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How can libraries foster community connectivity? Our partnership with the Vermont Department of Libraries

fall library

Image courtesy of Alice M. Ward Memorial Library, Canaan, VT

In September 2020, the Vermont Community Foundation announced five VT COVID-19 Response Fund recovery initiatives that address key challenges magnified by the pandemic, including Rural Connectivity. COVID-19 and the associated stay-at-home orders made it clear that a reliable connection to the internet is critical for accessing basic needs and income. But across the state, about 70,000 households and businesses either do not have an internet connection or inconsistent, dated dial-up access. Over the last seven months, the Community Foundation has granted more than $500,000 towards expanding broadband access, including directing funds towards community-led broadband efforts. 

Recognizing the longer timelines and significant public and private funding needs required to build out broadband infrastructure, the Community Foundation also set out to identify a more immediate solution for getting Vermonters on the Internet. And where do many folks go when they lack a connection at home? The library.

Beginning in December 2020, the Community Foundation partnered with the Vermont Department of Libraries (VDOL) to establish a grant program to support community connectivity and broadband access at libraries located in communities within Vermont’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs). CUDs are multi-town municipal entities staffed by volunteers who are committed to enhancing Internet access in rural Vermont. Grants of $1,500 were made to 98 libraries based on their location, community poverty levels, and limited internet access. Thanks to a donor-advised fundholder at the Community Foundation, four additional libraries will receive grants in the coming weeks. Applications surfaced a variety of needs, which fell broadly into three categories:

  • Updating equipment, including purchasing additional WIFI hotspots, building outdoor recharging stations, and upgrading connectivity speeds in places such as Rockingham, Roxbury, and Winhall.
  • Creating safe, physical spaces through installation of air purifier systems and other creative solutions to allow for social distancing at libraries in Rutland, Vergennes, Dover, and elsewhere.
  • Establishing technology lending programs, including purchasing laptops and notebooks for community members to borrow in places such as East Corinth, Stamford, and Chelsea.

Responses from the libraries that received grants point to how meaningful the program was, for example:

“Thanks for remembering librarians with this grant because we’re not the curators of old buildings with dusty books that people think we are. We are warriors of connectivity and equity in ‘palaces for the people’ and often the link to what they need. We are dedicated to everyone the same—from the secure, to the most at-risk, vulnerable people. We don't let them walk away until they are SERVED, and safe, and connected.” Sharon Ellingwood, Alice M. Ward Memorial Library, Canaan, VT

“Right now, during COVID, we have a number of people sit in our parking lot accessing the internet and there needs to be better connectivity for them and not just in certain spots. This will help! When we can open back up to the public, we have people stopping in to use the computers and WiFi every week. Our computers need upgrading and this will help tremendously for this small rural library which is run totally by volunteers.” Elisabeth Sargent, North Danville Brainerd Memorial Library, Danville, VT

On the partnership, Jason Broughton, State Librarian and Commissioner of Libraries at the Vermont Department of Libraries says, “Working with the Vermont Community Foundation in public/private partnership allowed both of our organizations to address a need within local communities that has been a necessity in our daily life. Having access to the internet allows connection, collaboration, and commerce to flow to each of us. This however is not always the case across parts of Vermont. Libraries play an integral role in having services such as public computers, available WiFi, and laptop/tablet lending. Our partnership allowed us to leverage resources, intellect, and funds to improve technological supports and library services within a variety of local communities. No one agency, department, or entity will achieve broadband, WiFi, or internet technologies on their own. This is why our partnership together is important and invaluable.”

The Community Foundation’s partnership with VDOL emphasized the important role that libraries play both in the services they provide and as a space where community can grow around those services. That is partly the reason why a small amount of philanthropy can have such an outsized impact.

To learn more about the Community Foundation’s Rural Connectivity recovery initiative, check out our Q+A with Kevin Wiberg, who led the research and grantmaking strategy.