April 19, 2018

Ingenuity Unleashed: The spur of the Knight Challenge | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerThere was much excitement when the James L. Knight Foundation opened a News Challenge for Libraries last September—for good reason. Libraries were getting a highly visible shout-out from this national foundation, and library enthusiasts were being asked to share ideas in a setting that encouraged collaboration to deepen the impact of library work. The process surfaced mission-focused ingenuity across the library landscape, highlighted the smarts in our field, and should serve as motivation for leadership to find new ways to enable latent capacity in our libraries to serve our communities better.

The open call focused on the question, “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” The library world responded—loudly and with zeal. Spurred by the chance to win project funding, librarians and their partners jumped in. Some 676 proposals were submitted. Many are fascinating, as is the feedback they received. If you haven’t dug around in them yet, you’re missing out. (They can still be explored at newschallenge.org.) Then, in October, the foundation moved 46 projects into a refinement stage.

News of the winners came January 30, at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Chicago. I was eager to see the faces behind the concepts. Some 22 projects were presented. Eight will receive $130,000–$600,000 in funding to see the idea to fruition; 14 will each get $35,000 through the Knight Prototype Fund. (See LJ’s coverage.)

Here’s a taste of their range. Measure the Future, led by 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker Jason Griffey, will help librarians employ open hardware to understand how their buildings are being used so they can adapt services, plan spaces, and optimize usage of physical resources. The Library Freedom Project aims to increase privacy literacy with tools and workshops. New York Public Library’s Space/Time Directory will turn historical maps and other collections into an interactive tool for the exploration of New York City across time. And Library for All: Digital Library for the Developing World proposes to scale learning worldwide with a program to take people from illiterate to literate in 18 months via e-content. Almost entirely created by teams, all the projects build on collaborations and partnerships, and target the potential interconnections possible with technology, while being replicable, scalable, and open. In the refinement process, and over the months ahead, they will benefit from insight from design-think strategies, which Brian Bannon, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, noted at the event, enables a “new level of service design.” CPL’s Online Learning@The Public Library won $152,000 to help make online learning more equitable.

It was impressive to witness the passion and hear the voices behind these initiatives, powerful indicators of good things ahead for libraries. The people involved—some already identified as movers and shakers in the field, some relative newcomers—are leaders to watch as they bring their work to the next level.

If you work in a library and wonder if this field is ever going to innovate, look here for inspiration. If you run a library and aren’t sure what to try next, start with these enterprises. If you want insight into available talent, look at the project leads and team members. If you want to convince someone of how deeply cool librarians can be, show them some of these ideas.

For an industry often perceived as trapped by tradition, these projects illustrate quite the opposite. They show us how much richer libraries can be when the ingenuity in them is unleashed. That is the ongoing challenge that leadership must confront. How do we enable drive and creativity to emerge continually? All library leaders should be answering that question and looking for partners like the Knight Foundation to help make great ideas real.

I am thankful to the foundation for the infusion of energy around library breakthroughs, as well as the financial support to move ahead. This process has revealed something that many inside libraries have long known but those outside often fail to see: libraries are hotbeds of creativity driven by the urge to respond to community needs. Their employees are flexible, dynamic thinkers who come up with excellent ideas and want to try things that will help libraries and patrons fulfill their potential. They should be spurred on, enabled to break new ground, and supported.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.RMsignatureWEB

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.