Knight Foundation Names Second Library News Challenge Winners | ALA Annual 2016

In a June 25 session at the ALA Annual conference in Orlando, John Bracken, VP of media innovation for the Knight Foundation, said that the foundation has been focused on three key questions when working with libraries: What can be done to foster cross-discipline collaboration, possibly learning from projects in other civic sectors such as Code for America, 18F, or the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews collaboration; how can community be put “even more robustly” at the center of the foundation’s work; and how can the foundation help libraries tell their stories to wider audiences? “To succeed, particularly in a time of reduced public investment, it is vital to tell our stories in ways that people can understand the breadth of our work, and on platforms” where the public is present and listening, Bracken said.
Knight News Challenge on LibrariesThe John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (KF) announced its second News Challenge on Libraries at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Conference in January, asking for entries that would address the question, “How might libraries serve 21st century information needs?” Six months later, in time for the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, the Foundation made public its selection of projects to be funded. In a June 25 session at the ALA Annual conference, John Bracken, VP of media innovation for the Knight Foundation, said that the foundation has been focused on three key questions when working with libraries: What can be done to foster cross-discipline collaboration, possibly learning from projects in other civic sectors such as Code for America, 18F, or the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews collaboration; how can community be put “even more robustly” at the center of the foundation’s work; and how can the foundation help libraries tell their stories to wider audiences? “To succeed, particularly in a time of reduced public investment, it is vital to tell our stories in ways that people can understand the breadth of our work, and on platforms” where the public is present and listening, Bracken said. More than 600 public, academic, school, and special libraries; partner organizations; and individuals (including Library Journal) submitted entries showcasing ways to expand libraries’ reach through innovative programming, creative partnerships, and cutting-edge technology. Out of 52 finalists, 14 winners were selected; five projects to receive investments of between $150,000 and $393,249 each, and nine awarded $35,000 each in prototype funding to test early stage ideas. Library Journal associate news editor Lisa Peet served as a reader and judge for the challenge. “As our understanding of knowledge and learning evolves, libraries need to as well,” Bracken said prior to presentations by winners of the five largest investments. “If we don’t adapt creatively, I’m afraid we may lose them.” Bracken was joined by Chris Barr, KF director of media innovation, to highlight the News Challenge awards. The winning projects are:
  1. Improve Access to Knowledge and Empower Citizens: Amplify Libraries and Communities through Wikipedia ($250,000) from OCLC will make library resources more accessible to Wikipedia editors and engage librarians as Wikipedia contributors through a national training program that will include community outreach to increase local information literacy.
“Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in the United States…and just to give you a sense of scale, and the Library of Congress’s websites are [ranked] in the thousands,” Merrilee Proffitt, senior program officer at OCLC Research, explained in the presentation. Yet while Wikipedia presents great opportunities to reach a large audience, much of its content is created, curated, and edited by a relatively small group of volunteer editors, who are primarily white males, she added. This project aims to make it easier for editors to access library resources when writing articles, and to help Wikipedia expand and diversify its cohort of active editors. OCLC WebJunction director Sharon Streams explained that “since 2003, we’ve been using online, social active learning techniques to build the knowledge, skills, and confidence of public library staff. What we’re going to do in this project is build a virtual cohort of public library staff from across the country…to learn, hands on, how to work in Wikipedia…. In addition, we want to bring the Wikipedia community and librarians together. We’re talking human-to-human connection and introduction.”
  1. Our Story: Content, Collections and Impact in Rural America ($222,245), a collaboration of the Digital Public Library of America and Historypin, will implement and measure the impacts of public library–led history, storytelling, and local cultural heritage programs in 12 rural American communities across three states: New Mexico, North Carolina, and Louisiana.
“This project…actually suggests that this is a secret, radical solution to combating isolation and fear [among isolated residents of rural areas] to increase social connections,” Jon Voss, strategic partnerships director for Historypin. One in four U.S. seniors currently live alone, and 15 percent are considered isolated, Voss explained. “As we age, as we lose access to transportation, it becomes more and more difficult” for seniors to maintain connections with their communities. “Our Story” will create a kit of simple tools for rural libraries that will help facilitate outreach efforts involving storytelling and community memory projects, as well as establish plans for digitization and digital preservation of photos and other content related to those projects. “It’s really boots-on-the-ground stuff that we’re trying to figure out with these libraries,” Voss said.
  1. Storytellers Without Borders: Activating the Next Generation of Community Journalists Through Library Engagement ($150,000) will bring together the Dallas Public Library (DPL) and the Dallas Morning News to offer a hands-on training course on digital media and journalism for area high school students, including professional mentorship and online publication opportunities, to help them build skills and grow their awareness of the community.
“Teens are very connected these days through their [smartphones and tablets],” said DPL Director Mary Jo Guidice. “But while they’re connected to each other, they’re not very connected to their community anymore. We feel that our challenge is that [teens] are losing their awareness of the community’s concern, their city’s concerns, and even their history.” Library technology and research tools will provide the foundation for the course, with librarians and journalists from the Dallas Morning News teaching the craft of nonfiction writing and journalism best practices. Describing the hope that the project will also generate empathy between young people in different communities, Tom Huang, Sunday and enterprise editor for the Dallas Morning News, explained “we’re going to join forces to teach high-school storytellers how to report on and write about not only their neighborhoods, but neighborhoods that they’re not so familiar with.”
  1. TeleStory: Library-Based Video Visitation for Children of Incarcerated Parents ($393,249), from the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), will help increase childhood literacy by offering video story time and visitation services for the children of incarcerated parents.
“2.3 million Americans are incarcerated, 54,000 Americans in New York are incarcerated, and the population of [New York City jail complex] Riker’s Island is larger than 80 percent of American municipalities,” said Story Bellows, chief innovation and performance officer for BPL. “But what we don’t talk about or know about or hear about are…the family members” impacted by an incarceration. Notably, close to three million children, including 105,000 in New York state, have an incarcerated parent. “Beyond the numbers, it’s the impact that this separation has on kids that’s truly staggering,” Bellows said. Studies have indicated that the separation alone can be as painful as other forms of parental loss, “but the combination of trauma, shame, and stigma [associated with parental incarceration] can have particularly detrimental effects on these kids.” This program will offer free video visitation services at 12 BPL branches, enabling these children to visit, read books, and stay connected with an incarcerated parent in a local, welcoming environment.
  1. Visualizing Philanthropic Funding for Libraries ($300,000), from New York’s Foundation Center, will track funding trends through a data visualization tool and capacity-building training in order to help libraries find funding opportunities, and increase their understanding of funding sources.
“It takes money to do cool stuff. It takes money to have awesome library spaces [and] create awesome programming…. But it also takes different sources of funding, and that’s a big problem, especially for public libraries,” said Kate Tkacik, manager of the Foundation Center’s Funding Information Network. “It’s difficult to diversify funding. Right now, local municipal funding accounts for 85 percent of funding for public libraries in the United States.” Philanthropists have a long history of supporting public libraries, Tkacik added, but only ten percent of U.S. foundations even have a website. “You’re really going to be challenged to look up this information,” Tkacik said. This Foundation Center project aims to make it easier to track down these potential funding sources. “Imagine you could type in a couple of words, criteria that describe your library, and within seconds pull up a map [and] a list of all the foundations within, let’s say 300 miles of where you’re located,” said Amanda Dillon, knowledge services manager for the Foundation Center. “Imagine you could also pull up a network map to see who [currently] funds you, who [else] they are funding, and who might be in your extended network, who might also give you a grant.” The nine projects receiving prototype funding included open-source software as a local storytelling tool, a copyright and fair use information platform, an indigenous digital archive, and an academic library resource-sharing portal, among others. The full list of winners can be found on the KF blog.

