February 17, 2018

Knight Foundation Issues Innovation Report, Grants

KF-Developing ClarityOn March 30 the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (KF) announced the award of nearly $1 million to support five innovative library projects. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML), NC; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA; Peer 2 Peer University, Chicago; Richland Library, Columbia, SC; and Southwest Harbor Public Library, ME, each received between $35,000 and $250,000 to help realize a range of creative concepts addressing the digital information needs of their communities.

Simultaneously, KF released a report, “Developing Clarity: Innovating in Library Systems,” examining opportunities and challenges within the lifecycle of library innovation. The report, produced by strategy and innovation consultants MACHINE, takes its cues from a series of conversations with library leaders and others in the field around the questions: “What does it mean for a public library to innovate? What new practices need to be developed, and what old ones need to be discarded? What does an effective innovation practice look like?”


The Knight Foundation has a longstanding interest in the process of how libraries meet 21st-century challenges. After noting that three of the winners of the 2014 Knight News Challenge on strengthening the Internet were libraries, the foundation instituted two Knight News Challenges on Libraries, in 2014 and again in 2016.

As the review of the second round of entries wound up in May 2016, a number of library leaders present expressed their desire to learn more about what drives and supports innovation in libraries. In response, KF launched a series of conversations on the subject with library leaders, staff, technicians, and users.

These were narrowed down to interviews with 25 leaders from library systems across the country, Knight News Challenge winners, key partners, and others with an interest in the subject. Their opinions on what it means to be “innovation-ready”—the cultural, behavioral and structural elements that they consider conducive to innovation—became the basis for KF’s 31-page report.

“Hopefully we can make it useful,” said John Bracken, Knight’s VP of technology innovation, “not just a report, but something that people can take into their hands.”

In the report, three levels of engagement are identified. Libraries at the first level have framed innovation problems and targeted patrons, and understand the process involved; level two libraries have allocated resources and project leadership, as well as technical proficiency; level three libraries have a strategic portfolio of multiple projects happening at once, and are deliberate in their storytelling and marketing of successful innovations. Using this framework, the report goes on to lay out an innovation agenda that libraries can use to identify problems and outline next steps. This includes a series of assessment tools, and, by way of example, brief case histories of successful innovation initiatives.

The main takeaway is that innovation is a choice, and needs to be prioritized and provided for—something many, if not most, library systems aren’t organized around. A centralized team approach, with help from front-line staff, is a good basis, as is the use of technology to drive new services and solutions—in spite of the fact that many libraries feel they lack technological resources or expertise—is key.

“Libraries are starting with a great set of intangibles for innovation,” MACHINE founder Ryan Jacoby told LJ. “They are people-centric, the staff care, people trust them, they are collaborative in nature…. That said, the challenges and barriers to innovation are real: committing to innovation, making the time and space for it to happen, having innovation-oriented staff, knowing how to prototype and experiment, knowing how to cultivate a portfolio and also cull projects and programs.”

Luckily, he added, libraries can look to and learn from their peers, as well as other organizations facing similar issues—“not just for cool examples of innovative programs and services, but also great examples of how they’ve institutionalized their approach to innovation.”


A draft of the report was issued at a gathering of library directors and others in the field convened by KF in Miami on February 11–12. During those two days, attendees heard from all corners of the field. (LJ associate news editor Lisa Peet was a reader and judge for the second News Challenge on Libraries, was interviewed for the report, and attended the directors’ gathering.)

Sessions and panel discussions included a mini-debate between Felton Thomas, executive director of the Cleveland Public Library and president of the Public Library Association (and a 2002 LJ Mover & Shaker), and R. Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), MO, around the theme, “Why Innovate? Framing and Claiming Our Innovation Problems,” which brought up an immediate and important point: innovation is often not optional.

Richland Library director Melanie Huggins spoke with Story Bellows, chief innovation and performance officer at Brooklyn Public Library, on “Making Innovation Happen in a Constrained Environment”; a panel made up of Meaghan O’Connor, DC Public Library assistant director of programs and partnerships; Andrea Sáenz, first deputy commissioner for Chicago Public Library (CPL); and John Szabo, city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library spoke on “Human Capacity.” CPL commissioner Brian Bannon (a 2009 Mover & Shaker) discussed space usage with Marie Oestergaard, manager of community engagement, partnerships, and communication for Aarhus, Denmark’s award-winning Dokk1 Library. And in a moving wrapup, three attendees from outside library leadership—Andrew McLaughlin, venture partner at betaworks; Latoya Peterson, deputy editor for digital innovation at ESPN’s The Undefeated website; and Bronlynn Thurman, KF’s Akron, OH, program associate—brought the conference full circle to talk about how non-optional innovations have helped them along their own paths.

