Jennifer Nelson, Director of State Library Services, Minnesota
Jennifer Nelson, Director of State Library Services, Minnesota

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 Dennis Nangle interviewing Jennifer Nelson, Minnesota’s Director of State Library Services. Read more about the Minnesota Department of Education’s priorities in the state profile for Minnesota.

Dennis: What approach have you taken with the CARES act stimulus funds, including mechanisms that you've used to distribute them?

Jennifer: Using multiple sources of data related to distance learning and the challenges that families were having with access to the internet, devices, and digital literacy overall, we put together a method for awarding larger grants (about 2/3 of the total CARES Act award) to three of our regional public library systems. This will allow them to invest deeply in improving access for the communities around their library. We also have four tribal college libraries in Minnesota that tend to be very under-resourced, so our first commitment was to give $25,000 to each of those libraries to help support them. We know that in many cases, tribal college students are supporting families and family education, as well as their own, and that tribal colleges tend to have more adult learners.

Dennis: What kinds of resources have you been able to tap into because of partnerships?

Jennifer: We strengthened our relationship with the Minnesota Secretary of State's office around voter services and did outreach to libraries on voter registration and mail-in voting. We had a series of communications going out to libraries every week for the six weeks preceding the election, letting people know about that week’s deadlines for registration or ballot mailing, changes in ballot locations, ballot drop-off locations, and other information. We also held a webinar on these topics with the Secretary of State, and over 150 people attended.

We had also started some work with our state demographer’s office around the 2020 Census. Over 250 of our 350 library branches signed up to be Question Assistance Centers, which fell apart once COVID hit. But even still, we worked with libraries and the Demographic Center around filling out the census, finding alternative ways to publicize information, and getting libraries on board with reminding people to fill out the census. I'm pleased to say that Minnesota had a 75 percent self-response rate, which is the highest in the country.

We began a new relationship with an organization founded by former teachers, called Live More Screen Less, that has an interest in digital wellbeing for students. They have a research-based focus on how to support kids using digital technology in healthy ways, which is imperative with distance learning during the pandemic. We held a workshop with them that had about 70 people attend, and we're doing a series of four more that will help libraries develop a plan for supporting kids’ digital wellness. We’re really excited about that.

Maybe the most fun thing, though, has been working with The Minnesota Center for the Book, which is held by the friends of the St. Paul Public Library, to start One Book One Minnesota. We had over 2,000 people attend the first culminating event around Katie DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie. Shortly after that chapter of the program, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, which had a huge local impact. We wanted to provide an avenue for people to have a conversation that was less volatile so we decided to focus on A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, a compilation of essays by people of color, reflecting on their experiences. Libraries across the state participated in book clubs and had the essayists come in to do workshops, talk with people, and do readings. We had another thousand people attend the culminating event.

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

Jennifer: Our libraries have done an amazing job of figuring out what they can do, what they can't do, and then making things happen. The Rochester Public Library, a 2018 IMLS National Medal recipient, was tapped to run a homeless center at the Civic Center next door. They were also asked to serve as the city and county COVID information line.

We had one librarian at a small community in northern Minnesota who desperately wanted to provide Internet access to people. So, she went into their parking lot, made six-foot grids, brought tables out along with computers and extension cords, and set up a lab in the parking lot. We have another library that reconfigured their building and put in a drive-up window.

The Minnesota Braille and Talking Book Library is also an excellent example of how we have shifted our services to meet current needs. They never closed down services. Even with less staff in the library, they continued to circulate close to 1,000 books a day to our patrons, who really appreciated that. The efforts that their supervisor, Catherine Durivage, undertook to make sure that they were providing services, were just short of heroic, and really attest to the value of the service for people with disabilities. Because of the COVID experience, I was able to successfully argue for a new staff position for them in the midst of the pandemic, increasing their staff by one full-time employee. Overall, libraries have really done an amazing job of figuring out what they can do, what they can't do, and making it happen.

NOTE: As of 2/3/2021, Jen is now serving in her new role as New Jersey State Librarian.

IMLS CARES Act Grants for Museums and Libraries