Anyone who still sees libraries primarily as places to borrow books certainly wasn’t onsite for the opening general session of the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco last Friday afternoon. It was an event that set the tone for the entire conference for many of us. It reminded us how interwoven libraries and library staff members are with the communities they serve. And it was a perfect way to celebrate the larger events unfolding around us.
Those of us arriving onsite early in the day for a variety of preconference activities and informal conversations with friends and colleagues were primed for certain levels of excitement. We were about to see more than 22,000 members of our community from all over the United States and other parts of the world. We knew there would be plenty of festivities centered on SF Pride activities (including the Pride Parade) all weekend. And we knew that ALA staff was doing its usual first-rate job of creating a conference guaranteed to inspire onsite as well as offsite Association members by offering more than 2,400 learning opportunities over a five-day period.
We could not, however, have anticipated that we would be together here in San Francisco on the morning that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality would be announced and the afternoon that Roberta Kaplan, a key player in the efforts to achieve marriage equality, would be serving as a keynote speaker onsite. News about the ruling quickly spread around the conference site—Moscone Center—that morning, priming us for a major celebration at the opening session—and Kaplan didn’t let us down with her from-the-heart description of her personal and professional investments in promoting marriage equality.
Drawing heavily from the opening pages of her upcoming (October 2015) book (with Lisa Dickey), Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], she recalled the far-from-encouraging moment when she abruptly and unexpectedly came out to her parents. Visiting her in New York City (in 1991) during the weekend of the annual Gay Pride Parade, they were in her apartment as her mother became increasingly, openly critical of the parade and those who supported it. After Kaplan repeatedly, unsuccessfully told her mother to stop offering those unwelcome comments, Kaplan ended up coming out to her parents by responding to her mother’s question, “What’s the matter? Are you gay or something?” with a blunt “Yes,” and then walked out of her own apartment as her mother continued literally beating her own head against one of the walls.
The overall story she briefly told us (and which remains available, in part, on the American Libraries website), of how she went from being a closeted lesbian to being the litigator who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, unfolds nicely and in much more detail in Then Comes Marriage, as many of us who received advance uncorrected proofs of the book at the ALA Annual Conference are learning now that we have time to read it. And the ample causes for celebration that afternoon—and now—included Kaplan’s comment that the entire struggle for marriage equality has left us with something significant to celebrate: our ability to grow and change just as—she noted—her mother has grown and changed in coming to accept Kaplan as a lesbian and, again, a cherished daughter.
It would have been difficult to predict that there could have been anything to rival the power and inspiration of Kaplan’s presentation on that particular day, in this particular city. Our ALA staff colleagues, however, managed to find it by concluding the opening general session with the first-ever People First Award, sponsored by Tech Logic and given to the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and ALA 2014-2015 President Courtney Young were onsite to deliver the award to Melanie Townsend-Diggs (whose extraordinary commitment to the library and her community earned the award) and to Carla Hayden, Chief Executive Officer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Tech Logic’s press release captures the thought behind the award: Staff demonstrated “exemplary leadership during several days of riots, which were concentrated at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. On April 27, violence ensued after the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died in police custody earlier that month. As tensions increased and buildings surrounding the library burned, Enoch Pratt Library remained open, providing a safe haven for patrons inside.
“‘I did not feel threatened, but wanted people to know this was serious,’ recalls Branch Manager Melanie Townsend-Diggs, who ultimately made the decision to stay open. ‘It’s in my instinctive nature to keep people safe and calm,’ she says. ‘It’s my responsibility to make sure that everybody stayed safe. I try not to be too proud, but I am definitely grateful.’”
There’s plenty more to say about the conference and the people who contributed to its success, and I was still thinking about that opening general session a few days later after repeatedly running into and talking with a wonderful colleague with whom I usually have all too little time to sit and chat. As our third extended conversation in one day was drawing to a close, I told him how much I had enjoyed the exchanges we had had, and he immediately responded by suggesting “a 20-second hug”—a concept new to me and that quite literally is nothing more than an embrace that, in lasting for at least 20 seconds, seems to magically slow us down, deliver a sense of comfort and trust, and reminds us that some things—like enjoying the company of those we love—just cannot be rushed.
As we reluctantly disengaged from the initial 20-second hug—and then, for good measure, immediately fell into another—I couldn’t help but think about how the interweaving of community, pride, and hugs combined to create a sort of tapestry of what ALA 2015 meant to me and to so many colleagues with whom I have spoken during the past several days. It was also yet another reminder that libraries always have been and always will be about far more than books and other elements of the collections. ALA members and guests came together, worked to be sure we included those who would otherwise have been left behind, and left that conference with an even stronger sense of community and pride than any of us could have imagined having—which is, of course, one of the greatest gifts an association can give its members as those members contribute to the making of the gift itself.
N.B. – This is the second in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco.