Talk about stability: for 30 years the Texas Library Association was led by the estimable Patricia Helm Smith—a remarkable tenure that earned Smith the 2019 American Library Association’s Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship. Smith retired in fall 2017, and in January of this year, TLA hired its second executive director since Smith’s departure: Shirley Robinson, who served most recently as president and CEO of a trade association of Texas hospital board members. PW caught up with Robinson, who took the helm of TLA on January 9, to talk about what's next for TLA.
So, you’re not a professional librarian, though I’m guessing you’ve had your share of positive library experiences. What drew you to the TLA job?
Yes, absolutely—I love libraries. I have two kids, who are now big guys, and we spent lots of time in libraries over the years. Libraries have always had a special place in my heart, as they do for most people. Even before I was in the interview stages, I was aware of TLA and the magic it has in the state of Texas. As I learn about how expansive the organization is, its volunteer structure, and just how incredibly involved TLA members are in the organization and how passionate they are, it’s just really, really inspiring. TLA members truly believe in working together to improve not only the profession of librarianship, but access to information in the state, too.
After executive director Keith Fiels retired in 2017, the ALA was embroiled in a contentious debate over whether its executive director should be required to have a library degree. Some thought having a librarian at the top was very important, while others argued that getting the best association manager, period, was most important. Can I get your take? What kind of skills does an association manager bring to the table?
Yes, and that is a great question. So, we now live in a consumer-driven society, right? Amazon delivers things right to our doorstep within a matter of hours. And my view is we can’t look at membership associations as insulated from the effects of these changing consumer expectations. Associations today have to think strategically, from a business and consumer perspective, about how to deliver their products and services and the learning and networking opportunities members need to advance in their careers. The association executive skill set is about meeting those challenges—for example, understanding that governance models these days have to be nimble. And managing the financial strategy of an organization, looking at investment resources and reserves, is more important than ever to ensure an organization is prepared for the future. I am very fortunate to have the support of the TLA membership, and fortunate that TLA leadership understands the value that someone with a CAE [certified association executive] designation can bring to the organization.
How would you say TLA is positioned for the future?
I think TLA faces a tipping point right now, as do all membership associations, in terms of directing our association toward the strongest future possible. But I think we absolutely have the right resources and leadership at the table right now to succeed, including a membership that recognizes it’s time to take a fresh look at some of the things we do and how we do them. TLA offers so many incredible resources to our members. But like many associations, we need to evolve. So we’ll be going into a strategic planning session over the next couple of months with our board and our volunteer leaders. Evolving will require a lot of innovative thinking, and utilizing some resources differently than we have in the past. But I think we are ready to change, so it’s an exciting time.
Coincidentally, ALA also has a new executive director, Tracie D. Hall. It was recently revealed that she’s coming aboard amid a cash crunch, and in the midst of a process to revamp the association. Any thoughts on the ALA’s challenges and how they may reflect the future TLA faces?
Our board is looking at some of the early warning signs from ALA to make sure that we are ready be as strong as we can be going forward. We’re certainly very sympathetic to the ALA’s position, and we’re here to support them and the organizational changes that they’re going to need to make. And Tracie Hall is certainly the right woman for the job. She brings such a strong skill set and a fresh perspective. As I said before, virtually all membership associations are at a critical point right now. The only thing you can do is just kind of say, ‘Alright, here we go,’ and be excited about the change you’re going to make. It’s time to be innovative.