For a second straight year, the Covid-19 pandemic will force the Texas Library Association Annual Conference to be online only (April 22–24). But in true Texas fashion, TLA organizers have risen to the challenge with an expansive virtual program that features a slate of strong speakers and sessions—a program that stands as “a symbol of leadership, fortitude, and unwavering commitment,” according to 2021 TLA president Christina Gola.

It was just over a year ago when the world changed seemingly overnight. On March 11, days before the 2020 TLA Annual Conference was set to open in Houston, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. The global death toll from Covid-19 had just surpassed 4,300. The number of confirmed cases worldwide stood at 121,000. As the seriousness of what was coming settled in, TLA executives convened an emergency meeting and made the call: the live conference simply could not go on.

Still, few could have foreseen the arduous road that lay ahead—and few would have predicted that a year later much of the economy, including libraries, would still be closed or operating at limited capacity, or that students would still be doing remote school, or that workers fortunate enough to have the option would still be working from home. Tragically, as of this writing, the pandemic has claimed more than 540,000 lives in the U.S. And while vaccines have brought hope, the pandemic has left millions of Americans struggling, unemployed, at risk, food insecure, alienated, and depressed.

In announcing the TLA 2021 virtual program in Texas Library Journal, Gola said that navigating the challenges of the last year has left her in awe of her fellow librarians. “I believe the program is a reflection of where we find ourselves in 2020,” she wrote, calling the past year a “crucible leadership experience” for TLA.

Leaning in

“It’s fair to say no one had any real idea what was coming in terms of the pandemic,” Gola tells PW. “Even after canceling the in-person conference in 2020 and transitioning to virtual, I think most of us expected the effects of the pandemic would only last four, maybe six months. But over time, the impacts of the pandemic forced us to rethink all we do and adapt many new processes and services, for the longer term, both in TLA and in libraries more broadly.”

Exactly how the pandemic will change libraries, and the work of national and state library associations, remains an open question—first and foremost, because the pandemic is not over. New case levels and hospitalizations have gone down nationally, but public health officials warn that the number of new infections remains far too high, and troubling new variants pose a major concern as we race to get vaccines into arms.

Looking further into the future, some 89% of researchers recently told the journal Nature that they expect this novel coronavirus will likely become endemic. Battling an endemic version of Covid-19 will require constant vigilance, epidemiologists say. In fact, it’s unlikely we will get back to the way we lived pre-pandemic any time soon. And how libraries approach and adapt to our post-pandemic reality remains a key question going forward.

When asked about the challenges facing librarians as we approach year two of this historic crisis, Gola responds with more questions: “What will we learn from this and how might we change our norms? Will we be able to maintain what our patrons have come to enjoy and expect during the pandemic, as well as the services they enjoyed pre-pandemic?”

I think we have to answer a lot of questions about work-life balance, quality of life, and the ability to be more balanced.

And how will the pandemic change the workplace for librarians? “The pandemic has shown us we can do quality work remotely and attend to our families,” Gola points out. “I think we have to answer a lot of questions about work-life balance, quality of life, and the ability to be more balanced.”

As an association, TLA also has work to do. Strong support and engagement from TLA members, as well as sound financial planning and budgeting, have put the association in a surprisingly good position, Gola says. Meaning that after an extraordinarily difficult year, TLA is ready to explore and embrace its post-pandemic “new normal.”

“The pandemic showed us how much TLA relies on our annual conference for revenue, for example, and how it proved to be a financial weakness,” Gola says, pointing to the need for the association to be “more strategic” about its work moving forward. But she says she is confident that both TLA and the librarians it represents will come out stronger for the experiences of 2020. And part of that confidence, she suggests, traces back to the work TLA members did in their communities over the past year, and to the job the assocciation did in pulling off its last-minute virtual pivot for the previous annual conference.

“We had tremendously positive feedback about our 2020 conference,” Gola says. “But we also learned a lot about what more we could offer. In planning for 2021, and in making the call early to go virtual, we had more time to reflect on lessons learned and plan for a more robust conference.”

No question, the famously intimate, familial atmosphere of a TLA annual conference has been sorely missed by many members—many of whom are understandably eager to get back to face-to-face events when it is safe to do so. At the same time, as many libraries and organizations have learned during this pandemic year of forced digital experimentation, virtual programs can significantly increase engagement.

“TLA will need to reevaluate the value of in-person services vs. virtual programming, and where we gain more benefit by reaching more members in a virtual environment,” Gola says. “During the spring and summer of 2020, we had hoped that we might be able to offer a hybrid conference, with both virtual and in-person events, and I think that is something we will consider for future conferences. A hybrid approach would also offer more equitable access to our members. But, no matter what, many of our members will want to come together in person to hug and break bread together. You can’t replace that.”

