Libraries have long benefited from major donors that infuse dollars as well as strategic perspective at key junctures. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has stepped into that role with signature energy, most clearly illustrated by the Knight News Challenges, including two focused on libraries. By their very nature these call on libraries to speed new ideas to address big needs, and the robust response from the library arena has surfaced and celebrated a range of creativity.
Now the foundation has stepped up again at a critical moment, offering libraries more support via a new report on library innovation, plus funding to move forward five projects to the tune of nearly $1 million.
“Developing Clarity: Innovating in Library Systems” is based on deep dive conversations with 25 library leaders and others in the field. It explores the ability of libraries to innovate effectively and identifies barriers. It is also a tool to focus dialog around how to make our organizations and our personnel more capable of the work needed to refresh approaches and invent new ones.
LJ associate news editor Lisa Peet was one of the 25 people tapped to construct the paper. Her thinking about the origins of effective innovation was informed by her experience as a judge for the second Knight library challenge and the discussions convened around that. It comes down to thinking of innovation as an ongoing practice, not a single act of inspiration.
“There is a sort of top-down and bottom-up wish list in the report,” says Peet. “How library leaders view making change happen but also how to influence that among staff, inspire them, and get them to work for the greater good.” This, she adds, means the field may just need to “find a middle ground where theoretical thinking will mesh with the reality for the people on the staff.”
“Getting someone to think out of the box is kind of counterintuitive. Administrators don’t always know how much time innovation takes. It is work,” Peet says. “You have to show up and, when you show up, be engaged.”
Knight, she noted, wanted her in the conversation because she talks to librarians. “For all the people I have interviewed who had great ideas, none of those ideas came in a blinding flash of inspiration. They came slowly, with boots not only on the ground but in the mud,” she says. “Coming up with the ideas involves being present, all the time.”
This leaves Peet with clarity of her own about what libraries need in this regard. “The only way to encourage innovation is to set people up to do their jobs and give them wiggle room to have ideas and provide a place to take those ideas at every stage.” In short, give them skills, time, and a functional process that supports development. That, of course, means resources. By releasing “Developing Clarity” in tandem with a round of funding, Knight reinforces its commitment to advancing the field.
“At a time of rising distrust of institutions, echo chambers, and concerns about the accuracy of information, libraries are more essential to American democracy than ever before,” said John S. Bracken, Knight’s VP for technology innovation, in a March 30 statement. “The projects and research we’re supporting today aim to advance this goal.”
Each funded project holds promise for replication and scalability—from the $250,000 to MIT for a residency program pairing public libraries and the university’s Media Lab to the $35,000 for the Southwest Harbor Public Library, ME, to use data visualization to make its special collections more accessible, along with three others.
These grants signal important focal areas for libraries. And they come just as the library community faces a test of society’s commitment to one of the primary institutions geared to fuel the development of vital new programs. Grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) have long been critical drivers of effective change in libraries—and libraries have been excellent at making every investment count. The prospect of losing that mechanism is distressing, and it points out how very shallow is our bench of strategic support. We need to defend IMLS and develop more sources of funding earmarked for innovation. Without it, too often we’ll be left chasing change instead of leading the way.