With its second major in-person event since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic just days away, the Texas Library Association has reason to be encouraged. Organizers of the TLA Annual Conference, set for April 19–22 at the Austin Convention Center, are expecting a big jump in attendance. And while numbers may come in a tick below the 7,000-plus attendees the event would have drawn before Covid, organizers expect this year’s conference, which will feature a jam-packed program and a full exhibit hall, to send a strong message: TLA is back—and very nearly all the way back.
Still, TLA members aren’t exactly exhaling. Instead of the post-pandemic “new normal” librarians had once hoped for—one in which schools and libraries are well funded and systemic racism, social inequality, and a shredded social safety net were finally addressed—a new threat looms: a dystopian nationwide surge in book bans and attacks on the freedom to read. And in Texas—arguably ground zero for a political movement that has put libraries and schools in the political crosshairs of right-wing activists—there is much for librarians and educators to be concerned about.
“It’s been very challenging,” concedes TLA executive director Shirley Robinson, fresh off a 16-hour day spent with lawmakers in Austin, providing testimony on a host of pending bills that could hold far-reaching implications for Texas librarians.
“It has just been relentless,” Robinson explains. “We’re just in a highly politicized country and state right now. Once we get through this legislative session it’s going to be about taking stock and helping our members understand what these new laws will mean for them and how they can keep doing the great work that they do. But we are very concerned about our how our members are holding up, so this conference is going be a really great way for us to come together and support each other.”
TLA president Mary Woodard, a veteran school librarian and former director of library services at the Mesquite Independent School District near Dallas, agrees.
“There’s been a lot of reporting on book challenges and things that are definitely concerning for Texas librarians,” she says. “These organized groups can be really loud, and it can be frightening to find yourself in their crosshairs.” She worries that the stress of the situation is convincing talented librarians in some communities to walk away from the profession.
In choosing “Libraries Unite” as the 2023 conference theme, Woodard says, the 2023 TLA program committee chose to focus on how the ability to “read, access, and use authoritative information” is a crucial to success in life. And that timely theme, she notes, has resonated with TLA members. “For our conference this year, we tried a new call-for-proposals process that was very successful, and we have more education sessions addressing all library types than ever before.”
This year’s conference is also in the right place at the right time: in the state capital of Austin, in the middle of a legislative session. The Texas legislature meets only once every two years, unless called into a special session. And in the current session, librarians in Texas, like in so many states across the country, find themselves caught in the middle of a headline-grabbing political battle.
In 2023, Texas lawmakers have zeroed in on “sexually explicit” materials in schools and libraries, with two bills, HB 900 and SB 13, raising concerns for librarians. Among the questionable provisions put forward, the bills would prohibit school libraries from purchasing or offering books the state deems obscene, require the adoption of a “parental consent” system for students who wish to access “sexually relevant” library materials, and require publishers and other vendors to develop and implement a state-approved book rating system to do business with Texas schools. Other bills, meanwhile, have proposed the removal of a long-standing educational exemption to prosecution—the effect of which would be to expose librarians to criminal prosecution for providing materials believed to be inappropriate.
“Proponents of such measures say schools are infested with inappropriate books,” The Texas Tribune reported in a March 31 article on HB 900. “Opponents fear the books that will end up being targeted will be those that explore race; sexual orientation and gender identity; and unique, traumatic experiences that a student may not be comfortable discussing but could read about in a book.”
TLA has of course been active in defending the freedom to read, including through initiatives like Texans for the Right to Read, a powerful coalition of more than 3,000 advocates that launched last year to provide resources and expertise to librarians, parent groups, and freedom-to-read advocates in communities facing challenges across the state. But Woodard says talking with elected officials this year has reminded her that the legislative process also requires a deft political touch.
“We can’t just automatically be against everything,” she explains. “In working with elected officials, it’s important to try and find things you can agree on in order to have productive conversations.”
Though the library community has significant concerns regarding HB 900, Woodard suggests that there are parts of the bill that could actually be beneficial with the right input. For example, the bill proposes a host of mandatory state standards for libraries that are currently voluntary. “We would love to see some mandatory standards, especially regarding staffing,” she explains—but defining those standards is where things get sticky. “We are working to propose some updated language that would provide some clarity around the issues.”
TLA president-elect Gretchen Pruett, director at the New Braunfels Public Library, says she too believes that the library community showing up in numbers in Austin in the midst of such a fundamental challenge to the profession represents an important moment.
