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TL v62n1: Small Grants and the Academic Library
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 Small Grants and the Academic Library

Christopher Shaffer, Director of Library Services, Troy University Dothan, Dothan, Alabama

Amanda Major, University of Phoenix

Jimmy Hull, Principal, Holtville High School, Elmore County, Alabama

Jamey McGowin, Principal, Stanhope Elmore High School, Elmore County, Alabama


The authors are doctoral candidates at Alabama State University.


Pursuit and implementation of small grants can have a transformative impact on a community’s perception of an academic institution as well as the institution’s overall culture. Successful transformation of a culture by one small grant at a time involves an understanding of the dynamics between university culture, community perceptions, and small grants. This paper provides insight into how to not only locate grant opportunities but also how to decide what opportunities are best for individual institutions. Furthermore, using a variety of small grants from Troy University’s Dothan Library as exemplars, an overview of grant writing strategies and procedures is offered. The grant making organizations examined include the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF), which is representative of other state humanities organizations throughout the United States, The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Target Corporation, and several other corporations that provide grants for educational causes. Finally,  reflections are offered on how these small grants influenced a University’s climate and the community perceptions of that university.


When individuals in academia journey into Grantland, they immediately want to find grants that, albeit worthy and noble of pursuing, are also large in payout, and consequently will bring the grant writer significant notice and attention. Such grants tend to create programs or departments and are undisputed cash cows for academic institutions. Small grants (usually between $500 and $5,000) play a different role at a university.

Small grants offer the university and community it serves unique benefits. Taking the time to apply for grants may provide smaller libraries the opportunity to have the improved technology and other advantages held by their larger counterparts (Landau, 2010). In the case of the Troy University Dothan library, success in the world of small grants was largely accidental. It began with an IMLS Bookshelf Grant on preservation. After the grant was awarded, two faculty members became interested in the process and began researching grant opportunities. Grants applied for typically were chosen based on collection needs in the case of book grants, or programming the librarians felt would be valued by the community. Programming grants included a French Film Festival and lectures by a Holocaust survivor, an expert on Black cowboys, and a prison guard who wrote poetry, among others. After a few successes (and some failures) library faculty and staff recognized the positive impact small grants could have in terms of benefit to the university community and to the surrounding community. Troy University Dothan’s goals related to grant writing focused on cultural programs such as lectures, educational opportunities such as summer reading programs for young children, and collection development.

Small grants are typically designed to provide support for a onetime event, such as a guest lecturer, a brief educational program, a film series, or a book festival. There are also small grants available to purchase instructional materials such as books, compact discs, and DVDs in order to supplement a library collection or to begin one. Opportunities also exist to help pay for short term assistants for research programs. There are a wide variety of small grants available and an equally wide variety of reasons to apply for one. Grants applied for should relate to the population served by the library. For instance, if after sampling the interests of the local population and finding that most patrons have little interest in foreign films, applying for a time-intensive grant to host a French film festival would add little value to the local community. A more value-added effort would involve offering an interesting alternative or complement to a local tradition that involves a manageable workload, such as featuring a guest lecture about Black cowboys for Black History Month. Depending on the type of event sponsored by a small grant, a strong potential exists for the community to benefit from such programs and activities, of which they may never have gained exposure to otherwise. This, in turn, provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate to the local population that the library, as extension of the university, plays an important role in their lives.

Small grants can be remarkably useful in increasing faculty and student interest in the library. Librarians, for better or worse, have made information so easily available from a distance that, increasingly, faculty or students perceive little reason to make a trip physically to the library. Instead, they log into the database of their choice and are able to find all the information they need—or at least think they need. Many libraries have noticed a decline in usage, and activities funded by small grants are one method of making the library relevant to the university community once again.

Influence of Small Grants on an Academic Institution’s Culture

In today’s economic climate, academic institution and legislative decision makers frequently cut costs by decreasing spending for public services, such as special library projects and events. Despite these difficult economic times, foundations, businesses, and government agencies are still giving, although stiffer competition means that grant writers must be more diligent in selecting grants and preparing applications. They must decide which funding sources to approach, and they must make sure that their grant proposals stand out from the other proposals (Flanders, 2010).

