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ALA 2019: The week I became a library

By: Rhonda Mihalic | July 01, 2019 |

ALA 2019: The week I became a library

When I was a little girl, books were my everything. My mom fondly remembers me at about 6 months old, just able to sit up on my own, holding a book in my hands and carefully turning the pages one by one. I learned to read years before I went to kindergarten—and once I’d graduated to 1st grade, I volunteered to read to the kindergarteners during my recess. Let’s just say I was made for books and books were made for me. 

So, you can imagine how my eyes lit up when I walked onto the exhibit floor at my first-ever American Library Association convention: the 2019 ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition in Washington, D.C.

But ALA was about more than books. 

So. Much. More. It was about community and creativity. Literacy and legacy. Advocacy and diversity and inclusion and passion and purpose and… Pardon, I’m getting ahead of myself.

As an ALA first-timer—and a relative newbie to the librarian community, since my previous years in education marketing primarily focused on higher ed—seeing the countless booths of books (and smelling that intoxicating new-book aroma) almost took my breath away. But, that was just the beginning. If I thought my breath caught at the sight of ARCs and new releases and reprints, oh my!—imagine my delight when the rest of the wonders of ALA kicked in.

It’s hard to limit my ALA reminiscences to just a few key moments. So hard, in fact, that I struggled for a week to collect my thoughts succinctly enough to draft this blog. Then I asked myself, “If you had to sum up your ALA experience in three words, what would they be?” Easy, I thought: Inspiration, innovation and interaction.

So, while I could wax poetic for pages and pages about how the ALA conference blew my mind, I’ll rein in my gushing and tell you why those three words sum up ALA 2019 for me.

INSPIRATION

As a member of Junior Library Guild’s marketing team, one of my favorite responsibilities is keeping a fresh feed of content flowing to our social media channels--so, when the opportunity arose for me to “live tweet” during Jason Reynolds’ ALA opening keynote, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. 

Jason’s inspiring, metaphor-filled keynote was what I would describe as a spoken-word love poem to culture, literature, community and—of course—libraries. Bounding around the stage with a casual vibe befitting his extraordinarily accessible writing style, he wove story after story together seamlessly throughout his speech, tying all of those lovely threads together at the end with a heart-tugging message about the power of libraries—and how that power extends to and inside all of us.

Here are a few of my favorite tweets from his opening keynote.

Jason Reynolds ALA quotes

I hadn’t fully come down from my Jason-Reynolds high when inspiration struck again. This time, in the form of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who delivered the opening keynote on day 2 of ALA.

Spunky and solid, Justice Sotomayor’s message was engaging in every sense of the word: It was captivating, powerful and thought-provoking—and it was delivered by the Justice as she literally mingled through the crowd, engaging the audience of librarians with handshakes, hugs and photo opps, all while speaking a non-stop soliloquy of wisdom. Her message, which touched on so many key points of being, for lack of a better phrase, a good human, focused on how our differences are what make us a vibrant, inclusive community. 

Here are a few of my favorite tweets from her keynote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor ALA quotes

INNOVATION

As an ALA non-librarian attendee, my brushes with innovation at the conference were likely a little different than others’. Sure, I loved seeing the rotating shelves for organizing returned books, the outstanding streaming services that bring audio and ebooks to life (I’m partial, of course, to our own JLG Digital service!) and the makerspace wonderlands that are perfect for building creative minds.

But the winner for my favorite act of innovation was when I had the privilege of meeting June Jo Lee, co-author of Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix and co-founder of Readers to Eaters.

June is a food ethnographer (a what?!) on a mission to find where food and literacy connect. As a cultural anthropologist, she’s spent her career studying the human connection to food--and as an author and speaker she’s discovered ways to make nutrition education and culinary intrigue more accessible to people, particularly in marginalized communities, through books.

That’s why she and Philip Lee co-founded Readers to Eaters, a publishing and education group focused on the connecting power of food. I was so blown away by June’s story and Readers to Eaters’ innovative mission that I forgot to take a picture of her holding her book.

I submit into evidence the resulting Instagram post:

June Jo Lee & Chef Roy Choy and the Street Food Remix Instagram post

INTERACTION 

I’m not talking digital interaction; although that was certainly a large part of the ALA experience. The type of interaction that made my top-three list is the good, old-fashioned human interaction that comes during an event like this. And, frankly, it was increased ten-fold at ALA because those humans with whom I was interacting were people who’ve dedicated their lives to being accessible and welcoming: librarians, educators and writers.

During the conference, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with so many amazing JLG librarians, authors and illustrators. (SPOILER: Stay tuned as back-to-school time rolls around because we got some JLG Gold Standard Selections signed by authors during ALA that we’ll be giving away to some lucky libraries!)

While I could say something amazing about every author and illustrator I met, these three topped my list of intriguing interactions.

Here are my fan-girl reactions as captioned in the resulting Instagram posts: 

Dan Gemeinhart, author of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise 

Dan Gemeinhart, author of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise: He’s a librarian-turned-author who subscribed to JLG when he was manning the shelves and now his book is displayed on them. How cool is that?

Adrienne Wright, author of Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid

Adrienne Wright, author of Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid: Having grown up in South Africa herself, Adrienne needed to know the truth behind the photo of Hector Pieterson. I was blown away not just by her passion to tell the story, but by her humble gratitude that his family & photographer shared it with her.

Meg Medina, author of Merci Suarez Changes Gears

Meg Medina, author of Merci Suarez Changes Gears: It was a moment of mutual affection and emotion when I met Meg. Me, a newbie to JLG, and her, a long-time Gold Standard Selection author. She shared with me how much JLG’s early support helped her, her books and her career—which made us both a little weepy.

In a nutshell, ALA blew away any expectations I may have had going into it, and it reminded me that libraries and books are a pathway to creating connections that inspire, drive innovation and foster interaction. Or, as Jason Reynolds so eloquently put it in his opening keynote, they’re places where we build HUMAN libraries: walking, breathing safe spaces that carry those same attributes into all the corners of society where they’re needed most.

Thank you, ALA. I’m a library now too.

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Rhonda Mihalic

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