For three hours yesterday, I was shoulder to shoulder with a wonderful group of colleagues facilitating a highly-interactive advocacy workshop for people working with libraries and the communities they serve throughout California. These are people—Crystal Miles from the Sacramento Public Library, Mark Fink from the Yolo County Library, Deborah Doyle from the Sonoma County Library Commission, and Derek Wolfgram from the Redwood City Public Library—with whom I interact on a regular basis via Zoom. We have—up to that moment yesterday morning when we were onsite for the preconference workshop here in Sacramento on the first day of the California Library Association (CLA) 2022 Annual Conference—been designing and delivering online advocacy training sessions through the CLA Ursula Meyer Advocacy Training Fund program I manage, and we will continue to be nurturing the online series that continues next week with a free two-hour workshop on presentation skills for library advocates.
But this was that wonderful moment when, for the first time since the COVID pandemic radically altered the way we all work, we were shoulder to shoulder in an onsite setting with a group of dynamic learners who were also relishing the opportunity to be off camera and physically (rather than virtually) together. There were plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments about how strange it was to be seeing each other’s faces without having those faces framed by the all-too-familiar Zoom boxes that provide us with (cherished) opportunities to interact online. And there was also the not-unexpected attention we continue to give to safety protocols—including those ubiquitous N95 masks so many of us continue to wear in a dual effort to avoid unintentionally spreading COVID or to contract it from unsuspecting carriers of the virus.
But when all was said and done, an underlying cause for gratitude and celebration was that all of us in that particular room were acknowledging that the gift of gathering offered by CLA was another step toward our collective commitment to creating “a new and better normal” rather than sitting passively while waiting for a chance to return to a (pre-COVID) “normal” that, in many ways, was not all that great for many of our colleagues and, frankly, many of us.
As we explored the basics of advocacy and how it is evolving in a world that, two years ago, was forced to switch quickly and (sometimes) adeptly to a world where online interactions needed to be a seamless part of our interactions and collaborations, we noted and celebrated some of the positive opportunities that have come out of the tremendous tragedies and losses COVID has brought to each of us. We even, at one point, held a brief, lively, tongue-in-cheek debate about the advantages and disadvantages of onsite vs. online advocacy. (Taking the side of arguing for the benefits of online advocacy, I was gleeful when Crystal, assuming the playful role of the judge awarding points to Derek and me as we went back and forth, ultimately and very generously called it a draw and observed that our new and better normal might be one in which we recognize the importance of incorporating onsite and online efforts into our advocacy toolkits.) And as the session came to an end, we were gratified to hear participants—our co-conspirators in learning—note the ways in which their time with us was inspiring them to seek new ways to become even better advocates for libraries and the communities they serve than they already were.
It doesn’t, however, end there. The shoulder-to-shoulder interactions extended into conversations on the conference exhibits-hall floor, moved outdoors as some of us took our lunches into the plaza outside the conference center so we could unmask and enjoy lunch and extended conversations. And, as always happens in these conference settings where friends and colleagues are unexpectedly waiting for us right around the corner, the conversations became richer and deeper as friends stumbled upon long-unseen friends and picked up right where they/we had left off.
Which is exactly what happened toward the end of the lunchtime conversation Crystal and I were having in that plaza on a warm, pleasant Sacramento afternoon. As Crystal and I were discussing another session we might soon be doing together, I felt the (reassuring) embrace, from behind me, of someone whose voice I could hear but couldn’t quite place. Relishing that unexpected embrace and the sound of a somewhat familiar voice I couldn’t immediately place, I just sat there and admitted “I have no idea who is hugging me, and I’m not even inclined to want to turn around and immediately find out who it is because it feels so good.” And when I turned around and saw familiar eyes peering out from above the mask that was covering the rest of that lovely face, it still took me several seconds to realize that the embrace and the voice belonged to one of my favorite up-and-coming librarians—someone I’ve known since the point in her life when she was still a student in a Master of Library Science program and I had an opportunity to introduce her to people who have helped shape her career.
You can see it coming: she joined the conversation for a few minutes before having to race off for an appointment she had previously set—but not before we agreed to reconvene later that afternoon to sit together outdoors over hors d’oeuvres and beverages that carried us through a lovely chunk of unplanned time we both had. And our leisurely conversation that led us from afternoon into the early evening hours before another colleague joined us briefly before each of us stepped away to join other equally lovely interactions and conversations which will, no doubt, continue today when all of us are back onsite for another day of learning, scheming, dreaming, and working with cherished colleagues to collaborate toward shaping the world of our dreams.
So again, CLA, thanks for the gift of regathering our community in ways that continue the work we have managed to do in online settings over the past couple of years—and will continue to do onsite and online for the foreseeable future. And thanks for the opportunity to carry us one step further down a road that is still very much in a state of development as we grow accustomed to, open to, and grateful for a world in which we no longer carry on, with any level of seriousness, silly arguments about whether onsite interactions are inherently better than online interactions, or vice versa. We are, step by step, embracing possibilities and relishing where those opportunities may take us—if we actively, positively are active participants in shaping the results those opportunities provide.