Small grants can influence the culture and climate of the university over time, both through materials ordered and programs offered. Ideas presented in the library spread from one person to the next by those in attendance, which can, in turn, lead to the promotion of new ideas and interests. This phenomenon is similar to the spread of new innovations, which become more used as more people become knowledgeable about them and then talk about them (Rogers, 2005).

The climate of the academic institution will likely reflect this initial adoption of ideas before the ideas infiltrate into the university’s culture. Climate describes temporary aspects of an organization, yet culture represents deeply embedded practices of an organization (Lindahl, 2006). Individuals in the academic institution can rate aspects of their climate because these aspects (such as openness, instructional management, motivation, and innovativeness) are present to a certain degree, whereas individuals can describe ways of life in their organization from which cultural values and traditions emerge (Lindahl, 2006). Therefore, to have an impact on culture, library grant practices should involve on-going, systemic, and enduring practices. These would include a librarian charged with grant writing and programming duties, and also an institutional plan detailing what type of grants should be pursued to enhance the university’s culture. Whether this plan is written or conceptual, there should be an understanding of what type of grants a given library plans to apply for.

With the understanding of the way the diffusion of new ideas influences climate and culture, grant writers can tailor their efforts to finding the best grant for their institution, but first they must explore the breadth and depth of grants available. Information about the sources and discernment of grants as well as strategies for winning grants should be useful to grant writers in deciding which grants to pursue and how to pursue them.      

Sources of Grants

Flanders (2010) lists a host of grant-related resources easily accessible on the Web. She organized the list of websites by general grants and awards, grant directories specific to the library profession and non-profits, government grants, proposal writing resources, glossaries, blogs, and fundraiser and grant professional organizations.  Such sources about grants include, but are not limited to, The Foundation Center (, The ALA Awards and Grants directory (, the federal, The Institute of Library and Museum Services (, The National Endowment for the Humanities (, Corporation for Public Broadcasting Grant Proposal Tips (  Reference resources such as the Grants Register and the Annual Register of Grant Support are also remarkably valuable assets for grant writers to utilize.

There are also a variety of practical articles on grant writing for librarians (e.g., Doerksen, 2008; Gerding, 2008; Landau, 2010; MacKellar, 2010). Such articles are indicative not only of the prevalence of grant writing within the field of library science, but also of the increased need for funding as a result of ever-shrinking budgets for public school libraries as well as public schools in general.

Suggestions for Discerning Grants

After the librarian identifies a set of possible grants, he or she must discern the grants for which to apply based on the potential return on investment (Landau, 2010). Librarians, as well as all grant writers, must strive to assess the time and resources necessary to apply and to implement a grant. If the return is not significant, a grant should not be applied for.

To determine whether or not the grant is achievable, the librarian must know what the grant’s criteria are and whether they can be met with the grant proposal. Landau (2010) suggests only applying for grants with a 1-in-10 chance or better of successful attainment. For example, small grants from the NEH often take considerable time to complete, and are highly competitive, making it tempting for librarians to look for other sources of funding when possible. Understanding a grant’s eligibility requirements, purpose, and selection criteria requires that librarians study the grant very carefully (Doerksen, 2008). Eligibility for being a valid candidate for a grant must be determined. In the case of libraries, frequently academic libraries cannot apply for the same grants as academic libraries (Landau). Generally, a library must have non-profit status in order to apply for a grant from most funding agencies, yet teaming with an eligible partner can possibly meet the grant’s criteria (Landau). Therefore, the requirements and guidelines of the grant offer the grant seeker some decision-making options.

To discern a grant opportunity more fully, the librarian can examine the compatibility of the students and the academic organization with the grant requirements (Doerksen, 2008). The level of compatibility provides a criterion for determining which grants offer the best fit for the organization. When deciding what grant to pursue, librarians can choose topics that have compatibility with the interests of those that frequent the library or opinion leaders within their broader organization or community. Choosing based on compatibility addresses both needs and interests of those the library serves. One idea is to select grants that match the organization’s mission (Landau, 2010). For example, many university libraries have a part of their mission statement that references providing service to the community. Building from that, librarians may then develop grant applications that address service through literacy programs or other cultural endeavors. Crucial to that process is determining the extent to which the goals of the grant application match those of the funding agency. Another idea involves documenting how their community of patrons exchange, produce, and consume information and choosing grants that reflect those interest patterns. For example, Davis, Wilson, and Horn (2005) suggested that the infometrics (i.e., the measurement of information) shows promises for solving some library management, service provision, and collection development problems. Librarians can use infometrics to understand the information patterns of their community of patrons, therefore allowing for a more focused and compatible grant search. Furthermore, working on grants offers the potential for fostering collaboration with the various academic departments of a university (Franklin & Stephens, 2008). These partnerships can foster the selection of grants, generate enthusiasm to participate in the grant’s fruition, and influence the climate and culture of the organization.

