September 2, 2021
IMLS staff interviewed chief officers of State Library Administrative Agencies (SLAAs) to discuss their response to the pandemic, including the use of IMLS American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) 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, $178 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 Leesa Aiken, Director of South Carolina’s State Library. Read more about the South Carolina State Library’s priorities in the state profile for South Carolina.
Michele: What approach have you taken with the American Rescue Plan Act stimulus funds, including mechanisms you have used to distribute them?
Leesa: We have 46 counties and received a little more than $3.1 million, so I put aside $30,000 for each county library. They also benefit from other specific programs that we’re doing.
We have a digital workforce development program called “Learn Digital SC.” It’s a train-the-trainer program to help staff increase their digital literacy, and then gauge where their patrons are. We have a subscription to Northstar Digital Literacy for this program with different modules to use with patrons and some testing resources. We also purchased wireless access for Chromebooks so libraries can loan them out to people working on their digital literacy.
South Carolina has a significant population of grandparents raising grandchildren, so we are refreshing our GrandFamily Resource Centers. They provide information for grandparents on how to navigate the digital world, how to see what their grandchild is looking at online and how to set up online safety nets. Each center also includes a rocking chair or a big double chair so a grandparent can sit with a grandchild and read. The centers are stocked with books for different age groups and have been super successful.
We have an emergency preparedness kit application including a wish list of items like generators, fans, masks, gloves, hazmat suits that libraries can go through and pick.
South Carolina has a significant Spanish-speaking population, so we make sure all our brochures are printed in Spanish and our day-by-day literacy calendar is available in Spanish. We are also developing a Spanish language resource collection and an “out of the box” program for public libraries, especially those with a really small staff. The collection includes a list of materials in Spanish for young children and for adults.
We've added an online African American history resource for K-12 students and one that serves K-12, adults, and college students trying to figure out what they want to do for a career.
We also used some of our ARPA funds for homework help centers. There is still about $700,000 to allocate and we know that some libraries will request additional funding.
Michele: Tell us about your experiences in working with new or existing partners during this time. What kinds of resources have you been able to tap into because of partnerships, and vice versa?
Leesa: The biggest and most rewarding partnership of this pandemic has been with the South Carolina Department of Education. They have been more receptive to partnering on different programs because last year all our children were at some point educated virtually. That partnership has grown because we have Discus, which is our online library for K-12 students, with accurate, vetted information available 24/7.
When the pandemic hit, we purchased Tutor.com, and in the first month we logged 1,500 sessions. Most of the kids fill out a quick survey indicating how much they love this resource, and after some related back and forth, the Department of Education gifted us $500,000 in their own ARPA funds for similar electronic resources.
South Carolina has major difficulty with broadband access infrastructure and equal access to affordable Internet. We have been very successful in assisting our public libraries in applying for E-rate funds to cover infrastructure upgrades. Right before the pandemic, we upgraded all libraries to at least 100 megabytes per second. During the pandemic the legislature established the Office of Broadband, and we partnered with them and with ETV, our public television station, which is doing some cool programs. In many communities, libraries were the central place with reliable Internet access, and we placed Wi-Fi extenders in some buildings so the signal could go out into the parking lot.
By partnering with the schools, we were able to identify more families in need of Internet-enabled devices with access to educational materials. Right now, we have 720 devices in the field for kids to use.
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?
Leesa: Many of our public libraries were already voting sites. Now they are also vaccination or testing sites. It's a natural fit because people trust their public library.
Last year I was really concerned about a potential drop in summer reading participation and a greater degree of “summer slide,” but libraries did virtual programming and the funded devices helped ensure access to them. Libraries also put together summer reading kits that people could drive by and pick up from the library. That was really successful. They also created outdoor spaces around the library for things like reading books on the sidewalk so that people could still participate in summer reading.
A couple of our libraries did book drop-offs to patrons, and others provided resume support. One library dictated a resume over the phone. Libraries also helped create resumes and then either emailed it to them or printed a hard copy for them to drive by and get. I thought that was impressive. If somebody needed to print something, especially related to school or work, the libraries would print it and people could drive by and pick it up. We had a couple of libraries help people apply for jobs in the same way. They also helped with applying for unemployment benefits online.
The State Library moved all our librarian training online, so that people could still participate. The number of participants was higher because they didn't have to travel. I believe that we will continue some form of more robust virtual training. We briefly paused the Talking Book Services, which are a lifeline for people with low to no vision or other print disabilities as we determined how to safely continue.
When we started it back up, people were so grateful. We had to quarantine materials and come up with procedures, but the Talking Book Services staff were the first to come back to get materials circulating again. I had one of their patrons call me in the period that they weren’t circulating materials. He said, “I think that the Talking Book Services program is much more important than the liquor stores opening. I’m going to call the governor’s office.”