December 2019 | Volume XXXVII. Issue 6 »

The PNG Is for You and Me: Project Next Generation Grants

December 2, 2019
Kyla Waltermire, Mississippi Valley Library District

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a librarian interested in expanding services must be in want of a grant. When it comes to services for middle and high school students, one of the best grant options available is the Project Next Generation (PNG) grant.

The PNG grant is an initiative of Jesse White, Secretary of State and State Librarian, administered by the Illinois State Library using grant funds provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the Library Services and Technology Act. According to the Project Next Generation page on the Secretary of State’s website, the purpose of the grant is to “bridge the digital divide by making recent technologies accessible to students who have limited access to computers.” At-risk and underserved middle and high school students are the target audience for this grant. While the PNG grant started as an invitation-only opportunity, a few years ago it became a competitive grant for which any public library can apply. Libraries may receive up to $40,000 through the grant program.

The Mississippi Valley Library District first became involved with the PNG grant in 2012. The district—specifically the Fairmont City Library Center—was invited to apply because of the demographics of the community it served. Fairmont City, which is located a few miles from St. Louis, had a population of 2,635 in 2011. Seventy-four percent of the community identified as Hispanic. Thirty-eight percent of the community lived at or below poverty level, and only 50% of those age 25 or older had graduated from high school. There was no internet access to speak of; the library was one of the few places in the community with an internet connection. The youth in the community were being left behind by the local school district as homework assignments became increasingly reliant on computer and internet access.

The PNG grant was a welcome boon to Fairmont City. Library staff surveyed the community and identified technological needs that the library could help to meet. Staff lined up mentors who could engage with the youth and teach them how to use technology. With an approved grant in the amount of $26,257.00, the library district began to instruct youth in internet safety, photo editing, using drawing tablets, video editing, and how to find money for college.

Since that first year, the grant has expanded to include the entire Mississippi Valley Library District service area. Programs evolved, becoming more advanced as the participants became more exposed to and confident in using various technologies. The most recent grant activities included making stop-motion videos; using math in everyday life; learning about aquaponics; engineering tangible, manipulative video game enhancements; and incorporating virtual and augmented reality with drone video footage and photography. Over the years the district has partnered with a number of organizations and individuals, including but not limited to the owner of a local hobby store, a science museum and planetarium, a local app maker, a makerspace lab, and an astronomical society.


When a successful grant program develops, great stories result. Here are two of the Mississippi Valley Library District’s favorite stories. Both illustrate how the PNG activities have the ability to impact lives outside of the activity itself.

For one of the library’s past activities, participants built robotic mice and raced them for prizes. One participant brought his younger brother, who eagerly watched the event unfold. The participant took second place in the races, earning him a chance to choose a prize. He asked his younger brother to choose the prize because it was the younger brother’s birthday and the prize was to be his birthday present. The younger brother excitedly chose a robotics kit, which he took home and assembled that night. The next day the younger brother took the robot to school. He and his classmates were so excited by it that his teacher called the library and asked how she could go about getting some robotics kits for her classroom.

Another PNG activity hosted by the library was learning digital photography and how to manipulate it. A teen, who had attended several PNG programs leading up to this activity and who was always quiet and withdrawn, came to the event. The digital photography session unexpectedly opened him up — he asked questions, he was engaged, and he began interacting with the mentor and with other participants. His finished piece won first place in the digital photo contest held as part of the PNG activity. The young man was so enthralled with the activity he declared that not only would he go to college, but he would pursue graphic design as a career. Sure enough, after attending several more PNG activities and graduating from high school, he went to college and he is in the process of earning a degree to help him achieve his goal. This young man is one of many who found their callings through these programs. Other PNG participants have pursued college degrees in STEM fields or joined their school’s STEM and robotics clubs to further their interests and knowledge.

The Mississippi Valley Library District was awarded a PNG grant for 2020, making this the ninth consecutive year of involvement in the grant program. So, what have we learned during this time?

• Commit to being a teen-friendly environment. Teens are not the enemy; they are the future. Inasmuch as possible, be more understanding and flexible when interacting with them. Get to know each of them as individuals and treat them as valued patrons.

• Mentors matter. You don’t need to do it all or know everything; use the experts. Mentors could be a member of the community whose hobby is to rebuild radios, or they could be a high school teacher who sponsors a STEM club. Whoever you ask to be a mentor, be sure that they can communicate information clearly and logically while also making the subject entertaining and interesting.

