Fear and Learning in Las Vegas

I hung out with popular children’s and young adult authors like Mo Willems and Lemony Snicket and Markus Zusak last week. Okay, maybe “hung out” is too strong a description. I mainly walked in the same general vicinity as these noteworthy authors, occasionally snapping selfies.

I admit that I was too, too lazy to wait in the long, long lines to meet these awesome authors (and many more). (Are you there, Judy [Blume]? It’s me, Antero, too impatient to wait to meet you but, still think you’re awesome!)

See, my better half is a librarian and we were in sweltering Las Vegas attending the American Library Association’s annual conference. Largely as a spectator, I got lost for a day or two — a Thompson-esque experience — wandering the exhibit floor, emerging with dozens and dozens of books pressed upon me. I had no choice but to amass books and comics and buttons and temporary tattoos and stuff.   

And, it was around the time that I was handed another copy of a forthcoming book I was excited to read (perhaps it was the fourth installment in Neil Shusterman’s “Unwind Dystology” or a copy of the upcoming Haruki Murakami novel or “The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman) that I wondered about the dual lives of youth and libraries. I mean, aren’t we in the era of the bookless library? How had I just walked out of the ALA conference with easily 50 pounds of free books? What’s more, as excited as I am to dive into some familiar titles, I can’t help but wonder about my role as being complicit in the large, capitalist process of book sales. (And, to be fair, this same process of book bestowing happens at the annual conference for the National Council of Teachers of English — a disciplinary space I am much more familiar with.)

My own participation at the ALA conference was one that highlighted a disconnect between connected learning and how we work with youth in formal and informal learning spaces. For all of the hubbub around changing relationships between authors and fans, around transforming books into platforms for production and peer-supported learning, and around supporting a larger population of writers and media creators, big-name publishers are front and center, running the show in the ALA exhibit hall.

Just weeks after the Aspen Institute released a report aptly titled “Learner at the center of a networked world,” I was struck by how unidirectional the flow of information was assumed to be by publishers like Scholastic and Random House.

Powerful Connected Learning Practices at Work

I want to make it clear that the emphasis on promoting the buying of physical goods that took place on the exhibit floor doesn’t necessarily reflect some of the great exchanges of ideas and beliefs occurring at the conference. For instance, I was able to participate in a discussion with leadership from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and the innovative practices that are being shared for working with and supporting teens in libraries. YALSA’s recent report “The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action” highlights how librarians are taking up connected learning principles across the country. The report plucks familiar notes within the DML community: libraries face diminishing resources, changing teen demographics, and relationships with technology that are markedly redefining how individuals interact with media and each other. In essence, the report is a clear instantiation of why connected learning is paramount to how libraries must interact with youth today. 

On the Flip Side

And yet, just down the hall, this is the opposite of how the exhibit floor interacts with youth librarians. Big publishers send the conflicting message of consumption. I realize that’s kind of their role, right? However, traversing the conference and moving from the doling out of free, physical stuff — “Ooh, is that an issue of the comic book Saga? Yes, please” — to learning about the amazing connected learning work that is happening in many libraries was a disorienting experience. It was also a necessary reminder for me that large parts of the ecologies of learning that are sustained today are unplugged, marketed, and guided by book distributors and publishers. As much as I tend to advocate for the powerful world of digital commons and the exchange of content that can occur there, the ALA conference highlights that this isn’t the lived reality many librarians may face. In fact, if knowing about popular books is an important part of a teen librarian’s job, this part of the conference cannot be ignored: being able to guide a reader of the “Divergent” series to another series of books to check out means interacting with and being aware of what Scholastic and Random House are selling. Taking all of that free stuff and, later, ordering copies for the library, may be a key part of what some teen librarians do.

And, like I said, I’m just as present in these lines as anyone (I mean, jeez, there’s a sequel to “King Dork” and I need to read it … for professional purposes, of course). I am fully aware of the role I play in the large mechanism of book sales that drives a key part of the ALA conference. The “stuff” amassed, coveted, and shared at ALA (and the many other educator conferences I continue to attend) isn’t digital in nature: it’s paper-y and heavy and branded.

As we continue to think about youth in today’s dynamic, networked world, so too must we remember the physical consumption that they are enmeshed in. Amidst the constant fretting about bookstores closing and the death of the non-E-book, the culture around books as objects (and heavy objects after lugging around too many of them for too long) is alive and well.

Banner image credit: Antero Garcia stand behind authors at the recent ALA conference.