Knight Foundation Launches Second News Challenge on Libraries | ALA Midwinter 2016

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (KF) kicked off the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Boston on the morning of January 10 with a session announcing its second News Challenge on Libraries. The challenge, which launches February 24, will address the question “How might libraries serve 21st century information needs?” Winners will receive a share of $3 million in funding toward their projects. In addition, a select number of projects will be considered for the Knight Prototype Fund.
libraries-L-hero-1280px.jpg.1280x580_q85_cropThe John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (KF) kicked off the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Boston on the morning of January 10 with a session announcing its second News Challenge on Libraries. The challenge, which launches February 24, will address the question “How might libraries serve 21st century information needs?” Winners will receive a share of $3 million in funding toward their projects, including a select number of projects that will be considered for the Knight Prototype Fund. The Knight Foundation has offered a series of News Challenges since 2006, calling on innovators in the arts, media, and technology to respond to themes ranging from strengthening the Internet to improving open government. The News Challenge on Libraries, first offered in 2014, asks libraries and their allies to “build on the transformational power of libraries and use their ideas, principles and assets in innovative ways to help people learn about the world around them and engage in the places they live.” The winners of that first challenge were announced at the 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Chicago last January, and four of them—innovators from public and academic libraries across the country—joined KF Media Innovation Associate Nina Zenni at the 2016 Midwinter panel to discuss their experiences. Jason Griffey, developer of Measure the Future (and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker); Alison Macrina (a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker), director of the Library Freedom Project (LFP); MIT Media Lab’s Philipp Schmidt, cofounder and executive director of Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU); and San José Public Library (SJPL) innovations manager Erin Berman, whose Privacy Literacy project won $35,000 in Knight Prototype Funding, talked about the challenges and learning opportunities that came with being News Challenge winners, updated the audience on their projects, and offered advice for the next round of applicants.


Both KF staff and the panelists emphasized that the News Challenge on Libraries rewards not only forward thinking and innovation, but a creative approach to partnering—both within the library community and with non-library partners. “One of the unique qualities that libraries seem to have is, as a public resource, they’re a gathering point and a potential partner with such a wide variety of social sectors,” noted John Bracken, VP of KF’s media innovation program. “New technologies and behaviors are changing the way in which we engage with news and information. I think the exciting thing is that libraries have demonstrated in that context that they’re even more vital as social resources than they were before.” A case in point: while the most recent News Challenge on Data was not focused on libraries in particular, “Data Equity for Main Street”—a partnership between the California State Library, Nevada State Library Archives and Public Records, and Washington [State] Technology Solutions promoting data literacy by training librarians and community members how to find, use and give advice on the power of open data—was among the winners announced on January 26. Schmidt’s P2PU had worked in the online space since 2009, but Schmidt found himself frustrated at not being able to reach students not affiliated with a college or university. For its grant-winning project, P2PU partnered with the Chicago Public Library to support online learners, some 95 percent of whom generally drop courses before finishing. By bringing them together in the library space, the initiative was able to help 50 percent of its unaffiliated learners complete courses. When he first conceived of the collaboration, Schmidt said, he didn’t have a strong sense of how librarians would react to outsiders coming in with a project. He was pleased, however, to find how strongly the platform was embraced within the library. So far, all of his initial partners want to be in on the next version, and they have worked with him to design round two. In the process P2PU has learned a lot about library demographics, he noted, and the learning has gone both ways. Macrina’s LFP has amassed a wide range of non-library partners in its mission to teach libraries and patrons about digital privacy, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Tor Project, which provides free anonymous communication software. Community partners not only give valuable feedback, Macrina explained, but needed information, too—especially when it comes to technology. “Tech is a big arena, even for those of us who consider ourselves accomplished,” she said, noting that she relies on experts everywhere to stay current. Thanks to contacts he made through the News Challenge, Griffey ended up connecting with a developer who had the exact set of tools he needed—in Cairns, Australia. Without the support of KF, he said, “I don’t know I’d have literally gone to the other side of the earth to find the best person to work with.” In conversations with library leaders, Bracken said, “one of the points of feedback we got was: wouldn’t it be great if the field made it easier for non-library folks and librarians to connect with one another? So some of the ways [KF] can control that is making sure that…we don’t just sit in our offices and make the funding decisions—that we involve an array of folks giving feedback on the proposals as they come in. One thing we’re conscious of is that we try to have a mix of people at the table, librarians and people within the institutions as well as people from outside the institutions.”


All agreed that that one of the most important requirements for moving forward with a News Challenge–winning idea was to be flexible, and willing to change their approach when necessary. Griffey, whose Measure the Future is developing open tools to help libraries track data and usage information about their physical spaces, came to the project from both an academic and project management background. Much of the initial thought process behind it, he explained, came about from the desire to balance gathering information about library building usage with the need for patron privacy. He was interested the hardware aspect—working with sensor technology in particular—but in the prototyping process realized that it would be harder than he had imagined; “doing that in a responsive way that respects privacy…is fairly challenging.” The first few months of work on the project, he said, were consumed with asking questions, and completely changed the way he conceived of it. Similarly, Berman changed the SJPL Virtual Privacy Lab’s parameters after looking at the feasibility of her original idea, a game to teach patrons about making informed privacy choices. The final iteration took the form of a privacy toolkit that users could customize. The takeaway, she said, is not to be scared to try things out and fail. Understanding when it’s time to stop, re-evaluate, and move on to something else is a valuable piece of knowledge. Added Macrina, “Be very ambitious with your assumptions. They’ll probably turn out positively, but don’t be mad if they explode.”


The submission phase for the 2016 News Challenge on Libraries will be open from February 24 through March 21. Anyone with an interest can log in to KF’s News Challenge platform, submit an idea, edit their submission, and provide supporting information—including photos, graphics, or small videos. In addition to being asked to describe their projects, home bases, potential audience, and partners, applicants will also need to answer the question, “How does your project advance or affect the library field?” Bracken told LJ, “One of the things we learned by running the first challenge on libraries is that we really want to use the opportunity to emphasize not just single individual projects that are interesting, but really looking for ways to drive change impact within library institutions. “ Some topics that last year’s winners hope to see addressed include open access, lifelong learning, and the retooling of digital rights management (DRM) technologies. They would also like to see small libraries, special libraries, and prison libraries getting involved. “We have a lot of amazing lofty democratic ideals in libraries,” said Macrina. “What I’d love to see is people take those powerful ethical concepts and turn them into something practical.” “The value of the initiative is not just the handful of projects that are funded, but the ideas and the conversations that can be spurred,” Bracken said, noting that KF’s Prototype Funding is equally important to the challenge’s mission: “We’re not just looking to fund fully baked ideas.” Prototype Funding, he explained to LJ, has “helped [applicants] test out some frameworks and ideas and taught them basic principles of how you might try to replicate testing ideas internally.” Whether ideas come fully formed or are works in progress, taking shape through KF’s iterative and comment-friendly application process, Bracken added, the most important factor is the desire for forward motion. “We’re unlikely to replicate projects that already exist,” he said. “That’s not what this is designed to do. This is designed to germinate the person who has a kernel of an idea that they’re not really sure it’s a real idea, they’re not really sure if they’ve got buy-in from their bosses—that’s exactly the type of person we want to come on to the site and throw up their idea, and we can see what happens.”
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