• Don’t assume. Don’t assume your participants have any prior knowledge on a topic. Give participants a solid foundation upon which to build their experiences. When an understanding of the foundational material is achieved, then creativity and problem-solving will follow.

• Failure is always an option. But, you have to learn from it. Evaluate what worked and what didn’t. Identify ways to improve your future activities.

• Have a Plan B. What will you do if you have a mentor who needs to back out of an activity? How will you adapt if your grant is only partially funded, or if funding doesn’t arrive until halfway through the project timeline? Plan for the worst and hope for the best.

• Think ahead. Yes, your grant might meet the community’s current needs, but what makes PNG grants successful in a big picture context is when they build on each other and create a long-term impact. How will you get from Starting Point A in the first year to Long-Term Goal B in the fifth year? Aim to keep challenging and lifting up the community instead of rehashing the same thing over and over.

• Ideas are everywhere. Ask your patrons what they’re interested in or if they know anyone with experience on a topic of potential interest. Evaluate your local organizations and resources. Look outside of the library field—sign up for NASA newsletters, register for online technology seminars, get product updates from technology vendors. Ask your middle and high school students what pie-in-the-sky ideas they have for technology programs - what do they want to get their hands on?

• Model good learning practices. As stated earlier, you don’t need to know everything. Learning along with the students can be a positive experience for everyone, especially if you model good learning practices. Be attentive to the mentor, ask clarifying questions, and if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

• Foster peer mentoring. Some students will pick up the material quickly and others won’t; that’s normal. Tap into the students who understand the material to help them guide their peers. Peer mentoring fosters confidence, patience, and relationship building, all of which are skills needed throughout life.

Hopefully you are inspired and energized to investigate the PNG grant’s potential for your community. So, what are you waiting for? Go get that grant!

Project Next Generation around the State

Information about Project Next Generation grants is available on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website at In July 2019, the Secretary of State announced the grants awarded for the 2020 fiscal year: “Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White awarded $464,469 in FY20 Project Next Generation (PNG) grants to 29 public libraries statewide. PNG is a mentoring program administered through Illinois public libraries. Project mentors work with middle and high school students to use various technologies, achieve success through project based learning and gain life skills such as effective communication, goal-setting and conflict resolution.” The following libraries are the 2020 awardees:

Alpha Park Public Library, Bartonville: “PNG: Game Design for the 21st Century Learner”

Beardstown Houston Memorial Library: “Project Next Generation”

Brimfield Public Library District: “Project Next Generation: Imagine, Innovate, Inspire”

Carbondale Public Library: “Project Next Generation”

Centralia Regional Library District: “Project Next Generation: Learning for the Future”

Chicago Public Library: “ChiTeen Voices: Learning and Living Out Loud”

Chicago Heights Free Public Library: “Project Next Generation”

Chicago Ridge Public Library: “Learn Today, Lead Tomorrow”

Robert R. Jones Public Library, Coal Valley: “Project Next Generation: Empower the Future; Explore the Past”

Mississippi Valley Library District, Collinsville: “Smart with START”

Decatur Public Library: “Youth and Teen Virtual Library and Civic Engagement Project”

Elmwood Park Public Library: “Project Next Generation”

Geneseo Public Library District: “Steam Up Learning for Success”

Six Mile Regional Library District, Granite City: “Science by the Book Club”

Harrisburg District Library: “Project Next Generation”

Joliet Public Library: “Vision 2020”

Kankakee Public Library: “Project Next Generation: Bolstering Literacy with At-Risk Youth”

LaSalle Public Library: “Project Next Generation”

Marion Carnegie Library: “Project Next Generation”

Matteson Area Public Library District: “Choices @ MAPLD”

Moline Public Library: “Club PNG”

North Riverside Public Library District: “Connecting the Digital and Physical Worlds”

Oglesby Public Library District: “Bringing History into the Future with Technology”

Peoria Public Library, Lincoln Branch: “Project Next Generation”

Lille M. Evans Library District, Princeville: “Technology Ambassadors @ LME Library”

Richton Park Public Library District: “Project Next Generation”

Schaumburg Township District Library: “Tech Bytes: Serving Technology to Teens After School Program”

Sparta Public Library: “Engineering and Design at the Sparta Public Library”

Thornton Public Library: “Art in STEAM”

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