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moving forward (via zoom): ajl 2021

07/14/2021 03:13:07 PM


Aileen Grossberg, Librarian

One thing librarians, especially librarians who work in small environments, look forward to is the annual conference.

Now that I am retired from the public sector, I especially anticipate the annual Association of Jewish Libraries conference. This international multi-day meeting is held in a different city each year and even has gone international- Canada to showcase our northern neighbors and Israel some years ago to celebrate the organization’s 25th birthday.

So what to do when the 2020 Conference is already planned for Chicago and then in mid-March, the world seems to shut down. If anything,  librarians are flexible. Thus, in the space of less than three months, the planning committee pivoted and presented a full conference- sans meals and after sessions drinks- but complete with awards, vendors, and all else that goes with a conference.

It was a roaring success.  So why not repeat and Zoom around the world again.

From June 27 through July 1 this year, that’s just what AJL did. And Conference 2021 Moving Forward was even better than Conference 2020.

Using the strengths of Zoom, this conference was truly international with presenters from the National Library of Israel and Oxford ,among others, and attendees from Poland, Australia, Great Britain, France, Mexico, Canada and other places not just around the corner.

A Zoom conference has no travel expenses; a Zoom conference has no hotel or meal costs (and kosher catering adds tremendously to the costs); a Zoom conference is far less expensive than a traditional conference and much more accessible for people coming from a distance.

Of course, some things are lost in the transition from face-to-face-to virtual: those chance informal encounters with colleagues, the ability to unwind after the intensity of all days sessions, the spontaneity. But this conference was, I think, better than anyone could have imagined.

One of the highlights for me as chair of the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award Competition was presenting Sonja Spear, a New Jersey native, with the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award for her middle grade novel Cats and Honey Cake. This book, the author’s first work of fiction, is the story of the misadventures of a lively, unconventional family in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Like most good stories it is multi-faceted with a serious undertone relieved by humor. With hard work, editing and luck, a publisher will see the same potential in the book as the AJL committee did.

There were even chances to meet informally in the hospitality suite as a large group or in smaller breakout rooms. The planners also included a game with challenging questions that popped up throughout the five days. The questions tested librarians’ skills as well as their attention to conference details. And the closed captions provided endless opportunities for smiles and laughter. AJL became either “in jail” or “angels” and reading CC’s attempts at captioning Hebrew or Russian translated into English was hilarious.

The five days were filled with “meeting” authors including Max Gross who wrote the winning book The Lost Shtetl and Colin McCann, author of the controversial Apeirogon.  There were also luminaries of the children’s lit world who presented a panel called Jewish Women who Changed the World (biographies of Jewish women, many little known).

The days were packed with scores of sessions such as The Hidden Treasures of Jewish Ephemera (Dr. Shalom Sabar, from Hebrew University), Legends of the Jewish Room of the New York Public Library ; Thirty Years of the Russian Library in Jerusalem; Film Event: Last Cyclist of Terezin;; The Keepers: Librarians and Archivists as Preservers of the Truth ( Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, Oxford). Sally Steiglitz, editior of the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter, provides an informative overview of the conference.

One of the highlights was a session of From Sarah to Sydney, the new- and only- biography of Sydney Taylor, whose All-of-a-Kind-Family was a watershed event in Jewish books. The beloved series, still in print today, was the first Jewish book published by a mainstream publisher. The biography has garnered high praise from publications such as The New York Times. For more about this new book from a Jewish perspective read this article from the Jewish Telegraphic Association.

After five days glued to my screen, it all ended  with a bit of levity in Game Night. And then the several hundred librarians from around the world, inspired by contact with their colleagues, turned off their cameras and returned to their (real) libraries armed with new ideas, new book suggestions and renewed energy.

It may have been virtual, but old friends were able to reconnect, new ideas and information were presented, and the evaluations were five star… food and accommodations not rated.   Not bad for a group of volunteers - though also active professionals- operating on a shoestring.

And next year—pandemic willing—in Philadelphia.

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784