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Library, Rec directors team up to apply for ARPA funding

December 02, 2021
NEW DURHAM — What would you do with $2 million?

If you were the New Hampshire State Library, you'd take the $2,297,692 allotted you by the Institute of Museum and Library Services from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and disburse it to libraries in the state through a series of grants.

The funding is intended to be used to help libraries and their communities respond directly and immediately to the pandemic, as well as to related economic and community needs.

So, if you were a small town library, how would you go about getting a share of that money?

Faced with a minimum requested amount of $10,000 and a deadline of Oct. 1, newly installed New Durham Public Library Director Caitlin Frost was unsure at first what to do.

"When I started at the library in September, I felt like we needed to take advantage of at least applying for this grant, although I wasn't exactly sure what the library or the town needed," Frost said.

Collaborative projects were to get priority in the awarding process, so she went to Parks and Recreation Director Celeste Chasse to see if she was interested in a mutually beneficial endeavor.

"Luckily, Celeste had grand plans for a musical and literature playscape with exercise equipment," Frost said, "and I was thrilled to come aboard to seek out funds for this project. She had the perfect idea for a space that could be used by residents of all ages."

The library and Recreation Department have a long history of working together, having held joint events and classes for years. The grant opportunity for ARPA funds was one more way for Town departments to join forces.

Frost and Chasse got to work designing what they would like, in order to serve residents and increase the visibility of both departments.

They decided to promote literacy and family connection in an outdoor setting that residents generally accept as Covid-19 safe, using the space at the Elmer C. Smith ball fields.

Frost submitted the application within deadline and with a total request of $39,077.50, and then the waiting began.

If they receive the grant, the community can expect an installation at the playground of musical and exercise equipment, a Little Free Library, and a Pop Up Library, and exercise equipment and a Storywalk along the walking trail.

The exercise equipment includes a lateral rock wall; an assisted balance walk, which is essentially a balance beam with handrails, making it usable by more age groups; an in-ground Captain's chair for ab workouts; a cardio walker to increase lower body strength and improve aerobic fitness; and an in-ground leg press.

Musical play stations at the playground feature percussive equipment.

Some of this had been a dream for Chasse.

"I have wanted equipment like this, but there was other stuff, like tennis courts and a playground at the beach, I was shooting for first. But then this opportunity came up and I knew it would be great for all ages and a good addition to our park," Chasse said.

It didn't take her long to come up with the equipment she wanted.

"I'd seen them at another park and I thought it would be cool, so I had in mind what I would like," she added.

All ages and fitness abilities would be able to take advantage of the requested apparatus.

Do you prefer reading digital content on a device or holding a book in your hand? The Little Free Library and Pop Up Library would give residents the best of both worlds.

Most people are familiar with the public bookcase known as Little Free Libraries. Frost indicated residents would be able to swap books there, but the library would maintain it.

"We will freshen it up with some of our own discarded books, and make sure there is always a good mix of fiction and nonfiction, and children's and adult books," she said.

The Pop Up Library, providing easy access to downloadable titles to read on smartphones and tablets, would be located in the same space.

Frost explained, "This is a handheld device that has preloaded books on it, so there is no need for WiFi. Patrons can check out a book on the device, much as they would on their Kindle, and read while their kids play or while they're at the park."

A Storywalk along the trail is another way the project would reach out to families who may not normally visit the library, while offering a chance to enjoy recreational time together.

"It combines reading with the benefits of walking outdoors, and will feature new stories every few weeks so families and community members will be able to return multiple times," Frost said.

There has been quite the process to go through, however, as this round of grants is highly competitive. A review panel made up of librarians around the state has been reviewing all applications and ranking them according to a set of questions and a scale. The awardees will be announced Dec. 1.

It's proven to be the source of some tension for the applicants.

"It's been a back and forth process since we submitted the application in October," Frost said, "of the review panel asking for more detailed information about different aspects of this project. Each time I get the email that we have advanced to the next stage or that the committee is requesting additional information, my heart skips a beat."

The application has made it through two rounds so far, which Frost is taking as a good sign.

There are solid reasons why it stands a good chance.

Frost said that, with the pandemic, there has been increased focus on physical health, as people have found ways to entertain themselves outdoors.

"This provides a place for an entire family to come and enjoy. Mom and Dad could exercise while the kids play. A whole family can take a hike on the Storywalk trail and read a book together. Grandparents can bring their grandkids to play while they read a book," she said.

She called the project "a true multi-generational play area, which is hard to find. So we are excited and hopeful that this project will see the light of day."

Chasse feels the same, noting "I'm really looking forward to getting this opportunity for the town."

The New Durham applicants, as well as the entire community, don't have much longer to wait to find out. Fingers crossed!

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