.

Some libraries are offering programs in Computational Thinking, or CT. CT teaches children how to break problems and thinking into smaller parts. It teaches them complex problem-solving, critical thinking, active learning, and judgment and decision-making to prepare them for more advanced thinking in our computerized world.  This is another program that fills in the education equity gaps in our communities. Some kids may not have the benefit of being exposed to this way of thinking in their schools, so some libraries are filling this need.

In healthcare, patients today are expected to be more involved in their own healthcare. There are organizations to help libraries teach patrons how to access health information online, to sort real from fake information, and to understand what their health information means. Some libraries provide health kits that can be checked out—such as blood pressure cuffs—or provide services that target specific populations, such as seniors.

Maybe the most interesting, and most information-intense session, for me was a presentation by the Gensler Research Institute with a national team of architects, designers and strategists to explore meta- and micro trends impacting public libraries. This was packed with demographic data and trends, and included their draft of a library building design to best meet these changing trends.

Their research noted that: “The public library’s most basic mission has been to make knowledge and information universally accessible to the public. The scope of the library’s service offerings has expanded greatly over recent decades, particularly its social-services portfolio. This is causing the institution and the public to rethink its fundamental mandate and its role.”

Gensler offered the following Future Scenarios for libraries:

  1. Challenging POLITICAL CLIMATES may force libraries to confront complicated issues without national/ state-level policy prescriptions;
  2. Libraries may increasingly seek PARTNERSHIPS with private companies and/or philanthropic organizations and explore more revenue-generating services;
  3. The network of spaces that comprise library systems will be more ADAPTABLE + FLEXIBLE + MULTI-MODAL;
  4. Libraries will seek to expand their presence throughout communities by reaching BEYOND TRADITIONAL LIBRARY WALLS.

Finally, a panelist in one of the sessions asked, “What do libraries have that’s good for us?” and offered this list:

  • “Spaces”
  • Social infrastructure to help fight inequality
  • They’re free
  • Access to information
  • Trusted:  Librarians are more trusted than any other occupation
  • Values of equity, social justice, freedom of information
  • Tech savvy
  • For users, digital literacy, cultural experience and play
  • Enrich life
  • Enhance schools and education

This is just a tiny bit of what was in the sessions I attended and in what the conference offered in its vast line-up of sessions.  Plus there was a huge exhibit hall downstairs packed with publishing houses showcasing their new line-up of books. It was a booklover’s paradise!

So, over the two days I attended, my understanding of libraries and of their amazing, dedicated staffs simply exploded into boundless appreciation and respect for all they offer, do and are challenged to meet on a daily basis.

As a sign of that appreciation, I would ask that you spread the word among your friends and Edmonds neighbors about the wonderful programs that our own Edmonds Library provides. Perhaps bring a neighbor to an event—our book sale, a music event, bring a parent and child for story time, a teen for SAT practice, anyone for healthcare assistance. You might also forward them the Edmonds Library monthly online listing of events to help make them aware of the great community resource our Edmonds Library is for everyone.

Again, thank you for giving me this eye-opening opportunity!