Reflections on the 2024 PLA Conference

When an email landed in my inbox inviting me to register for the 2024 Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Columbus, Ohio, from April 3rd to 5th, I knew it held promise. Yet, the constraints of our budget made attendance seem out of reach. On a whim, I applied for a PLA scholarship, and to my surprise, I was awarded one—a golden opportunity that many libraries our size seldom have. Our local Central Plains Library System stepped in and helped with additional travel expenses and soon, I was on my way to Ohio!

Stepping into the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the ambiance immediately struck me with warmth and purpose. Bold displays proclaiming “Free People Read Freely” and “Libraries – the Heart of Every Community” set the tone for an enriching week ahead.

The conference kicked off Wednesday at 8:00 am with a powerful address by PLA President Sonia Alcantara-Antoine, followed by an inspiring talk from Shola Richards, a beacon of kindness in our turbulent world. His words resonated deeply with us, reaffirming our role as librarians in leaving our communities better than we found them.

In the crowd of over 7,000 librarians from across the nation, I made connections with colleagues from Hawaii to Canada. Some hailed from libraries with ample resources, while others, like me, represented small institutions with big dreams. The diversity of perspectives was incredibly enlightening.

Time spent in the PLA member lounge provided a sanctuary for networking and was where I formed bonds with fellow scholarship winners in the spirit of camaraderie. The “Find a Lunch Buddy” initiative proved invaluable, fostering connections that endure beyond the conference walls. I’ve found myself engaging in discussions with some of those librarians on a nearly daily basis since I arrived home, further deepening my professional network and knowledge exchange.

My days at the conference were filled with workshops, each offering insights to enrich my practices. Although the choices were many, I gravitated towards sessions with scalable solutions relevant to my role at the Valentine Public Library. Highlights for me included:

  • Telling Meaningful Stories: Emphasizing libraries’ pivotal role in fostering economic vitality and community cohesion while underscoring that libraries are essential beyond serving children.
  • Libraries and First Amendment Audits: Equipping our staff to navigate unexpected challenges while upholding patrons’ rights.
  • The Library as a Studio: Advocating for original content creation aligned with our mission and brand standards, even within modest means.
  • Putting Our Words into Action: Equipping frontline staff with tools for exceptional customer service.
  • Read Romance/Fight Patriarchy: Presenter Lori Lieberman skillfully debunked misconceptions and societal judgments surrounding romance reading, eliciting laughter from the audience while shedding light on the societal biases ingrained in literary preferences and encouraged attendees to embrace the empowering narratives found within romance novels.

These sessions, alongside the How-To Stage, the Book Buzz Stage, and discussions on programming for children and adults, librarian hot-button issues, and innovative library products, enriched my understanding of the field and fueled my passion for librarianship.

The exhibit hall was enormous and was filled with vendors offering solutions to elevate almost all library services. From independent publishers and big publishing houses to library furniture vendors and tech companies, to security systems and even bookmobile vendors, there was so much to see and learn. One big perk was getting galley copies of new books that will be published later this summer. For those that don’t know, A galley copy is an advance copy of a book. It’s not a completely finalized version, but it’s close enough to send to readers for promotional purposes. Usually, galley copies are the version of your book that comes right before the final proofreading. My poor suitcase was about ready to burst with the books I crammed in! I can’t add these to VPL’s collection but I am happy to share! In the end, the discoveries within the vendor booths opened new avenues for enhancing our offerings at home and I am excited to begin implementing some of what I saw.

The pinnacle of the conference was an exclusive reception for the scholarship winners, where I had the privilege of meeting Mychal Threets, “Mychal the Librarian” of TikTok fame. His dedication to spreading “library joy” was infectious, a testament to the transformative power of our work. Watch for more from Mychal as he assumes his new role as PBS Kids’ Resident Librarian.  He will be collaborating on a social media series centered around real-life library stories, book joy, literacy, and the pure joy that libraries bring to communities.

In the end, the PLA conference proved more than a gathering of professionals—it was a catalyst for growth, connection, and inspiration. As I reflect on my experience, I wholeheartedly encourage others to seize the opportunity to attend future conferences. These gatherings serve as an incredible platform for cultivating innovation and fostering meaningful connections. I came home a changed person and that is what I hoped for!

Carrie Graham
Valentine Public Library