ARPA at Work in Rhode Island Libraries

In March 2021, the Office of Library and Information Services was awarded $2.2 million through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to support libraries in Rhode Island

 The inclusion of aid for the nation’s libraries in the massive federal ARPA package was made possible largely through the efforts of Rhode Island’s Senator Jack Reed, who had worked throughout 2020 to secure funding for libraries through the Library Stabilization Fund Act, which was absorbed into ARPA. ARPA funding for libraries was administered through the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Grants to States program, which supports the purposes and priorities outlined in the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). The formula for aid distribution provided a minimum allotment of $2 million to every state and an additional allotment based on population.

In preparation for the ARPA award, OLIS conducted a comprehensive assessment of the challenges faced by public libraries and the communities they served as Rhode Island recovered from the coronavirus pandemic. Public library directors and key staff were invited to offer their ideas for local and statewide projects and services to help their libraries better serve their communities. A statewide survey and community meetings were conducted throughout March 2021, and the findings were used to develop OLIS’ plan for the use of ARPA funds. The plan was submitted to the Institute of Museum and Library Services on April 2, 2021, and approved on April 5, 2021.

Plan for the Use of American Rescue Plan Act Funds

The OLIS plan for ARPA funds focused on facilitating a rapid return to expanded library services delivered in traditional and new ways through systems designed to provide safe access and services for all Rhode Islanders. Projects developed by OLIS with partners and through library subgrants included:

  • Digital access. Expand availability of and access to up-to-date computers, technology and the internet, especially in underserved communities; increase availability of and access to digital content statewide, including for individuals with visual impairments.
  • Learning. Provide resources to support remote learners and increase opportunities for individuals to acquire digital, workforce and career skills; strengthen reading and learning programs for children and teens to address pandemic-related learning loss.
  • Strengthening library services. Provide training to librarians to support the delivery of services and programs identified above; explore new, centralized methods of program delivery; provide safer and more efficient methods to deliver in-person library service; address issues magnified during the pandemic such as an unsustainable model for the delivery of eBooks, access to services for non-English speakers and marginalized communities, and the limited ability to provide remote/virtual services to those unable to visit the library.

The plan focused on support to public libraries but with benefits for school, academic and special libraries. Additionally, all Rhode Islanders would be able to take advantage of expanded services at libraries, including K-12 students, adult learners, job seekers, and marginalized populations.

Plan Implementation

OLIS implemented the plan in May 2021, launching a series of grant programs that included formula grants to public libraries, competitive grants open to all libraries, and statewide projects with library partners. In total, 139 grants were awarded to 48 public libraries, 4 school libraries, 1 special library, and 4 library serving organizations. 100% of the $2,230,333 award was used to directly benefit libraries or library services to the public.

A total of $1,316,859 was awarded as direct subgrants to libraries and library organizations through six grant programs:

  • Digital Access. Two rounds of formula-based grants for technology purchases were open to public libraries. 72 libraries applied for grants to purchase public access computers, self-check machines, and additional technology for programming and library operations. 600 desktop and laptop computers, 95 tablets, 24 self-check machines and 13 hotspots were purchased, along with cameras and microphones to support virtual programming and hundreds of peripherals (such as printers, scanners, copiers, easy-to-clean keyboards and mice, learning kiosks) to support safe and new technology for the public and library operations.

    Total awards:  $819,155
  • Strengthening Library Services. Competitive grants and a special grant round to libraries in distressed communities strengthened library services across the state.
    • Competitive Grants. Two rounds of competitive grants were open to all libraries. Project Grants provided up to $50,000 dollars for large projects and awarded $241,535 in total to 5 public libraries and one school library. The Mini-Grant program provided grants from $2,500-$7,500 for smaller projects, awarding $109,670 to 15 public libraries and 3 school libraries.

      Total awards:  $351,205
    • Distressed Communities. Grants to libraries in Rhode Island’s perennially distressed communities supported additional technology purchases and programming at libraries in Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, West Warwick, and Woonsocket to improve access to services for non-English speakers and marginalized communities. Though not included in this total, distressed communities also received additional stipends in the two rounds of technology grants.

