On June 30, at the Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia wing, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will allow the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and Aarhus Public Libraries in Denmark to work together to create a new model for innovation, experimentation and decision-making within libraries.
The grant is the largest of its kind ever given, according to Deborah Jacobs, director, Global Libraries, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who said it will help the two libraries “continue pioneering new models of collaboration.”
The grant itself was actually made to the Chicago Public Library Foundation, and will fund the commission of a partnership with design firm IDEO to facilitate “re-thinking [of libraries’] traditional mix of services and programs, identifying fundamental questions about their roles in an evolving world,” said Library Commissioner Brian Bannon, a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker.
Said Bannon, “this grant gives us the opportunity to tap into the design thinking process that IDEO has used to help hundreds of organizations innovate and grow. Now more than ever, libraries and librarians need such tools to help them identify and address their users’ rapidly-evolving needs, through flexible, nimble, and responsive decision-making and program design.”
“Working on innovation practices for public libraries with Chicago Public Libraries and IDEO is a dream come true for Aarhus Public Libraries and for the City of Aarhus,” said Alderman Marc Perera Christensen of Aarhus, Denmark. “It gives us the opportunity to learn and disseminate insights with the best in the trade.”
The grant is not geared toward international staff exchange, but rather toward overhauling the process of implementing new projects. Both libraries will put the process to the test by applying it to existing challenges, which may include a reconfiguration of the physical space in the library, as Aarhus is evaluating as they examine the role of play in children’s learning, or creating a new program to address a specific need in the community.
Even before this grant came through, Bannon was an evangelist for applying design thinking to libraries in general and CPL in particular. On the first anniversary of his taking the CPL directorship, he told LJ, “We are really interested in how we can design new services for our users [through] more of a scientific approach to program design,” and plans to “experiment and learn quickly; if it doesn’t work, abandon it.”
The results of the collaboration will be presented at an international libraries conference, to be held in Chicago in June 2014. A toolkit will follow some six months later, according to Bannon. The kit will likely detail potential projects and design methods as well as measurement tools that can be used to quickly test out a new idea.
“I’m thrilled that the Gates Foundation is offering CPL the opportunity and funding to take a fresh look at our library,” said Emanuel. He called the collaboration “a vote of confidence” in both the library and Bannon’s leadership, citing as examples of CPL’s commitment to the leading edge of librarianship CPL’s new Innovation Lab, which debuted on July 8, as well as CPL’s partnership with the Chicago Public Schools. The lab, first in a series of experimental public interaction spaces, is an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded skunkworks space on the second floor of the central Harold Washington Library, with the Maker Lab as a first tenant, running until December 31.
The Aarhus library is known for its innovations as well, including work on open data, a garden partnership, designing a children’s library of the future, gaming, maker and hacker spaces, a transformation lab, projects for improving external partnerships and involving users, and a project for bringing digital resources into the physical space of the library through installations.