As a teacher librarian in a diverse school community, I am acutely aware that my worldview has been shaped by my upbringing in country South Australia. In June 2023, I had the opportunity to further my worldview by attending and presenting at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago. The experience of meeting with 20,000 librarians from across the world was humbling. As we discussed our joys and challenges, there were many similarities. I felt while I was geographically outside my comfort zone, I was professionally in a familiar place.
One of the most interesting parts of my trip was my exposure to the book challenges and bans currently being experienced in schools and public libraries across the United States. On my first night in Chicago, I attended ‘A Rally for the Right to Read’. The title was not hyperbole; the right to read freely and widely in much of the US is at risk. The keynote was delivered by Dr Ibram X Kendi, Professor in Humanities at Boston University and the author of How to be an Antiracist, one of the most banned texts in school districts in 2021–22. However, this was not the most transformative moment for me – this moment came when a panel of school librarians and a rural mum/graduate student spoke. Jamie Gregory was the 2022 South Carolina School Librarian of the Year, an accolade which in turn brought undue attention to a simple tweet in support of a book, which then led to a tirade of online and offline abuse.
Becky Calzada is the District Library Coordinator in Leander ISD; her district was one of the first to experience the full brunt of book challenges, a title she is not proud of. She has taken it upon herself to guide others and even spoke to this little Australian, delivering valuable advice. In her words, ‘It starts with one book!’ and ‘Don’t give them to airtime they desire.’ The final panel member was Leila Green Little, a rural mum and graduate student in library studies who, along with six friends, have become plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against her county, which has resulted in a preliminary injunction requiring the return of books to the shelves of the public library. The case is ongoing, as is the fight against book bans.
The following day I joined a Chicago School Library Tour with school librarians from the US, Singapore, Kenya and Peru. We visited school libraries serving different communities, with various designs and programs, but one quality was similar: the passion of the staff that work within them. At University of Chicago Lab School, one of the most interesting parts was exploring the Senior Library, replete with old wooden shelves and stained-glass windows. There was even a room dedicated to books published by graduates of the school. In contrast, the Catherine Cook School was a vertical school built in an old shoe factory. The furniture and programs were modern, the playground was on the roof, but the staff had the same dedication to literacy we share as professionals across the world. We finished the day with a keynote message from Judy Blume who, in keeping with what seems to be an ongoing theme, has over the years also had her books banned. She delighted the audience with a passion for ensuring teenagers access books which represent real problems.
After the joy of observing the practice of others, the next morning it was my turn to share. I presented on ‘Finding a New Normal: Library Policies and Practices’, sharing the pivots we took as a school library during the pandemic and the enduring legacy of these changes. I shared that many opportunities had opened up for invigorated programs and practices, but the pandemic also unearthed inequities within our services. No longer will we assume equal access to books and online resources in the homes of our students.
I spent the rest of the conference attending presentations and workshops on topics as diverse as supporting social development with literature, cataloguing, digital literacy and community connections.
There were many highlights of my trip, presentations on the breadth of library topics, meeting the Librarian of Congress, Rick Riordan, and even visiting the Field Museum. I left the conference and the country with a suitcase full of new release books from publishers, along with a box mailed home, but also a toolbox of knowledge and experiences I can draw upon for my career. If you ever have the opportunity to attend an international conference, I encourage you to seize it. Our practice is not a solo act – we are better when we draw on the knowledge and experiences of others, and a global worldview can only enrich this further.