One of the most important elements of the decision making process for a librarian working on grants involves learning from his or her failed grant attempts, thereby gaining an understanding of why a grant failed (Doerksen, 2008).  In so doing, a librarian can then determine whether reapplication for a grant after making appropriate revisions to the proposal would place his or her institution in a competitive advantage for the grant. Three of the successful grants discussed later in this article result from reapplication with appropriate modifications a year after an initial rejection.  In all cases, a monetary match was offered when these grants were reapplied for.

An understanding of the grant’s achievability, the needs of the population served, and lessons learned from failed grant attempts involves obtaining more than one perspective. The decisions required to choose which grant to pursue are best made collectively. Participative decision making about non-programmed actions that allows for disagreement, and the resolution of such, involves more effective library-related decisions (Runyon, 1982). However, when such decisions become value-laden or technical, then group decision making is not the best option. Lindahl (personal communication, April 25, 2011) recommends listening to participative input but making authoritarian value-based decisions. Such participation from key library personnel not only offers higher quality decisions about which grants to apply for, but also establishes buy-in during the implementation process (Runyon). It also helps to ensure that the grant is compatible with the university’s culture.

Strategies or Procedures for Writing Winning Grants

Writing a good proposal involves expressing the fit between the organization for which the grant will serve and the characteristics of the grant itself. Parts of the proposal should include a statement about the need for the grant project, the plan (e.g., its purpose, goals, description, and execution), the expected and measurable outcomes, the resources needed to implement the grant (which includes human, physical, financial, and time resources), and measurable evaluation methods (Franklin & Stephens, 2008). Grant reviewers noted the following common mistakes: vague and verbose writing styles (especially in the abstract), evidence of a lack of competence, incomplete responses to the program announcement, and an inaccurate amount of detail to explain the project plan (Porter, 2005). The project plan can project the resources, time, and specific actions for implementing the grant project.

The best way to understand what grant reviewers want in a grant proposal is to become a grant reviewer (Markin, 2008). The grant reviewing process, she explains, rarely follows a rational process, but, rather, it involves subjective panels or individual critiques sorting through mediocre proposals; however, usually the strongest proposal stands out. For those interested in becoming grant reviewers, serving in the panel review process dramatically strengthened grant writing skills, such as writing to hold the readers’ attention, laying key points out early, strongly organizing the proposal into sections with numerous headings, and displaying many visual graphics (Porter, 2005). Clearly expressing the need for a grant, as opposed to a desire for extra funding for pet projects, demonstrates to the reviewers the fit between the organization and the grant (Franklin & Stephens, 2008). Panel reviewers recommend that grant writers routinely resubmit grant proposals and take time to write grant proposals more clearly, freshly, and specifically to their audience of grant reviewer panelists (Porter, 2005).

Exemplars of Small Grant Implementation in the Academic Library

State humanities grants are an excellent source of funding for programs that have a humanities theme. Speakers can be experts on history, literature, performing arts, linguistics, or a wide range of other fields of interest. The following are examples of successful grants. The first three were funded by the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF). There are also examples of several other successful grants that stem from a variety of venues. Specifically, these grants were given to Troy University’s Dothan campus library in southeastern Alabama

Ann Rosenheck: A Witness to the Holocaust. Ann Rosenheck was born in what is today Ukraine. In 1944, when she was 13 years of age, she was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Remarkably, she survived not only the Auschwitz camp but subsequent internments at two other camps. She was liberated by American forces in 1945. Mrs. Rosenheck shared her story on Troy’s Alabama campuses in Troy, Dothan, and Montgomery. She also spoke at two public schools in Dothan, which made this grant an observable influence on the local community. AHF provided $1,700 in support of this project, with those funds being used primarily to support transportation fees, speaker fees, and hotel and food costs. The university provided matching funds for the grant by producing a DVD of the Troy lecture that was then provided free of charge to all local public schools. In total, approximately 1,500 people were able to hear Mrs. Rosenheck’s story over a three-day period. History professors were on hand to provide supplemental contextual information as needed.

