No question, state library associations play a strong role in supporting libraries across the country, and every state has at least one library association; some states have several, serving a range of libraries—public, school, academic, corporate, even digital, for example. But no state library organization rivals the Texas Library Association. And no statewide annual library meeting comes close to the Texas library Association Annual Conference, which this year runs April 19–22 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
In fact, the TLA Annual Conference is larger than many national conferences. Each year more than 7,000 attendees take part, including more than 1,500 presenters and speakers across some 400 professional sessions, author appearances, events, panels, and lectures. And the exhibit hall hosts close to 500 vendors, including publishers, putting the TLA Conference in league with the ALA Midwinter Meeting and the biennial Public Library Association conference.
Yet, despite TLA’s size and growth, librarians say the organization remains remarkably tight-knit, and the conference still feels intimate. “People who join TLA feel as if they join a family, no kidding,” says Julie Todaro, dean of library services at Austin Community College. Todaro should know—a respected, longtime leader in the profession, she is a past president of TLA and in 2012 took home a TLA Lifetime Achievement Award. “An investment of time and energy in TLA yields great professional opportunities and rewards—new skills, projects, publishing, programming,” she says. “And it’s fun.”
Roosevelt Weeks, deputy director of library administration at the Houston Public Library, agrees. “I’ve been in libraries since 2005, when I left the private sector. I immediately joined TLA, and I’ve been to every TLA conference since. And what makes it so great is not just the number of Texas library leaders, but the leaders from across the country who come. Outside of ALA, they know it is the place to be. You get a chance to meet and network with your colleagues. And the program is just fantastic, really second to none.”
TLA may feel intimate to its members, but make no mistake, like the state itself the Texas library community is big. In all, it numbers 202 academic libraries, and around 875 public library outlets if you count branches and bookmobiles. School librarians make up a huge contingency in TLA—the state counts more than 5,000 school librarians (and more than 4,500 members in the Texas Association of School Librarians, a division of TLA). And, for good measure, there are more than 200 special libraries—corporate libraries, and the like.
For publishers and vendors, that size certainly is a big part of the attraction of the TLA conference—TLA members represent a $1.5 billion market in terms of combined statewide annual library budgets, a big chunk of which goes to a wide array of books, resources, technology, and programming. “And the TLA conference is where librarians come too learn, purchase, and promote all these critical tools,” says TLA executive director Patricia Smith.
In a bit of good news, Smith says that library funding in Texas has begun to rebound after some painful statewide cutbacks. “Texas has bounced back from some lean budget years and is now benefiting from a growing state and federal economy,” she says. “With an influx of millions of dollars in state funding in the last two legislative sessions, librarians are building out facilities and services, including very popular makerspaces, particularly in the areas of digital learning environments, workforce development, and literacy programs of all types.”
TLA itself is also huge—it is composed of four divisions and 10 districts, and it contains 40-plus roundtables and interest groups. The association also grants thousands of dollars every year to members through a program of 50-plus awards, stipends, and scholarships. And beyond the annual conference, TLA members participate in a range of programming throughout the year, with local district meetings across the state as well as webinars on topics such as leadership, copyright, management, and support-staff training. Incredibly, TLA pulls this all off with just 16 staff members in its Austin offices, in addition to Smith.
“I think what makes TLA so strong is the fact that it operates largely as a volunteer organization,” says TLA president Susan Mann, director of the Hillsboro Public Library. “TLA is a rather unique association in that all libraries are represented—school, public, academic, corporate. I believe that brings a lot of strength to TLA. We all really work well together, and we know what we do is important for all libraries, and the public. We always try to pay attention to one another and sympathize with each other’s problems.”
Big and Bright
For Mann, her path to the TLA presidency began on the legislative committee. “It’s kind of my hobby, politics, so I have been friends with a lot of legislators,” she says, many of whom also visit the TLA conference. “As we have learned over and over again, if we can bring our story home to our legislators, then we’re a lot more successful. So that’s what our goal is in every legislative session. We constantly try to educate our legislators, because some still see libraries as quiet places where librarians just check out books, and it’s not anywhere near that anymore. So we have really pushed hard in the last several years, and that seems to be resonating with legislators.”
Not surprisingly, leadership and advocacy are two program tracks at TLA Mann will be participating in—and throughout the program there are numerous panels marked as a president’s picks. Among Mann’s picks are a session titled “Advocacy: Value, Impact, and Presence” with Stephen Abram, a well-respected library leader from the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries (Canada), and another session called “Take the Wheel: Hands-on Advocacy,” which aims to help library directors “build meaningful relationships with decision makers.”
And though size is often a factor when it comes to all things Texas, Mann says that’s not the case when it comes to working within TLA. “I represent a very small community,” she points out, noting that Hillsboro, the town she serves in central Texas, has a population of around 10,000, while some of the librarians she serves with in TLA run some of the largest public library systems in the nation and some of the world’s top university libraries. “One of the messages I think my presidency sends,” Mann says, “is that anyone who wants to pitch in, work hard, and volunteer can become president of our association.”
On the other end of the spectrum—to give you a sense of the vastness of Texas—is Weeks’s library in Houston, the host city for TLA this year. “Houston is the seventh largest public library in the country,” Weeks notes, with 44 locations in addition to its central library, and more than 500 employees. “We served over six million visitors last year,” he says, “and over one million computer users.”
Weeks can barely contain his excitement in having his colleagues in the library community in Houston, one of a handful of cities that rotates as TLA host every few years (this will be the fifth time since 2005 the conference has been in Houston). “I get excited, because it is a chance to show off the Houston Public Library, and the city of Houston, which is a dynamic community, and the most diverse city in America.”
Although Weeks is not presenting this year, he says he is especially interested in leadership issues and points to an all-day seminar based on Lean Six Sigma—a management philosophy popularized by General Electric CEO Jack Welch in the 1990s that is designed to improve processes and efficiency. The program will feature Myja Lark, from the city of Houston’s finance department, and will focus on how libraries can streamline their organizations, and better meet their users’ needs.
“It’s always a struggle to get funding, so one of the ways to handle that is to manage more efficiently,” Weeks says.
Certainly, efficiency is a priority as the mission of libraries continues to expand and evolve in the digital age, and libraries are often expected to do more with less. Weeks says the evolution of libraries is on display through out the TLA program and says he is looking forward to a number of programs at TLA on digital outreach, and the maker movement, for example. “That,” he says, “and the opportunity to sit around and meet and visit with some great authors, of course.”
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Incoming ALA president Julie Todaro talks funding, Spanish-language services, and more.TLA 2016: Program Highlights
Authors and national library leaders highlight a strong program at the 2016 TLA conference. Here are some highlight you won't want to miss.