Equity, diversity, inclusion

The pandemic is of course only one challenge facing libraries. Following the shocking death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last summer, a racial and social justice movement has taken root across the nation, challenging individuals and institutions alike to make meaningful changes—the library profession included.

Equity, diversity, and inclusion are of course core values of the library community. And making progress on diversity issues was a key goal within TLA prior to the events of 2020. The theme for last year’s annual conference, “A Vision for All Texans,” focused on inclusion, and in planning that program, then–TLA president Cecilia Barham and her planning committee had developed and implemented a system to ensure that all of TLA’s programs included diverse voices and were as inclusive as possible.

This year’s conference theme, which was settled on back in October 2019, is “Celebrate Differences, Empower Voices.” In March 2020, Gola told PW that her goal with the program was to push TLA attendees out of their comfort zones. “We want to raise up different voices,” she said, “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 hear and learn about.”

The focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion was important within TLA before the events of 2020—but there’s no question that the tragic events of last year have sparked a sense of urgency and greater awareness within the library profession.

“No profession or organization should be able to just sweep recent events under the rug,” Gola says when asked about what the movement for racial and social justice means for the work of libraries. “We need to engage in the hard conversations that recognize our nation’s historical and ongoing racial and social injustices. Even libraries have a past and present built on historical, political, and social injustices. And we have to examine our past in order to find ways to reduce barriers to equity. We have a long way to go, but we have the heart, and we have a foundation to start with.”

Incoming TLA president Daniel Burgard agrees. “Christina Gola deserves big kudos for her focus on equity and social justice within the organization,” he says, adding that he intends to continue that work during his presidential year. “We know the challenge. And I trust that Texas librarians will hold us to account for continuing to fight for equity, diversity, and inclusion, which is represented in the activities of librarians and libraries every day across the state. TLA and every other library group clearly have work to do on equity and social justice issues. But I think our organization can be a leader on how a profession can embrace diversity and equity and integrate it into our everyday professional lives.”

Burgard, a medical librarian by training and currently a university librarian and vice provost for scholarly information management at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, says his presidency will also take on another massive challenges facing librarians: recovery. Self-care for library professionals will be a key theme of his 2022 TLA presidency.

“This was my idea in late 2019, before we had ever heard of Covid-19, and it is obviously even more pertinent now,” Burgard says. “We know that librarians and library staff are quintessential service professionals, primarily concerned with worrying about everyone else’s needs first. But I am calling on us to be little selfish for a change. I want us to focus on our own situations and needs. So, we will have programming during my presidential year and at the TLA conference in 2022 that will offer all library employees the opportunity to learn about and practice self-care, and to begin the process of rebuilding connections to their colleagues and their communities that have frayed over the past year.”

Real change

Both Gola and Burgard remain hopeful that next year’s TLA conference will be an in-person event, at least in some capacity. But the crises of the last year, Gola says, have reinforced the importance of TLA’s work.

“Certainly my presidency did not go as planned, but it has been a tremendous, unforgettable journey. The value of TLA has really shined this year. The pandemic created so many unknowns, with no playbook on how to respond. Members learned from one another through trial and error, we connected members with medical and safety experts, and we shared resources openly and collaboratively. We will build on this strength, and I believe TLA will come out stronger for it.”

Burgard says the challenges of the past 12 months also serve to highlight the importance of TLA’s advocacy work—especially in 2021, which is a legislative year in Texas, where the legislature convenes just every two years.

“When the pandemic hit, we thought we were just going to get an extra long spring break,” Burgard says. “But that has turned into more than a year away from our physical library buildings. And when you lump the recent Texas infrastructure failure on top of that, I think many people are fed up and raw with emotion about their world being upended. Well, it occurs to me that this is a legislative opportunity. Typically, it is hard to get elected officials—or anybody else for that matter—to focus on the importance of investing in infrastructure. At this moment, however, everyone in Austin is extremely sensitive to the basic backbone services that the state offers its citizens—also known as voters.”

Indeed, while Texans—including the library community in Texas—have once again shown their resilience, Gola says the events of the past year require action.

“I think it is wonderful that librarians and our communities are so resilient,” she notes. “Libraries are resilient because our people are amazing. However, it’s not just our people who need to be resilient but our buildings, our infrastructure, and our educational systems, too. It is this very reason that we can’t stop advocating and telling our stories. We need real change, not Band-Aids.”