Up until March 10, organizers of the 2020 Texas Library Association Annual Conference, which had been set for March 24–27 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, were optimistic that the show would go on. But in hindsight, it didn’t stand a chance.

As the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus continues to prompt the cancellation of numerous trade shows around the world —including the London Book Fair and the Bologna Book Fair, as well as SXSW in Austin, Tex.—TLA representatives confirmed on March 11, after an emergency meeting of the TLA executive board, that the show would not go on.

“With a heavy heart the TLA Executive Board made the difficult decision to transition to a streamlined, virtual event and cancel TLA 2020 activities in Houston to protect the health and safety of our members, attendees, sponsors and exhibitors,” reads a March 11 statement from TLA organizers. “While we are devastated that the TLA 2020 event will not take place in Houston,” the statement concludes, “we are excited to offer a quality professional development experience to the library community.”

At press time, the logistics of the virtual event were still under discussion, including a plan to offer prerecorded programs online for registered attendees to view on demand. But a registration page and information page went online on March 12. And while TLA is offering the option of getting a full refund of this year's conference fee, organizers are hoping registrants will choose to apply those funds to the virtual conference, or at least choose to apply their 2020 fees to next year's show.

"The TLA Annual Conference represents 80% of our organization’s annual revenue, and the greater the number of registrants who opt to attend the virtual conference or use their registration fee toward the 2021 conference, the higher the likelihood that we will come through this crisis intact," a message on the TLA website reads. "We have long been both the voice and the heart of the Texas library community and hope to continue in that role for many years."

The cancellation of TLA was not unexpected, and it comes despite the best efforts of conference organizers, city employees, and convention center staff to ensure a safe environment. Prior to canceling the event, TLA executives said more hand sanitizer units were being installed throughout the conference facility and more cleaning crews had been added that would be using hospital-grade disinfectants to regularly wipe down escalator hand rails and doors and to sanitize high-traffic areas and restrooms.

By the morning of March 10, however, publishers and other exhibitors had begun to pull out. And after a hastily called TLA executive board meeting the following morning, the group pulled the plug, just as the city of Houston was moving to shut down other large events, including the popular Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

As of this writing, the Houston Chronicle reports that there are 14 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the Houston area, and both Houston and Harris counties have declared a health emergency.

It’s fair to say that efforts to address the outbreak have now entered a new phase. On March 11, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic as the global death toll passed 4,300 and the number of confirmed cases worldwide exceeded 121,000, prompting a prime-time Oval Office address from President Trump.

Nationwide, the number of new cases also continues to rise, leading to the closures of many schools, including university campuses, and public libraries, and prompting many companies, including publishers in New York City, to offer their employees the option of working from home.

A focus on diversity

Until its cancellation, the TLA annual conference was certainly shaping up to be a strong one, and it was only fitting that the city of Houston was hosting. Equity, diversity, and inclusion have been a focus of the TLA for years, reflected in the theme of this year’s show: “A Vision for All Texans.” And according to the most recent U.S. Census data, Houston is one of the most ethnically diverse metropolitan areas in the United States, with at least 145 languages spoken by its residents.

Expanding diversity and inclusion efforts was a main plank of 2020 TLA president Cecilia Barham’s platform when she was elected last year, but she says a particular TLA experience impressed upon her just how vital that mission is.

“I went to a session for the TLA Reading List Coordination Committee, where all of TLA’s reading list members go to learn why it is so important to ensure that they are inclusive in their book selection process,” she recalls. “We had a great panel of diverse authors, and at the end of the talk, the moderator asked if there was anything else the authors wanted to share. And one author, who writes science fiction, said that she is invited to serve on a lot of panels about diversity. And while she said she was always grateful for that opportunity, she would really love to be asked to sit on a panel about science fiction.” When it came time for Barham, as TLA president, to take the lead in planning this year’s TLA program, that author’s comment, she says, stayed with her.