Over the course of the conference, nearly every one of the 40 attendees had an opportunity to speak their minds, ask questions, and offer up their views on what innovation, in all its forms, require. Discussion threads ranged from how best to make the process holistic at all levels of library work, how to stop entrenched practices that don’t work, the ways in which technology can be a red herring as well as a critical component, and the need to build innovation practices into MLS programs. What everyone agreed on, however, was that the conversation needed to continue beyond the two days in Miami.

“Libraries want more,” Jacoby said: “More stories, more examples of innovation in action, and more in depth discussion of the strategic role libraries play in our communities.” He hopes library leaders will take the time to fill out the report’s innovation agenda and discuss the results as a team, noting, “We titled the report ‘Developing Clarity’ because, in essence, that’s where we’d love libraries to start.”

What most pleased Bracken, he told LJ afterward, were the participants’ “openness and eagerness for thinking about new approaches.” While he knew that many of the library leaders interviewed for the report were already on board, he said, he was pleased to see the same level of enthusiasm from “some of the other folks I didn’t know whom we had invited, who came up to me afterward and said. ‘This is exactly what we needed—we’re still having discussions about this.’ “

Bracken was surprised, however, at how many attendees asked for ways to continue the conversation after the meeting ended. “I just assumed that this field is so well-networked and so well-conferenced that folks get together and maybe get sick of talking to one another,” he noted. “The desire for shop talk among the leadership was a surprise to me—that they feel like they don’t get enough of that. That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about: is that something we can help with going forward?”


While the focus of the report is on urban library systems, a number of conversations at the meeting concerned ways the findings could be scaled for smaller or rural libraries. Indeed, the five projects awarded KF funding in this most recent round, ranging in size from multi-partner collaborations among large urban library systems to single-branch library serving fewer than 2,000 residents, bore out the idea that successful innovation is not dependent on size or demographics.

Two large, multi-branch libraries, CML and Richland, received investments toward system-wide transformation. CML’s grant will go to renovation of its Main Library, with design assistance from MACHINE. Richland will be developing patron engagement tools.

Funding CML, said Bracken, “felt like a great opportunity for us to help them…bring some external thoughts and guidance into their process. This will allow them to engage the community more robustly.” Richland, he added, “has been a leader nationally in how to think creatively about the development of library services, and the use of data and the use of service design. So this grant would help them stretch out some of that and really share some of the lessons out nationally.”

The award to Peer 2 Peer University expands a previous News Challenge on Libraries–winning program that organizes in-person study groups within libraries for people taking online courses. Additional  support will scale it beyond its original partnership with Chicago Public Library to nine new libraries, including Boston Public Library; Detroit Public Library; CML; Multnomah County Library, OR; Pierce County Library, WA; Providence Public Library, RI; Richland Library, San José Public Library, CA; and Wichita Public Library, KS. The project will also involve the development of an open source learning circle toolkit. “It’s exciting for a small digital nonprofit startup to be engaged with libraries to this extent,” noted Bracken.

MIT will be partnering with local public libraries through a residency program at the MIT Media Lab, enabling librarians and technologists to collaborate on projects. The cross-library collaboration “will be a really interesting experiment,” predicted Bracken, “taking the two worlds to mix together and benefit each other.” Participating librarians will spend two weeks at the Media Lab; Media Lab researchers will spend up to three months working at their partner library.

The smallest grantee, Southwest Harbor Public Library, had written KF with a prototype idea for using data visualization to make special collections from local libraries more accessible through the open source web publishing platform Omeka. Although the foundation was not in a cycle of prototype funding at the time, explained Bracken, “We talked to them and liked the idea, so took a flier on it.”

However, while funding such projects is both rewarding and a visible reflection of the work KF is doing to identify needs in innovation, Bracken is unsure whether KF will continue its previous format of News Challenges on Libraries. “Right now we’re going to observe how this report gets used and think about ways we can help accelerate some of the learning that the field’s been generating over the last couple of years,” he told LJ. “The need we now are trying to respond to is less about individual projects and more about helping to build capacity within libraries…and how we do that, whether that’s through challenges or something else, we’re just not sure yet.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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