Over the past 20 years, I have attended more than 100 professional conferences. These have included the History of Science Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Historical Association, and the American Council of Learned Societies, to name but a few. None of these prepared me for the 2021 American Association of School Librarians (AASL) National Conference, which was the first in-person ALA conference held since the pandemic began.
After 10 flight delays and 2 flight cancellations, I finally reached Salt Lake City in the early morning of the last day of the conference. After a few hours sleep, I made my way to the morning general session and was met with a hum of energy, boosted by ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall. In her opening remarks, she drew on the history of her current home of Pullman, Illinois, named after the railroad magnate. Anyone who knows George Pullman’s history, especially the story of the Pullman Porters, would recognize the poignancy of her words. She likened libraries to switching stations, as places of technological and informational transfer. She also cited John Lewis’s vision that internet access is crucial for our citizenry, that it is a fundamental plank for every citizen’s three rights – the right to education, the right to employment, and the right to health care. She told us, “This is our time,” and she asked us to shout that back at her in a moment of call and response. I was now fully awake.
I have never attended a conference where the speakers and the audience interacted in such a way and this was not the only time that attendees were asked to lift their voices. I saw up close how these librarians exhibit immeasurable bravery as they champion books on topics that rock school districts – standing on the front lines of the intense debates over critical race theory, LGBTQIA+, banned books and other issues that have disrupted education in the US. They have my deep thanks.
What does attending the AASL conference have to do with ACRL, you may ask? Although I am new to the associations and still learning, I can see how our divisions reinforce each other. In both groups, students occupy the center, and they are supported by three essential legs – libraries, faculty, and staff. If any one of those legs is weakened, it destabilizes the whole structure. Both divisions also emphasize research and strive to make the library the intellectual hub of their institutions. After all, many of their students will one day be our students.
Most importantly, both divisions demonstrate support for equity, diversity, and inclusion and that support is lived in the pre-collegiate community. For example, students from a Latinx background comprise 25% of K-12 students, and that percentage will only grow since this demographic is projected to become the majority cultural group in the U.S. in 2050. Because the pre-collegiate population is more diverse than that found in the collegiate world, there is danger that the pandemic will exacerbate the diversity gap between our two educational missions as fewer students attend college. College enrollment fell by 3.5% between 2020 and 2021, representing more than 600,000 fewer students. Community colleges, the most diverse in higher education, fell especially hard, by 9.5%. It is hoped that freer access to community colleges might reverse that trend, but we must remain vigilant for EDI.
How can academic and research librarians more effectively work with our school library colleagues? When school librarians teach their students about information literacy, instructing them in how to research a topic or how to spot misinformation, all of this helps these young minds succeed in college and in life. It would be interesting, perhaps, to see future conference proposals where AASL and ACRL members team up on projects, where students interested in a topic can see it through to their collegiate careers. How rich would that be?
You can read more about the 2021 AASL National Conference in the excellent coverage from American Libraries magazine. The next AASL National Conference will be held October 19-21, 2023, in Tampa, Florida. I hope to attend – and arrive on time.