Get to Know Mark Smith in 10 Questions
Wednesday, September 25, 2013 • Austin, TX • News Release
Last month the seven-member Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) selected Mark Smith for the position of Director and Librarian, the agency’s chief executive also known as the Texas State Librarian. Though Mr. Smith’s tenure begins November 1, we reached out to him recently with 10 questions that address his background, perspective, priorities, and even his knowledge of Texas history. We look forward to getting to know more about Mr. Smith in the months and years to come.
Mark Smith’s personal and professional highlights include:
- 1999-2013: Library Systems & Services LLC; West Coast VP since 2006
- 1997-99: Director of Communications at the Texas Library Association
- 1991-96: Library Systems Administrator at TSLAC
- Austin native, 5th generation Texan
- Undergraduate degree from UT-Austin
- Master of Library and Information Science degree from UT-Austin School of Information
1. You’ve worked in libraries since 1979, when you were a page at Austin Public Library. Of course, a lot has changed about libraries and information services in 34 years. Describe one change that excites you, and one thing that hasn’t changed but that still excites you about libraries.
The biggest change in libraries since I started is the amount of material that is available online and the very significant differences in how people access information compared to even just a few years ago. The availability of information online has had a huge democratizing effect, allowing unprecedented access by individuals who might have previously faced social or geographical barriers to those resources. And people are now accessing information in very different ways, directly acquiring content that was previously mediated by publishers, news organizations, and other aggregators. They’re also acquiring content often streaming online directly to mobile and handheld devices. Libraries can stay current and effective in the face of these changes in ways that get to the other part of your question. One thing that hasn’t changed about libraries is that they are still valued by many in our communities as a guide and interpreter in how to access, authenticate, and make sense of the ever-expanding world of information in its many digital, streaming and print forms. There is ample evidence that the public from the earliest ages to the senior years continues to turn to the library as a portal for discovery.
2. In the early 1990s you were TSLAC’s Library Systems Administrator. What did that role entail, and how does it feel to be returning after 17 years away?
Yes, I worked at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission from 1991 to 1996 in the Library Development Division, where I administered the Texas Library Systems, the 10 regional library systems, an approximately $8-million-per-year project at that time that provided library development services and collection development to public libraries across the state. I was also responsible for accrediting public libraries for system membership and, as the state data coordinator, for collecting annual statistics for Texas public libraries. I am very happy and excited to be returning to the State Library, and I find that there are still a number of loyal employees working in the agency whom I knew in the 1990s. But the agency has changed in many ways, which is to be expected. Divisions have been combined, projects have ended (including the Texas Library Systems program), and, of course, the building has been beautifully remodeled so that it is completely changed inside. So in many ways, it is not the same agency I left 17 years ago.
3. TSLAC has a complex set of responsibilities to the people of Texas. In addition to statewide library development, the agency provides guidance and leadership in the areas of records management, talking books, and the state archives. During your public presentation at TSLAC on August 29th, you stated that libraries are uniquely positioned to create “profound transformational change” in the communities they serve, and that TSLAC can facilitate that change through all its programs, not just library development. Can you elaborate on that?
I have always believed that libraries have the potential to change lives. To be more precise, as Andrew Carnegie observed, libraries don’t change lives, but rather they create the circumstances that allow people to change their own lives. The work of all divisions of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission can directly or indirectly create the circumstances that encourage this type of transformational change.
The programs of the Library Development and Networking Division assist libraries across the state to create the circumstances to help Texans live richer, more fulfilled lives, whether it means helping prepare children to enter school ready to read, helping job seekers build new skills and connect them to employers, or creating spaces of civic engagement where people can come together, share ideas, and break down cultural barriers. The Talking Book Program provides a unique and vital lifeline to reading materials for persons who can’t read standard print, profoundly enriching the lives of those patrons. The Archives and Information Services Division preserves and makes available the historical heritage of the State of Texas for generations to come, provides information resources to state government and makes it possible for individuals to discover their past through these rich genealogical and historical records. The work of the State and Local Records Management Division is also potentially life changing. Not only does the division advise government agencies on the retention of records vital to fulfilling the promise of open government, it also stores and retrieves records that can be of critical importance to people’s lives. Consider, for example, how the effective storage and retrieval of records from, say, the Child Support Division of the Attorney General’s Office could have an immediate bearing on the welfare of Texas children.