“I think the conference will be really positive, and I think the theme of ‘Libraries Unite’ is more relevant than Mary could ever have imagined when she came up with it a year ago,” she notes. “Because we are all in this together, whatever kind of library work you do. We are facing a serious challenge to our profession. But I think most of us know that the work we do is important and that we make differences in people’s lives every day.”
Pruett, too, has been busy speaking with lawmakers, as well as setting up the committee that will plan the next TLA Annual Conference program—a formidable task in the best of times, and a truly massive endeavor in the current environment of political uncertainty. The good news, she says, is that the public still overwhelmingly supports their local libraries, and she’s hopeful the conversation can soon begin to shift back to a better place for libraries and schools. But she believes the current battle over book bans and the freedom to read will continue through her TLA presidency and beyond, impacting the library community’s (and TLA’s) priorities.
Whatever the cost, Pruett says, defending the freedom to read is worth it.
“The freedom to read is critical to what we do in libraries. It looms over everything. Somewhere out there, in a small town in Texas, there’s somebody who’s feeling different and wondering if something isn’t wrong with them. And hopefully they will come across a book and read about an experience similar to what they’re going through and it will make all the difference in the world. I know so many people for whom that’s been true—that a book gave them the perspective and strength they needed. That’s what libraries do. And that’s really powerful.”
Robinson says she, too, is looking forward to the day when the discussion can get back to more routine issues for Texas librarians, such as advocating for greater funding, new library construction and renovations, or expanded services. But the current wave of book bans does not appear to be cresting, she concedes, noting there were at least 37 bills filed in the current legislative session that would directly impact how libraries can serve their communities.
“I would say 90% of our work right now is just trying to stay ahead of what is happening in the political landscape,” Robinson says.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that such a fundamental challenge to library work has highlighted the value of a strong TLA. “We’re seeing our members stand up and support each other, and it’s given us a chance to expand on what the association means to our members and to build relationships with people who may not have really understood the value of our association,” Robinson says. “Our goal is to support them as they support each other.”
The TLA Annual Conference returns Wednesday–Saturday, April 19–22, at the Austin Convention Center. It will feature more than 300 education sessions, more than 200 author events, and a bustling exhibit hall. Organizers say this year’s program will offer more options than ever before for all types of librarians and libraries. A brief look at some highlights follows, but readers can explore the full program online. All times given are in Central Time.
Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin will kick off the TLA 2023 main speaker program, keynoting General Session I (Thursday, 8:15–9:15 a.m.). Rubin, one of today’s most influential observers of happiness and human nature, is the author of numerous books, including the bestsellers Outer Order, Inner Calm; The Four Tendencies; Better Than Before; and The Happiness Project. She also hosts the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin.
General Session II will feature a conversation between two renowned Indigenous children’s and YA authors, Angeline Boulley and Cynthia Leitich Smith (Friday, 4:15–5:30 p.m.). Boulley, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a gifted storyteller who writes about her Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is a former director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Firekeeper’s Daughter, her debut novel, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Warrior Girl Unearthed will be published by Holt in May.
Smith, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is the bestselling author of numerous books, including Hearts Unbroken, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award. She is also the anthologist of the collection Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, and the author and curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She also serves as the Katherine Paterson Inaugural Endowed Chair on the faculty of the MFA program in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Author, journalist, and television host Deborah Roberts will keynote General Session III (Saturday, 11 a.m.–noon). Roberts is a senior national affairs correspondent for 20/20, Nightline, Good Morning America, and World News Tonight with David Muir. She is also a guest cohost on The View. In Lessons Learned and Cherished: The Teacher Who Changed My Life (Disney, May), Roberts offers a collection of essays, letters, and musings from celebrity friends and colleagues about how teachers helped them succeed.
As usual, this year’s TLA conference will include a range of special ticketed events with top-notch authors and speakers. Please consult the TLA conference website for information about tickets.
The Black Caucus Round Table Author Session will feature legendary author and cartoonist Jerry Craft (Thursday, 10 a.m.–12:15 p.m.). Craft is the creator of the syndicated comic strip Mama’s Boyz and the bestselling author and illustrator of the graphic novels New Kid and Class Act. New Kid is the only book to win the John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature (2020), the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature (2019), and the Coretta Scott King Author Award for the most outstanding work by an African American writer (2020). His new graphic novel, School Trip, out this month from Quill Tree Press, is the latest installment in the series.
