Volume 25, Number 3, 2003

What's In It for Me? Mentoring the Competition... and Loving It!

by: Jill Rodriguez, Director of Bensenville (Ill.) Public Library District and Illinois State Library Grant Ambassador/Mentor

The Illinois State Library began a program in 2000, (see the October 2001 issue of Interface), called Lighting the Fire, which was designed to enhance the creativity of grants from the field and to explore ways to improve the grant making process in Illinois. Now, some three years later, the project has transitioned into a grant mentoring process that has empowered librarians and library staff all around the state to “get involved” in writing grants.

Following the two-year cycle of creativity training and Lighting the Fire grants, each of the core groups representing the twelve library systems in Illinois was asked to select a representative to serve as their “Fire Ambassador.” Ambassadors were asked to serve as an advisory committee to the Library Development Group for the purposes of developing RFPs, reviewing grant applications, and more importantly, serving as “grant mentors” for the state. During the subsequent two Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant cycles, the ambassadors met as a group several times and made recommendations to the state library based on their own experiences and feedback from their colleagues. They developed a new rubric for evaluating grants and helped formulate the priorities for each round of grants.

The mentoring piece is the one that has generated a new sense of community among librarians and hopefully has served to initiate some creative projects and instill confidence in young librarians. The list of Grant Ambassadors/Mentors has been widely circulated and attached to the notices of grant opportunities. Library staff members are encouraged to contact a mentor with specific questions, to brainstorm ideas, or even for help in focusing a program into a grant proposal. Each of the mentors has reported getting phone calls, e-mails, and personal visits from library staff members interested in preparing grant applications. One of the grant offerings this past year from the Illinois State Library is for library staff who have never had a proposal funded; the application has an optional space for the applicant to indicate if they contacted a mentor and which one. Discussion has taken place about making that a required component of the application.

Since Lighting the Fire was initiated, the Illinois State Library has seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications for LSTA funding. Last month as the Grant Ambassadors/Mentors met at the Illinois State Library to review more than 300 FY04 applications, they shared stories of their experiences as mentors. Although not all of the projects that had been “mentored” were recommended for funding, there was a strong consensus that the small amount of time it took to be a grant mentor was well worth it and that the librarians who took advantage of the opportunity seemed most appreciative. The group recommended expanding the mentor List to include other volunteers who had been successful in receiving LSTA or other funding through the Illinois State Library. Look for the Illinois Grant Mentors Program to flourish in the future. For more information, contact Jill Rodriguez.