4. You’ve described yourself as a leader who empowers people to be risk-takers. What is the process whereby employees become empowered to take risks? What is your approach to dealing with outcomes when the risk isn’t successful?
Empowering staff to take risks means not allowing risk-aversion to drive decisions. I try to encourage people to think creatively about solutions and support them when they want to try new approaches. And tolerating risk is not the same thing as inviting disaster: we will strive to make intelligent choices. And if we try something that doesn’t work—and that’s probably inevitable at some point—I would hope we have the good sense to admit we were wrong and take a different approach.
5. How will your experience at LSSI inform your tenure as Texas State Librarian? What did you learn from that experience?
I will take away from my experience with LSSI skills and lessons learned in the management of dozens of libraries in multiple jurisdictions across two states, including how to work with elected and appointed officials, finance and budget, personnel management, organizational dynamics, communications, and project management. I have learned how to constantly evaluate operations to ensure that we offer the greatest possible levels of service with the resources available, how to be responsive to the needs of our library customers and community stakeholder groups, and how to be an effective promoter, advocate and defender of the libraries that I have worked with.
Some people have asked if as State Librarian I would try to influence local libraries to outsource their operations. LSSI provides excellent service in the libraries it operates, and I am proud of the work that I have done with that company. However, I feel that decisions of how best to manage local library operations should be entirely the prerogative of local officials and library staffs. Some libraries may choose to explore a public-private partnership to operate their libraries, but the State Library should neither encourage nor discourage this or any other decision regarding local library management.
6. What agency projects or priorities do you intend to focus on at the beginning of your tenure at TSLAC?
My personal priority is to learn as much as I can about the agency, our partner stakeholders, ongoing projects, the budget and the legislative environment as quickly as possible. We will be starting a new agency strategic plan shortly after I arrive, and I will be interested in using that process as an opportunity to review all existing projects and to reach out to key stakeholders outside the agency to solicit their input in the development of a plan for future program development. And I am eager to work with staff to ensure that the newly funded initiatives—the extension of database access to K-12 libraries, addressing the backlog of archival materials, and the repairs to the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty—are accomplished effectively and as quickly as possible.
On a lighter note…
7. TSLAC has a large collection of Texana. What is your favorite part of Texas history?
Of course, what Texan doesn’t love the story of the Alamo? And considering that TSLAC is the custodian of the famous William B. Travis letter, the Battle of the Alamo has special significance for our agency. But I am personally fascinated by the settlement of Central and West Texas amid the Comanche wars of the 19th century. And I am also interested in the evolution of Texas’ economic history from cattle to oil to high-tech, health and energy industries and the social and cultural effects of that progression.
8. What books on your shelf or e-reader are begging to be read?
Speaking of Texas history, it has been a long time since 7th grade so I am working my way through T. R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. I read a lot of literary fiction, and I’ve had David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest on my shelf for several months, but at over 1,000 pages, it’s likely to be there a while longer. I also intend to reread very soon a book by my friend, the author and literacy advocate Pat Mora called Zing: Seven Creativity Practices for Educators and Students, a great inspiration for librarians, teachers, and anyone who values reading and lifelong learning.
9. What’s your all-time favorite town or city? Why?
I have many favorite cities that I love to travel to and enjoy such as New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, and smaller places like Ashland, Oregon, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. But since this is the second time that I have moved back to my hometown, I would have to say that Austin ranks as my most beloved city, and I feel extremely fortunate to be able to live and work here again.
10. Do you have a catchphrase?
Honestly, no, and it would be hard to distill my various enthusiasms to one phrase, but if I did, I would probably steal the tagline used by the American Library Association a few years ago: “Libraries Change Lives” because I truly believe that they do.