The Opening Awards and Author Session will feature LaToya Watkins and Jeff Shaara (Thursday, 12:15–1:45 p.m.). Shaara is the bestselling author of 17 novels, including Rise to Rebellion and The Rising Tide. Watkins’s debut novel, Perish, was published to great acclaim in 2022. She’ll be discussing her upcoming book, Holler, Child, due out this summer from Tiny Reparations Books.
The always-popular Evening with the Authors event (Thursday, 6–8 p.m. at the Hilton Austin) will feature Tom Clavin, Eric Elfman, Neal Shusterman, and Amanda Eyre Ward. Clavin will discuss his latest book, Follow Me to Hell, the true story of how legendary Ranger Leander McNelly and his men brought justice to a lawless Texan frontier. Elfman and Shusterman are coauthors of the middle grade Accelerati trilogy. Their latest work, I Am the Walrus, was published this month by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Ward is the bestselling author of eight novels including The Jetsetters (which was a Reese’s Book Club pick) and The Lifeguards.
The Your Public Library Presents event will feature writer, educator, activist, and first Black poet laureate of Houston Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton. Her recent collection Newsworthy garnered a Pushcart nomination and was named a finalist for the 2019 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award.
Always a highlight of TLA, the Texas Bluebonnet Award Author Session (Friday, 11:45 a.m.–1:45 p.m.) will feature author Devin Scillian and illustrator Tim Bowers, creators of 2023 Bluebonnet winner Memoirs of a Tortoise. Each year, 20 books are chosen for the Bluebonnet master list by a committee. Students in grades three through six who read at least five books from the list can vote for their favorite titles each January. At the annual event, students from across the state present the award to the winning author and illustrator.
Education Session Highlights
The following are among the sessions highlighted by TLA president Mary Woodard as her President’s Program selections.
Starting and Sustaining All Types of Library Support Groups: (Wednesday, 1:30–2:30 p.m.). Librarians at this session will learn how to unite communities in supporting libraries by examining different structures of library support groups for all types of libraries, such as friends, boards, foundations, and volunteers through community partners.
Why Defending Intellectual Freedom in Your Library Makes Sense: (Thursday, 2:45–3:45 p.m.). Participants will discuss defending intellectual freedom in the face of misinformation and other challenges.
Library Is a Verb: Post-pandemic Practices for Patron Re-engagement: (Thursday, 11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.). In a post-pandemic world, librarians of all kinds have been forced to reconsider how they convene, connect, and create community with their patrons. Librarians at this session will discuss how to “library” better with their communities in the aftermath of disruption.
Special Events Team: A New Way to Approach and Collaborate for Large-Scale Programs All Year Round: (Thursday, 1:30–2:30 p.m.). Librarians will learn about how the McKinney Public Library is using a special events team to reduce pressure on weekly programmers and establish best practices for events that focus on outside partnerships, outreach integration, diverse offerings, and mentor programming staff.
Making a Difference Together: Developing Powerful Librarian/Principal Partnership (Friday, 8:30–9:30 a.m.). Principals and librarians at this session will share how they united to make a difference on their campuses.
TLA After Hours: (Wednesday, 6–8 p.m.). The popular evening event features a variety of fun activities for attendees to unwind and meet their peers, including a two-hour Dueling Pianos performance featuring hits from the 1980s to today, Library Pub Trivia, and the Ultimate Children’s Illustrator Sketch-Off, which brings together seven children’s illustrators for a fun, Pictionary-style game.
The Exhibits Grand Opening will kick off the show on Wednesday, 3:45–6 p.m., and run on Thursday (10 a.m.–5 p.m.) and Friday (9 a.m.–4 p.m.). This year’s exhibit hall will feature more than 400 companies, with 42 appearing for the first time. Exhibitors include publishers; book jobbers; book fairs; architects; automation, furniture, and STEAM product vendors; service agencies; nonprofits; and many others.
In addition, more than 200 authors will be signing in the authors area and in exhibit booths. Poster sessions will be held on Thursday (11 a.m.–1 p.m.) in Exhibit Hall One. And new this year is the a Small Exhibitor Pavilion, which will showcase nonprofits, entertainers, storytellers, authors, and small publishers.
As always, consult the full, final program online for any last-minute changes or additions (the program is searchable by track, topic, or speaker name). You can also download a brand-new TLA conference app.