Troy University Black History Month Lecture Series. This lecture series took place in February 2011, with AHF contributing $1,925 in support of the project.  Professor Mike Searles of Augusta State University in Georgia is an expert on the Black experience in the American West. Dressed in authentic cowboy garb, he discussed a wide array of Black historical figures in the American West in the late nineteenth-century. His presentation was accompanied by a PowerPoint slide show that contained photographs of the individuals he was referencing from the Old West.  Professor Searles spoke three times on two Troy University campuses (Troy, AL and Dothan, AL).  He also agreed to make an extra presentation for a group of 150 elementary school children from Pike County Elementary school in Troy, AL.  This enabled the children to have a unique educational experience and also exposed them to Troy’s campus.

The second part of the lecture series involved multiple presentations by Tonya Baxter, a Houston County, AL, prison guard who is also a poet.  Ms. Baxter proved to be an excellent and engaging speaker; she also visited two English classes on Troy’s Dothan campus to discuss topics such as the writing process and how writers can find their own inspiration. 

Both of these events were well attended and audiences in all cases were remarkably inquisitive.  They also gave both the library and the university a significant amount of positive public exposure within the community at large. Many attendees had never before been on Troy’s Dothan campus, and an article written for the Montgomery Advertiser was picked up by the Associated Press and distributed to newspapers nationwide. The events were advertised in local newspapers and television in the days leading up to the presentations, which likely increased attendance, and led to interest from the public schools, and the extra presentation by Mr. Searles.

Alabama Illustrated: Nineteenth Century Magazine Engravings of the State. The director of the Archives of Wiregrass History and Culture, Dr. Martin Olliff, was the primary author of the Alabama Illustrated grant.  The grant from AHF for $1,800 made it possible for the library and archives to exhibit a display of nineteenth-century magazine engravings by the naturalist Phillip Gosse for three months.  The exhibit was accompanied by a presentation by Dr. Gary Mullins, and entomologist from Auburn University, whose lecture provided a proper context for the exhibit.

Target Literacy Grants. The Target Corporation offers all libraries with summer literacy programs grants of $2,000 for the one time purchase of books to supplement those summer reading programs.  Such grants encourage partnerships within a library’s community that can be beneficial to the institutions involved, as well as the community as a whole.  The grants can also be helpful in improving a university library’s children’s literature program.

Troy University Dothan Library had a unique opportunity because of programs already in place within its community.  The university’s education department has a summer reading program named “Summer Spectacular,” in which university seniors who are early childhood education and elementary education students teach students from Dothan area schools. The university library has always supported this program through collection development based on the program’s annual theme. As a result of the grant from Target in 2009, which the library matched, students had access to a much larger number of new books than in previous years and the library greatly expanded its children’s literature collection. Additionally, the grant allowed a corporation to publicly display its interest in community service and its commitment to the community.  As a result of the university’s reciprocal checkout arrangement with members of Dothan’s Houston-Love Memorial Library, Target Corporation’s grant will continue to benefit area children for many years to come.

In 2010, the Troy University library again applied for and received a grant from Target Corporation, this time in collaboration with the Houston-Love Memorial Library, to support that library’s summer reading program for children. In addition to purchasing books for children in the Houston-Love reading program, there was a research component that analyzed the reading habits of families participating in the program in an effort to shed light on how to improve reading in the community. The library was again awarded the same amount by Target in support of the Summer Spectacular Program in August 2011.

