Editor’s Note: IMLS staff interviewed chief officers of State Library Administrative Agencies (SLAAs) to discuss their response to the coronavirus, including the use of IMLS CARES Act funds to the states. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Because of the infrastructure of the Grants to States program and the agility of SLAAs, $30 million was rapidly rolled out to benefit libraries and their patrons across the country, and in some cases, museums, and tribes. This post is part of a series and features IMLS Senior Library Program Officer Michele Farrell interviewing Georgia’s State Librarian Julie Walker. Read more about the Georgia Public Library Service’s priorities in the state profile for Georgia.
Michele: What approach have you taken with the CARES Act stimulus funds, including mechanisms you have used to distribute them?
Julie: Our philosophy with our federal money is to fund services and resources in programming that will benefit all library patrons. We fund large statewide purchases in consultation with our library directors using our statewide purchasing power to stretch our dollars as far as we can. I used unspent state travel funds to grant out a quarter of a million dollars for personal protective equipment, disinfecting supplies, and plexiglass shields to get libraries ready to reopen in spring 2020. That meant we could use the first round of CARES funding to meet the urgent need for digital internet access devices.
We purchased laptops for our libraries to lend out to K-12 students and college students who were conducting remote learning. Because the state library is located within the university system, it was easy for us to quickly help students who were stuck without devices and unable to finish the spring or summer semester. We also did bigger projects using TV white space and some Wi-Fi extenders to get library Wi Fi out into more public areas.
Our next phase will include purchasing more hotspots for lending. We purchased a statewide license for Beanstack so our libraries could switch to virtual summer reading programs. Librarians appreciated the investment and were able to move to a vibrant well-attended online summer reading program. Many libraries continue to use Beanstack year-round for reading programs in partnership with local schools. We got librarians, teachers, students and other patrons to a level where they could count on the Wi Fi access, knowing how tremendous of a need that was going to be.
Michele: Tell us about your experiences in working with new or existing partners during this time.
Julie: We have a strong partnership program with many museums around the state from the High Museum of Art to the Center for Puppetry Arts to the Breman Museum to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory. Our long-standing partnerships provide museum passes and we used part of the CARES funding to reach out the museums to create virtual tours and programming. They were excited that we helped them fund programs that could be rolled out to library patrons.
Our Assistant State Librarian, Wendy Cornelisen, has a seat on the Georgia Department of Education Connectivity and Devices Working Group. She works very closely with them and monitors their efforts to get hotspots, laptops, and iPads out to students. They were ecstatic when I was able to send them the REALM Project information. They could not believe that somebody had done that much research on the virus and library materials.
As soon as the shutdown started, we created an online interactive map of Wi-Fi locations, showing internet availability in library parking lots and surrounding areas. Our State Department of Community Affairs started working on something very similar and we said, wait, we have that already. They took our map and added other public Wi-Fi locations. That opened a great partnership, and now they check in with us when they are working on things like that.
Our Library for the Blind and Print Disabled (GLASS - Georgia Libraries for Accessible Statewide Services) has continued to do outreach to their community partners as well as downloading books on demand. GLASS probably kept humming along more seamlessly than any other part of our organization.
The Gigabit Libraries Network wanted to work with us to put in additional TV white spaces since the one in Milledgeville was extremely successful. We obtained some funding from them and we are working on our second, and possibly our third TV white space installation in the more rural parts of the state to try to expand access.
Michele: How have you seen the libraries in your state shift to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, and how have you shifted to support them?
Julie: I was so impressed with how the libraries immediately pivoted to virtual programming. We introduced a statewide PINES e-card that would allow any Georgian to get access to all our electronic resources, Galileo databases, and the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative. We had a huge increase in the use of our online continuing education materials.
Our marketing team creates toolkits that make it easy for individual libraries to reach their own audiences with effective messaging. When libraries were first shuttered due to COVID-19, the team immediately produced an online resources marketing toolkit that was greatly utilized around the state. In fact, our marketing team was recently recognized by Library Journal as their Marketer of the Year.
We moved our three public library director meetings online and offered them other online conversations on specific topics. We had panels of directors share their experiences with reopening, best practices, and problems they ran into.
We initially did a weekly reopening survey of the libraries to make sure that we could, at any given moment, tell a legislator, or the Governor's Office exactly where each library system is in the reopening process. This helped directors make decisions about their next steps on reopening. When they looked at libraries that were geographically close to them or in similar situations it helped their boards, and their funding agencies make decisions about opening. As things stabilize, we will shift to a monthly survey to continue monitoring.
We also continue to survey as needed on the accessibility of Wi-Fi in parking lots. I have one small rural county with a population of 1,600 that had 450 internet sessions in the library parking lot in the first month of COVID! It made us realize how important this is especially in our poor and more rural counties.
One library partnered with their YMCA to provide childcare for first responders. They also lend laptops and book collections at the YMCA site.
Now we are realizing that some of the things we did during this time may be with us permanently. For example, I think there are patrons who are always going to want curbside service. I am working with a library searching for a director and helping them with online interviews and board meetings. I feel like we have stepped up to these challenges that, nine months ago, we could never have imagined.