July 7, 2021

Timothy Owens
Timothy Owens

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 Madison Bolls interviewing Timothy Owens, State Librarian of the State Library of North Carolina. Read more about North Carolina’s priorities in the state profile for North Carolina.

Madison: What approach have you taken with the CARES Act stimulus funds, including mechanisms you have used to distribute them in North Carolina.

Timothy: Our CARES Act funds follow the same model that we use for our Grants to States annual allotments. Basically, we looked at divvying up some for statewide initiatives and then some for offering competitive grants. Following our competitive grants structure, we offered two types of opportunities. We made available EZ grants, which would be for projects up to $10,000. For these, we expected to see lots of folks looking at Wi-Fi hotspots or devices to lend.

The second category was our project grants, and for those we offered up to $75,000 for more involved projects. These required a new partnership: someone that they hadn't typically worked with in the past. We made these available to the public libraries, community college libraries, the UNC system libraries, and members of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. We had about $930,000 total to offer from the CARES Act, and we ended up with about $1.6 million in requests, so we decided to cut back on funding for statewide efforts so we could provide more funds for these local projects.

CHPL Library window
Photo courtesy of Chapel Hill Public Library.

When we were structuring this grant program, we did want the primary focus to be on digital inclusion and expanding broadband access in high-need communities. We were able to fund 39 projects, and one of my favorites is out of East Carolina University. They are building on a National Library of Medicine project that aimed to provide laptops and resources for students of migrant workers. The workforce has really been impacted by the pandemic, so we saw other projects focus on employment, some on healthcare, and some aiming to expand Wi-Fi outside of buildings and into parking lots.

As part of this, we opted to try to build a cohort out of the funded projects and they're having regular check-ins to share information. They meet once a month, virtually, to share updates and tips on how they're approaching their projects, and they share both successes and challenges as projects move along. I hope this cohort model is something we may carry forward in other projects. The IMLS Accelerating Promising Practices (APP) Program sparked the idea for this model.

Madison: Tell us about your experiences in working with new or existing partners during this time.

Timothy: One of our ongoing partnerships for broadband infrastructure is with the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office. We've worked closely with them for years, and the State Library was a noted partner in the state's broadband infrastructure plan on getting libraries connected. This partnership helped with our grant program, as they provided technical support for grantees. They also coordinate the NC Digital Equity and Inclusion Coalition, and so we've been involved with that. Much of that work has been through our IMLS National Leadership Grant project that addresses the homework gap. Our digital inclusion librarian works with both the Broadband Infrastructure Office and our staff and libraries across the state. It's been a really nice connection there, and this partnership has also helped us to elevate libraries and get more recognition for the work that libraries are doing in the state.

It's connected us to the governor's broadband task force; I now attend their meetings and keep libraries top of mind with that group. We've also started a new partnership with the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, which is centered in the Governor's Office. It has a K-12 focus, and I was able to join their remote learning working group and chaired the digital curriculum committee. We looked back at what happened when schools shifted to remote learning and how they could help improve this structure. This group also works with the governor in a Hometown Strong initiative that supports rural areas and more economically distressed areas of the state. This gave us a chance to support that work and highlight some of the remote learning resources that we have available, including what we’re developing as part of the IMLS homework grant, and the North Carolina curriculum on local history.

Madison: Do you have any additional challenges or opportunities that you've observed?

CHPL COVID Ops Post Staff at Park and Pick Up
Chapel Hill Public Library COVID Ops Post Staff at Park and Pick Up.

Timothy: I mentioned access to broadband, and I think that's both a challenge and an opportunity. The pandemic has highlighted the digital divide. Now that broadband access is a necessity and not a privilege, it's really much more like a utility. If you don't have that access, then you don't have what you need to succeed, either in school or in finding employment. This is especially crucial for our rural and underserved areas. The opportunity is that we’ve been able to highlight the resources available in libraries and museums, and the role they play in digital inclusion. We provide the resources that connect their community, whether it's with hotspot lending or Wi-Fi, or coming in for computer appointments. CARES Act funding through IMLS supported this as well.

I think the other challenge that we're seeing is with social justice and racial equity issues rising across the country, and the role libraries play there. How can we remove barriers to services? And how can we reflect the variety of perspectives of the people of our state? It's always been evident that the library field needs to diversify to more accurately reflect our communities. Since I was appointed to the position of State Librarian, I've been working to carry forward these conversations and the role libraries can play. It's not easy work, and it's going to be a challenge with lots of barriers out there, but we need to continually evolve.

IMLS CARES Act Grants for Museums and Libraries
Grants to State Library Administrative Agencies