Reflections from ALA 2021

This year’s American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference was another boon for overseas attendees, mostly because – like 2020, and again in 2022 – the conference was held virtually. Conference organisers kindly made available over 200 sessions, including recorded livestreams, for on-demand viewing by conference registrants. Even better, these are available for viewing for up to a year after the conference, meaning that a dedicated librarian could theoretically have sat through almost every available session, a feat previously impossible.            

Amidst the book previews and various meetings, the conference’s “News You Can Use” section featured sessions on connecting with communities, promoting discovery, and increasing equity and diversity within libraries. Within the on-demand sessions, a focus on equity and inclusion is apparent, with a number of presenters referencing COVID-19 as an accelerator for librarians to look into increasing accessibility and community outreach. Listening to American public and university librarians share their experiences providing programming and resources for underserved communities, or suggesting new frameworks for teaching digital literacy, one is constantly reminded that Singapore’s librarians face similar challenges. Even after pivoting to online programming and providing continued access to research materials and resources, recent resurgences in COVID-19 cases meant that local libraries will have to keep accessibility and underserved segments top-of-mind, to ensure that libraries continue to maintain equity and inclusion of all groups in our library spaces.

Accessibility and Inclusion

  • Accessible, Not Just Discoverable: Ensuring Accessibility in Digital Collections by Lauren Geiger and Emily D. Harrison (Mississippi State University Libraries)
  • Born Accessible: Creating Equal Digital Learning Experiences for All moderated by Trisha Prevett (Southern New Hampshire University), with Michael Johnson (Benetech), Anaya Jones (Southern New Hampshire University), George Kerscher (DAISY Consortium) and David Mitchell (Guildford Publications)
  • Cultural Responsiveness in the Library: Centering Equity Beyond Collection Development by Sarah Steiger and Kara Thorstenson (Chicago Public Schools)

Geiger and Harrison’s easy-to-understand presentation highlights that universal design literally makes for better design and experience for everyone, and walks through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and steps to establishing an accessibility policy, providing examples for librarians new to the subject. For academic librarians, the Born Accessible panel discussed barriers to access in universities, ranging from content translation across platforms, inappropriate formats, and the need for personalisation to adapt to different accessibility issues. In working with schools, Steiger and Thorstenson shared their experiences updating metadata and tagging to be less racist, sexist and xenophobic, and promoted eBooks and digital reading for emergent readers in schools, to enable all students to annotate, read-aloud, and read all at the same time.

(Steiger and Thorstenson, 2021)

With the upcoming Punggol Regional Library touted as an inclusive library serving users with disabilities or special needs, local librarians can look to American colleagues for strategies and experiences in increasing accessibility of library resources, from providing options to make text more readable, to ensuring software compatibility.

Community Outreach

  • Building Community with Dementia Services by Timothy J. Dickey (Columbus Metropolitan Library), Mary Beth Riedner (ALA-ODLOS Interest Group, Library Services for Dementia/Alzheimer’s), Darby Morhardt Ph. D. (Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease, Northwestern University) and Marie Meyer (ALA-ODLOS Interest Group, Library Services for Dementia/Alzheimer’s)
  • Kayaks and Cameras: How Community Partnerships Provide Access to What Was Once Inaccessible by Ryan Flores, Kristen Z. Jacobson, Patrick Callaghan (Westchester Public Library) and Justin Mercer (Forest Preserves of Cook County)

In noting that libraries can play an important role in slowing down dementia via mental stimulation and learning, socialisation and volunteering, the speakers on Dementia Services also gave plenty of ideas on how libraries can enter partnerships with care facilities and strengthen their presence in the community. Along with resources available in their slides that included programme resources and how to seek out partners, they also talked about options they’ve explored to continue providing services during the pandemic in the United States.

(Dickey et al., 2021)

Finally, the Westchester Public Librarians were actually scheduled to speak at ALA 2020 in person, and the fact that ALA scheduled them again this year highlights the value of this session on community programming and outreach. In questioning the traditional model of library programming, Westchester Public Library attempted to distinguish themselves from other urban public libraries, expand their speaker network, attract diverse audiences and create new value and impact for attendees. Avoiding “standing-order programming”, librarians were certified as Paddle Leaders with the Forest Preserve so they could lead kayaking expeditions with the Forest Preserves’ kayaking gear. Needless to say, it was a hit, and led to funding for further nature-based programming in nearby forest preserves. Although local librarians may not have access to the Des Plaines River, current interest in sustainability and local tourism may provide an opportunity for libraries to consider partnering with tour operators and/or sustainability groups to push programming boundaries and bring library resources outdoors. Curated neighbourhood walks with links to appropriate online resources or eBooks are only the beginning – how else might we encourage patrons to explore their surroundings and pick up new knowledge?


Morhardt, D. and Meyer, M. (2021). Building Community with Dementia Services [PowerPoint slides]. Columbus Metropolitan Library. Presented at ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition.

Steiger, S. and Thorstenson, K. (2021). Cultural Responsiveness in the Library: Centering Equity Beyond Collection Development [PowerPoint slides]. Chicago Public Schools. Presented at ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition. Dickey, T. J., Riedner, M. B.,

Contributed by:
Charmaine Tan
National Library Board Singapore