After a year-long search, Texas welcomed Mark Smith as the new state librarian last week. But with a background that includes 14 years as a vice-president of Library Systems and Services, Inc. (LSSI), the native son’s return to Texas libraries makes some librarians uneasy. Others, though, think Smith’s unconventional CV could be an asset.
The appointment as State Librarian marks a homecoming for Smith, an Austin native whose career in libraries began in the Lone Star State, where he gained experience working with a variety of different library systems as a systems administrator. Later, Smith furthered his bona fides in the state while serving for two years as Director of Communications for the Texas Library Association.
Sharon T. Carr, a librarian and member of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, cited Smith’s experience in all aspects of library work, particularly in communications and high-level administration, as some of the important skills he brings to the new position. The fact that he’s a native Texan certainly didn’t hurt either. “He brings experience in Texas libraries, and he’s from here,” said Carr. “That’s always a good thing because we consider ourselves very unique.”
Since 1999, though, Smith has been in the private sector, serving as West Coast VP for LSSI. There, he was responsible for managing operations for multiple libraries in California and Oregon who had contracted the company to run their library systems. In 2003, Smith was named California Library Association Member of the Year for his work with the Riverside County Library System, one of LSSI’s oldest and most frequently bragged about contract partners (though a 2007 study by LSU professor Robert Ward found the Riverside system to be less efficient after it operations were taken over by LSSI).
Gretchen Pruett, Director of the New Braunfels Public Library, admits that Smith’s LSSI background initially concerned her. “I think most of us who are familiar with LSSI probably had a moment of pause when we realized that was where he was employed, because a lot of us initially saw it as a threat,” said Pruett. “We can probably all come up with a story of LSSI taking over a small library and things didn’t go well.”
LSSI is a large and growing force in the library world, managing what amounts to the fifth largest library system in the United States when counted by branches. You don’t even have to leave Texas to see places where the company didn’t jive with the community, though. The small city of San Juan, TX, just gave the company the boot last year.
While mayor San Juanita Sanchez was happy with the company’s performance, calling their expertise a “great investment” that helped move the city’s library from a 1,600 square foot trailer to a 22,500 foot permanent home, city commissioners were less impressed with the company’s performance, overriding Sanchez’s wishes and terminating the company’s contract with the city last year.
San Juan wasn’t the end of the story for LSSI in Texas, though—the company still operates libraries in the towns of Leander, Red Oak, and Farmer’s Branch. As for whether his new position paves the road for an increased LSSI presence in Texas, Smith called it a possibility, but not one he intends to foster. “It may be an option communities explore, but it won’t be because I encouraged them to do that,” said Smith.
Carr said that while she understands that some public librarians in the state may have qualms about Smith’s background at LSSI, Smith’s appointment doesn’t mean Texas is laying out the welcome mat for outsourcing library operations. “Some of the librarians who are concerned I think don’t need to worry, Carr said. “Texas is fairly conservative, and there’s not an opportunity for that to be a new thing we do without a lot of interest and a lot of work on the part of librarians and patrons. I honestly think it would be difficult for everyone to outsource with the structure that’s in place.”
Texas’s new State Librarian has no appetite for micromanaging community libraries. Instead, he sees his main role as being an advocate for the library community, someone who can help legislators recognize the importance of libraries and build partnerships with other concerns in the state, such as schools and employment services. “I firmly believe it’s not the role of the Texas State Librarian to influence how local communities manage their library services,” Smith said. “That’s a local decision, and it should remain a local decision.”
Indeed, when one talks to Texas librarians about Mark Smith, it’s not his abilities as a manager that are lauded, but his skills as a communicator who can, as Texas Library Association executive director Patricia Smith put it, “encourage donors and supporters, and negotiate with legislators and decision-makers.” Dana Rooks, Dean of Libraries at the University of Houston, was “delighted” when she learned that Smith was a finalist for the position. She recalled him fondly from his time as TLA communications director, and cited his proven ability to reach out and work with legislators, citizens groups, and other stakeholders, and demonstrate the worth of libraries to all parties. “In California, he did a lot of legislative and media work, which is a very important set of skills,” Rooks said.
It’s a skillset that stands to serve Smith—and the libraries he’ll represent when he takes over on November 1—well in Texas, where the state legislature has slashed library funding in recent budgets. For all her initial ill-ease with his LSSI background, Pruett suggested that the same credentials could help make Smith more effective in dealing with legislators in a climate where library budgets have to not only do good, but increasingly have to make good business sense—something LSSI has had to do in every community and library system it’s worked with.
“I’m optimistic that they picked the right candidate and that he can deliver our message and the value of libraries to legislators so that they can put some money back into funding us,” Pruett said.
For his part, Smith is looking forward to the new challenges of the position. He’s eager to build relationships between libraries and other organizations, as in Riverside, where he shepherded along a relationship with the Riverside County Workforce Investment Board to help connect job seekers and employers. Smith’s real passion, though, comes out when he talks about ensuring that Texas libraries are spaces not just for accessing information, but for civic engagement, something he wants to emphasize in his tenure. “The librarian is not there to just set up the chairs and put on coffee,” Smith said. “They should be there to engage with the community. People want to get out of the house and do something. The library should be a third place, a place where people can go and interact with each other.”