True transformation

A panel discussion followed that looked at some of the factors driving transformation in the library field, featuring Peet; Matthew Phillips, manager of the Harvard University Library Innovation Lab’s technology development team; and Francesca Rodriquez, foundation officer at the Madison Public Library Foundation, WI. “How do you evaluate whether something is really, truly transformative to an institution, versus whether it’s…innovation for innovation’s sake?” asked Peet during the introduction of the panel. This question surfaced frequently during the judging process, she said. “One of the things that came up a lot was simplicity. A lot of the projects that you see here are not super techy. Or, if they are using technology, they’re using it in fairly simple, extensible ways that can be [adapted] in small libraries, large libraries, different kinds of communities.” Rodriquez said that she had approached the question of true innovation by focusing on the many ways in which library patrons currently use their libraries. In addition to quantifiable core functions such as lending books and offering programs, there are patrons who use their library for help signing up for social services or completing a GED, for example. How are those outcomes measured? “I know that’s transformative from an anecdotal perspective,” she said, “but how do I tell that story…. How do we make that part of the core mission?” In addition, discussions within the field about what “the library of the future” will look like can become very proscriptive, she added. The community must be involved in these discussions. “One way that we did this very recently in Madison was [with] a listening tour, because we’re building a new library, and none of our questions had the word ‘library’ in them,” Rodriquez said. “We said, ‘what do you need for your community?’” One issue that surfaced from these conversations was that the community had a real need for health information, for example. “That was not on senior management radar at all,” she said. Phillips noted that it was easy to zero in on quantifiable information, such as user accounts created, number of archives viewed, turnstile counts. “Every day we’re looking at numbers. Are people using this thing?” he said, potentially missing out on less easily measured but important information However, this type of data can also play an important role in keeping a library focused on patrons and focused on true innovation, he noted. “It’s really important to not be totally married to a project,” Phillips said. “If you’re not getting hits, if you’re not getting engagement, don’t be afraid to kill it. You’re wasting time; move on to something else.” Changing course on a project, or “pivoting”, can pose a challenge for libraries with tight budgets, Peet pointed out. And Rodriquez agreed that city governments aren’t always adept at nimble project development. She suggested crowdsourcing ideas for grant-based projects to get input prior to development of an idea, and highlighted the role that partnerships and collaboration can play in generating smart, sustainable projects. Similarly, Phillips suggested that thinking of the library as a connector between patrons and other institutions could help foster innovation. The Telestory, Storytellers Without Borders, and Improve Access to Knowledge and Empower Citizens projects are all examples of these types of partnerships. The first News Challenge on Libraries, launched in September 2014, asked, “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” A total of $3 million was distributed among 22 winning projects, including The Library Freedom Project, the New York–based mobile scanning Culture in Transit initiative, and Peer 2 Peer University’s partnership with Chicago Public Library to create in-person study support for online learners. “This is such an opportune moment,” Bracken told LJ after the first round of winners was announced in 2015, “as we see an emerging set of leaders committed to transforming libraries. Any notion that might have existed that libraries were outdated in a digital age is now outdated itself.”
For additional coverage, see Christina Vercelletto's recent article in School Library Journal: Library Transformation Hallmark of 2016 Knight News Challenge Winners
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