“I was just so moved," Barham told PW. "That was such a profound statement for me. And I realized it’s just not enough to put together 12 programs and say, ‘ok, these are our diversity programs,’ and consider that box checked. We made sure that we looked at our conference holistically. We wanted to be sure that on every level, not just the program committee but all of the program planners throughout TLA, that we were really not just checking boxes but were really looking at all of our programming, each and every program, to ensure that we were being inclusive.”

It’s just not enough to put together 12 programs and say, ‘ok, these are our diversity programs,’ and consider that box checked.

Funnily enough, the solution Barham and her TLA planning committee came up with to avoid falling into a “check the box” approach on diversity and inclusion was, well, a checklist.

“We had a subcommittee put together a list of things that make up a truly diverse program,” Barham says, “and we shared it with all the program planners.” Did that kind of resource work? Barham thinks so, but, she added that “the proof would be in the pudding.” And unfortunately, the pudding has now been canceled.

But despite the obvious disappointment of not seeing the program she and her colleagues worked so hard on come to life in Houston, Barham remains, upbeat and says she sees in the cancellation an opportunity for TLA to up its virtual programming game.

“Decisions like these are always difficult, and ultimately how we face challenges is what defines us as individuals and organizations,” she says of the cancellation. “And TLA has responded in a thoughtful and innovative way that will, I believe, ultimately strengthen our organization and how we serve our members. So, while it was a difficult decision, I am excited to see the innovation and outcomes of our TLA 2020 virtual conference.”

Meanwhile, the planning and programming is already well underway for the 2021 TLA annual conference, set for San Antonio. And incoming TLA president Christina Gola, associate librarian at the University of Houston Libraries, says her focus will also be on diversity and inclusion—but with a twist.

“The tagline we’ve settled on is, ‘Celebrate Differences, Empower Voices,’ ” Gola says, adding that her goal is also to highlight advocacy and mentorship. “We want to do something a little bit different in 2021, and that’s to challenge our attendees to engage differently with the conference. The idea is to encourage TLA members to attend different programs or different events, or engage with different groups within TLA than they have at past conferences.” In short, Gola is hoping to push librarians at the 2021 TLA annual conference out of their comfort zones—to experience difference as well as talk about it.

“We hope to bring in a little bit of discomfort, and to help people move past that discomfort,” Gola says. “We want to raise up different voices, to encourage the voices of librarians who maybe haven’t had the stage before to be at the forefront, to help us explore what we need to be hearing and learning about.”

Gola acknowledges the sheer ambition of the idea. “It’s going to be a big challenge. But it’s always a challenge to make new connections and to view things through a new lens.”And while she says that she too is disappointed that the 2020 show will not go on as planned, like Barham, she is excited by the possibility of delivering virtual content. And, she adds, she’s proud of the way the TLA executive board is handling the current crisis.

“We had to consider the health and concerns of all our members, as well as the communities that might be affected by the potential spread of Covid-19,” Gola says. “The response by the TLA staff and the leadership of our executive director, Shirley Robinson, and our president, Cecilia Barham, have been thorough and thoughtful, and I feel confident in working through this.”

In This Together

No question, losing this year’s show is disappointing, and a financial blow, as well. But there is reason for optimism. TLA is by far the nation’s largest and most engaged state library association, regularly drawing more than 7,000 attendees and 450 exhibitors to its conference. Yet, despite its size, TLA members often remark how the annual conference manages to feel like a family gathering. And that sense of togetherness will no doubt serve TLA well, and will help the annual conference bounce back in 2021. Because, as Barham once explained, Texas librarians (whether school, public, academic, or special) are in it together—whatever it is.

“It was amazing,” Barham says when asked to reflect on the past two years of work she’s put in as president-elect and then president of TLA.

“When I agreed to run, my only thought was that it was an opportunity to give back to an organization that has served me so well for the last 18 years of my career, where I’ve met mentors who have guided me and helped me to grow personally and professionally, and made many friends. But it’s been so much more. To work with librarians from across the state and to feel their enthusiasm and their passion for the profession—it’s been such an honor, and really humbling. TLA just continues to give to me.”