The Tournees French Film Festival (The French American Cultural Exchange). The Tournees French Film Festival is designed for universities and enables them to host five current French films on their campus.  Admission must be free.  The $1,800 grant is used to pay distribution costs for the films selected from the Tournees website.  The grant, which the Troy University Dothan Library received in both 2008 and 2010, is a unique opportunity to provide American communities with cultural insights into France that they would not otherwise be able to glean.  In 2010 the library hosted a wine and cheese reception to begin the film festival that was attended by a mixture of individuals from the university and Dothan, AL, community.  In total, 176 people attended five films; this allowed the library to reinforce its position as a cultural resource for the entire community, not just the university.

Although the Troy University Dothan Library has tended to use small grants to enrich faculty, students, and the at-large community by providing cultural events, they are also an excellent means of establishing a collection of books in a specific area, or further developing a specific collection.  By allowing the purchase of a large number of books on a specific subject, such grants can, in part, drive the curriculum of the university, by eliminating the excuse of there being too few materials available to teach a new class.  The following are several book and instructional materials grants the library at Troy University Dothan has successfully applied for or that are currently pending.  In all cases, the library agreed to match the amount of the grant for purchasing books and ancillary materials on the subject related to the grant.

Northeast Asia Council (NEAC) Instructional Materials Grant. For some time, students in the university’s International Relations graduate program had complained about the dearth of books on Japanese history and culture. The NEAC provides $1,000 grants for instructional materials on Japan and Korea.  As a result of the match, the library was able to purchase slightly over $2,000 worth of books and audio-visual materials on Japan, which proved useful to that program. This grant offered the university both an observable and trialable experience that changed the climate of the program, and perhaps its culture, as it enabled instructors to move away from the Eurocentric tendencies prevalent in the program.

The Institute for Turkish Studies Library Grants. The Institute for Turkish Studies (ITS) awards library grants for book purchases in the amount of $2,500 annually. This award can enable a small academic library to dramatically increase the size of its collection on Turkey, specifically, but also on the Middle East and Europe in general because of the critical role Turkey/Anatolia has played in history as a result of its geographic location. The Troy University Dothan Library agreed to match the grant, which was awarded in April 2011, and was also open to suggestions from the grant making agency following receipt of the grant concerning methods of making the best use of the funds, which primarily emphasized ordering paperback copies which are less expensive, thereby allowing more titles to be ordered. ITS also offers “seed money” grants to universities for Turkish language or history faculty members’ positions. The organization will provide $20,000 annually for a three-year period to fund an instructor in these positions. Such grants are ideal opportunities for librarians to collaborate with other faculty members in relevant academic departments.

Exhibition Grants For academic librarians who want to increase their library’s exposure within the community, exhibition grants are one possible route. There are several grants of this nature that are made available annually by the American Library Association (ALA), as well as by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  It is also possible to request funds from a state humanities or arts council to host an exhibition. In providing such exhibits, which usually last from 4 to 8 weeks, numerous opportunities exist for the community to visit the library and university through field trips, a desire to see a related lecture, or simply through personal initiative.

In June through August of 2011, the Troy University Dothan Library hosted the ALA sponsored exhibit, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, 1910-1965. More than 800 people attended the exhibit and its related programs which included an opening reception, two speakers, and one film. As a result of the ALA grant providing only the grant, more funding was needed to subsidize the individuals who were speaking. This funding came from the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF).


The effect of the library on the university’s culture and on the surrounding community grows with the implementation of grants that are observable, trialable, low in complexity, and compatible with the social system. Grants, such as the witness to the holocaust story, the Nineteenth Century Magazine Engravings of the State, the Black cowboy’s presentation, and the Tournees French Films, offer observable presentations and visibility to the library. Other grants offer trialable experience, such as the reading activities provided by the summer reading program. Grants low in complexity, such as guest story tellers and exhibitions, increase a university’s exposure and provide a positive educational experience for those who attend. For instance, Ann Rosenheck’s story about the Holocaust took a complicated event in history and made it personal and understandable for adults and children alike. Grants that are applied for should be based on the needs of the university and local community. For example, the Target book grant strengthened the children’s book collection. Ultimately, the grants allowing for public programming have been the most significant for the Troy University Dothan Library. Lectures, film series, and similar events bring faculty, students, and members of the community into the library space, allowing all of them to be exposed to the facility and its people, and its programs. All of these, hopefully, will make them want to return and will also increase the image, prestige, and exposure of the university, thereby making it more attractive to potential future students.


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