August 12, 2021

By Madison Bolls, Senior Program Officer, Grants to States

Staff during an exhibition on the DC Punk Scene. Braille printer. a video magnifier at the Center for Accessibility
Left: DC Public Library's Natalie Campbell with IMLS staff Laura McKenzie and Madison Bolls at the upcoming exhibition on the DC Punk Scene. Center: A braille printer in the Center for Accessibility, funded by IMLS. Right: DCPL's Julia Wolhandler shows Madison and Laura a video magnifier at the Center for Accessibility. Photos by Madison Bolls.

Just as Americans across the country are cautiously getting back to in-person gatherings, federal agencies like IMLS are dipping their toes back in to long-postponed activities.

Each year, State Library Administrative Agencies (SLAAs) receive federal funding through IMLS for vital state-wide and local library programming. The spending priorities of each SLAA are guided by a five-year plan, and once every five years, an assigned IMLS program officer makes an in-person site visit to the SLAA.

During these visits, we monitor the use of Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) funds, observe funded projects, and provide technical assistance on how they can improve their work to better meet federal program requirements. SLAAs have their own unique characteristics and operate in different ways, so these visits are often the most vital and informative part of our work in the Grants to States program.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic had a profound effect on how we conduct site visits. With most library buildings closed to the public and many government agencies on a pause from travel, we were unable to conduct site visits in person. While we collectively visited 27 states and territories from 2018 through early 2020, we still needed to visit 26 more to meet our benchmarks within this five-year cycle. So, we improvised!

Instead of a traditional three-day visit, each program officer conducted a two-hour virtual meeting to focus on the SLAA’s administrative processes. We also discussed library demographics, trends and challenges, and how they evaluate the progress of accomplishing their five-year plan goals. We tremendously appreciated SLAAs pivoting to accommodate the abbreviated virtual meetings. These had their fair share of challenges, as we can't get the same sense of how a state operates as we can when visiting in person. We also can’t see on-the-ground library efforts that are positively affecting communities. We sorely missed getting better acquainted with the SLAAs and the important work libraries do.

Fortunately, with increased vaccination rates, libraries across the country are re-opening buildings and resuming some in-person programming. This allowed me to conduct the first official, socially distanced SLAA site visit in nearly a year and a half! The DC Public Library (DCPL) acts as both the city library and an SLAA, and they invited me to the newly renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, its central branch.

I met with SLAA Chief and Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan and LSTA Coordinator Sarah Black to learn about DCPL programs and priorities. They demoed some exciting initiatives that are funded by LSTA, including the Peer Outreach Program, blind and low vision assistive technology at the Center for Accessibility, and 3-D printers and laser cutters at the Fabrication Lab. While DCPL maintained virtual programming throughout the pandemic, they plan to start in-person events in September.

Sixteen months is a long time to wait, but it was so refreshing to make meaningful connections with library professionals in person and observe the good work happening out in the field. As we continue to navigate the long-term effects of the pandemic, be sure to check out your state’s SLAA to see the ways IMLS funding is benefiting you and your community.

Grants to State Library Administrative Agencies