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 Vermont’s State Librarian Jason Broughton. Read more about the Vermont Department of Libraries’ priorities in the state profile for Vermont.
Michele: What approach have you taken with the CARES Act stimulus funds, including mechanisms you have used to distribute them?
Jason: To find out what libraries were experiencing, we released a survey asking about their needs. We took a portion of the funds and purchased shield guards based on feedback from the survey. Vermont’s prison industry made them for us, which cost us less and allowed us to purchase additional items. We gave some funds to our historical society that oversees the State Museum of Vermont to do some virtual programming. We also provided a grant to our Green Mountain Library Consortium to make more eBooks accessible to a wider audience. Then we reserved some of the money in case the virus had a resurgence. We also planned on a second round of grants for Wi-Fi extenders to help around 50 libraries. The last round of funds was slated for disinfectant and cleaning wipes. We are just trying to make librarians’ lives as easy as possible, because they want their libraries to remain open and offer virtual services. In the first round, around 15 libraries needed a shield guard, but in the second round close to 120 libraries received them. This includes a lot of academic libraries and a few school libraries. Most items went to public libraries, but we did a little bit of everything for a variety of institutions. We stretched the money to have the largest impact and we are very happy to have been able to do so.
Michele: Tell us about your experiences in working with new or existing partners during this time.
Jason: Vermont has a state entity that deals with our fleet, billing, and general services, and they were gracious enough to provide a way to help distribute items. We thought connecting in person with libraries was helpful, and we made a nice, safe, fun day of it where we went out across the state delivering the PPE ourselves.
Our Department of Public Service reached out to us early on to discuss connectivity issues in a time when lots of universities and schools were closing. We had a partnership to map out Wi-Fi locations including libraries so that any resident could know where those were located. They are also using some of their money for a set of mini-grants in which all types of libraries could apply to upgrade parts of their systems. This partner also proposed that we ask public libraries to turn on their Wi-Fi and keep it on 24 hours a day, and now all our libraries are doing that. It even started conversations with municipalities around turning on the Wi-Fi for the courthouse and the clerk's office, so all of Vermont participated.
We developed and strengthened our connection with the Vermont Agency of Education and PBS. We are helping train our youth librarians so they can recommend platforms to parents for home learning, and we also started having more concrete conversations with those connected to homeschooling. We also worked with our Department of Children and Family Services, making sure that we address the needs of our most vulnerable populations, such as those who are in foster care or have childcare needs.
We have an existing relationship with the Department of Health, which enabled us to get out information about COVID and flu shots. We connected with Department of Agriculture to talk about the importance of food literacy, including eating good food that will nourish and sustain you. We work with the nonprofit, Rooted in Vermont, on a “food in your backyard” campaign, which is not just about growing food but knowing where all your food comes from.
At this moment, the Department of Human Resources would love for us to help push out information on how to connect with health professionals for a variety of different issues, particularly mental health. We have already collaborated with them on programming around how to be resilient and persevere through this time.
We are working with our state Arts Council and making sure that people understand that art is therapeutic and healthy. We are helping them promote a variety of things to allow people to express themselves, such as going to view art outdoors, or virtual programming with art, or intergenerational art.
We also work closely with the Department of Forestry to promote parks with visitor passes, and with COVID there is an upswing of people doing these kinds of outdoor activities.
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?
Jason: The State Library has been assisting libraries with navigating the nuances of this new reality. Some were doing workforce development and are now addressing the growing need for information on unemployment insurance and trying to find a job. Others who were covering small business and entrepreneurial needs, are now trying to figure out how they can help people do things virtually, like starting a business.
A variety of libraries are dealing with changing children's services, such as providing alternatives to in-person story times. We helped libraries navigate all of that with a lot of guidance from the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, the American Library Association, CDC, and our Department of Health to help people understand safe ventilation. We also shifted quickly to become a clearinghouse and resource portal. We consult with libraries to show them the landscape of options they and their boards have, but it is up to them to decide what they would like to do.
Our ABLE (Audio, Braille, Large-print, eBooks) Library, formerly known as the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, never shut down. We receive thank you cards daily letting our staff know how important this service is to them. The staff also showed their appreciation by nominating our local postman and postmaster for an award from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. They won and received the National Library Service certificate on their achievement for helping our department with these services.