IMLS CARES Act State Library Spotlight: How Rhode Island Went Digital

Karen Mellor, Rhode Island Chief of Library Services
Karen Mellor, Chief of Library Services, Rhode Island

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 Karen Mellor, Rhode Island’s Chief of Library Services. Read more about the Office of Library and Information Services’ priorities in the state profile for Rhode Island.

Madison: What approach have you taken with the IMLS CARES Act stimulus funds, including mechanisms you have used to distribute them?

Karen: The Office of Library and Information Services has been very appreciative of the opportunity to help our libraries through these IMLS Cares Act funds provided to states, including the roughly $96,000 that was awarded to Rhode Island.

We couldn't engage summer reading the way we always had done it with programs at the library, so we purchased a reading tracker called Beanstack for people to participate in summer reading virtually. Rhode Island has 48 independent library systems in our 39 cities and towns, and when we deployed the reading tracker, 44 libraries participated in this opportunity which speaks to how needed it was. We provided technical support to help libraries get the software up and running quickly.

We also offered mini CARES Act grants to every public library across the state to respond to or limit the spread of coronavirus. We saw libraries using this for personal protective equipment to make their libraries ready to receive the public again, such as installing plexiglass sneeze guards at circulation desks. Providing access to computers or the Internet is a critical service, so one of our large municipal libraries installed plexiglass between computers that were not six feet apart, so people could use all the computers as opposed to limiting the number of available computers.

As libraries addressed digital inclusion, we didn't see many hotspot purchases because we're very fortunate to have high-speed broadband available in about 95% of the state. But we did notice an increase in funds allocated to paying for hotspot subscriptions in some of our more urban areas.

Additionally, the mini CARES Act grants were used to foster innovative services or to adapt services in libraries. We saw some libraries putting together kits that people could pick up and then follow along at home with their kids. We also saw a couple of libraries instituting story walks to engage the community outside.

With the $5,000 of CARES Act funds we have left, we will be working with our public library consortium to expand external Wi-Fi at public libraries across the state; the project will be largely funded by the state’s commerce department through the Governor’s Take It Outside initiative.

It was so important for us to be able to get this money out really quickly, so we built a whole new online application tool, led by our digital resources coordinator, Jason Ackermann. To make the application process for these grants as easy as possible for our libraries, we created an online form that libraries could fill out, and sign digitally using e-signatures. The entire process was paperless and it is now the model for all of our grant applications, including state aid, from now on.

Madison: How have you seen the libraries and your state shift to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and how have you shifted to support them?

Karen: Libraries have turned to the State Library Agency for leadership during this time, and I think that's because our team from the very beginning has provided support to our libraries. We haven't changed too much of what we do, but we've changed how we do it. So much of it now is remote. The first priority was for us to support all the remote learning that was happening in the state, so we shifted our continuing education programs to all virtual programs and we shifted to a virtual delivery of services for our libraries as well as providing a lot of guidance to them.

We started meeting with libraries on a weekly basis in partnership with our public library consortium.  Initially, we met with public library directors every Monday morning, and that grew into a meeting where anybody was welcome, including trustees and staff. Libraries came to hear what guidance we had around coronavirus, and what they could expect to do.  We helped them rethink how to do business, and I can't speak enough about how innovative our libraries have been in terms of sharing what they're doing and coming up with ways to serve the public, and some of it is going to stick beyond the pandemic.  Even when the buildings weren’t open, our libraries never closed. Their services continued throughout COVID and they came up with very innovative ways to serve the public.

Madison: What challenges and opportunities have you observed during this time?

Karen:  One huge challenge is being thrown into the position of having to understand the scientific research behind COVID-19. As we provide guidance to libraries, we're not scientists and we're not health experts, but we have to be able to interpret and help guide libraries through the information that's being presented by our state’s health department and the REALM Project about how long the virus can live on common surfaces, what you need to do to be safe, and all the new regulations.

One of the really great opportunities is bringing together the library community. We found that every library is showing up and working together to get through this. And they are looking to our agency for leadership and guidance – we’ve become much more visible. I’m really proud of the work our team has done and the work that all of our public libraries have done to reopen their buildings. It's challenging, and there are an awful lot of procedures and rules that you have to have in place to be ready to reopen.

I think our libraries have really made the best of a bad situation. And I think many of the activities and services that have been adapted and adopted, both by our libraries and by our agency and how we administer our programs, have changed, and those changes will remain in place because they're actually more effective and efficient. What we might have achieved over the course of several years has been condensed into six months.

IMLS CARES Act Grants for Museums and Libraries