      Total awards:  $75,988
  • Workforce Development. Two different sub-programs awarded funds to support the library workforce: diversity scholarships to students at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Library and Information Studies (GSLIS) and paid professional field experience internships to GSLIS students to work in local libraries. Ten diversity scholarships were awarded in partnership with the RI Library Association and GSLIS to cover the equivalent of one course at GSLIS; of those awards, 9 were awarded to students currently working as paraprofessionals in RI libraries. Fifteen libraries hosted 17 students to each complete 135 hours of paid professional-level work; several students have now been hired by their hosting library.

    Total awards:  $70,510.

An additional $883,661 was awarded to support statewide services.  Partners were engaged to develop five projects to support learning through libraries and to strengthen library services:

  • Learning. Three grants to the Statewide Reference Resource Center at Providence Public Library supported three different learning initiatives: 1) expansion of AskRI, including rebranding and rebuilding the AskRI website and adding databases including, Udemy, and Learning Express Job and Career Accelerator; 2) digital literacy training and workforce development support at libraries around the state; and 3) summer learning support to promote and support summer reading programs, including the purchase of Beanstack reading tracker for summer reading participants and creation of youth services programming kits.

    Total awards: $756,661
  • Strengthening Library Services. A grant to Ocean State Libraries supported the development of a statewide eBook platform (Palace Project) and additional content to expand access to eBooks and supplement the existing eZone collection.

    Total award: $127,000

Finally, the Office of Library and Information Services retained $29,813 to support statewide services, primarily in the area of youth services. ARPA funds were used to support training for youth services librarians working with children and teens experiencing trauma as a result of the pandemic, and for the development of youth service programming kits, along with equipment to support youth services projects. Less than one half of one percent of the total award was used for administrative costs.

ARPA Funding Impact

Technology purchases through the two technology grant rounds and technology purchases embedded in mini-grants and distressed community grants were the largest single expenditure of ARPA funds. Over $900,000 (41%) was used to purchase technology for public use and library operations, with the majority of that funding being used to support public access computing. Statewide projects to support learning and to strengthen library services accounted for over $900,000 (41%) of grant expenditures. Competitive grants to libraries, of which $337,000 (15%) was not specifically tied to technology purchases, helped strengthen library services, especially programming and learning support. Support for the library workforce totaled over $70,000 (3%).

In addition to the projects cited above, the following projects demonstrate some of the various approaches developed to help libraries and their communities recover from the pandemic:

  • Warwick Public Library purchased a van and outfitted it to bring services to underserved city neighborhoods;
  • Exeter-West Greenwich Junior Senior High School and Chariho High School libraries partnered with each other and the RI Computer Museum to help students prepare for career and college by constructing electric cars (and racing them in friendly competition!);
  • Providence Community Library conducted outreach programs in Hispanic neighborhoods to bring the library to the community and increase Spanish-language cultural programs in those neighborhoods;
  • West Warwick Public Library set up privacy pods and partnered with social service organizations to provide assistance programs in the library;
  • Exeter Public Library and Cranston Public Library set up high-tech Zoom rooms to support community meetings and learning programs;
  • Barrington Public Library purchased technology to provide remote access to and recordings of community programming, including candidate forums for the 2022 primary elections;
  • Park View Middle School in Cranston replaced materials lost when students left school in March 2020 and finished the school year remotely; and
  • North Scituate Public Library and South Kingstown Public Library developed programming to support wellness and help community members recover from pandemic impact.

ARPA funding for Rhode Island libraries was utilized in a variety of ways to meet community needs arising from the pandemic in addition to positioning libraries to better serve their communities in the years ahead. Thanks to ARPA investments, the state’s libraries have emerged from the pandemic with updated technology for library operations and the public, greater ability to conduct virtual and hybrid programs, and more programs to assist community members in recovering from the pandemic. The greatest benefactors, though, are Rhode Islanders, who now have a wider variety of online resources to support their educational, workforce, and reading needs and access to better equipped and more resilient libraries.