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The Knight Foundation Welcomes Ideas to Strengthen Libraries' Roles in the Digital Age
Posted On September 9, 2014
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Rather than turning out an RFP as the Gates Foundation and others do in support of specific goals and operating assumptions, the KF decided to employ the wisdom of the crowd. “As a way to jump-start the challenge solution, we started with open calls asking people to come forward to us with suggestions and ideas. Increasingly, we saw information that helps Americans live their lives and understand the world around them: open government, a strong internet, and now libraries,” says Bracken. And, in some cases, the challenges are also co-sponsored. The recent “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?” challenge was co-sponsored by both the Ford Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation. “In the past, we have collaborated with other foundations, such as the Clinton Foundation,” Bracken notes. “We’ve invited other foundations to be at the table with us to advise us on the challenges and to even help judge the submissions, along with other people from the field.”

The KF Board of Trustees is a group of highly successful entrepreneurs who each brings his or her own passions for communities to the foundation. And the organization’s staffing also depends on deep roots and connections to those cities in which the KF’s founders operated newspapers through the years. “The journalism innovation program is mine,” Bracken says. “The other major initiative is communities. The founders [of the KF] were both deeply involved in the communities in which they had newspapers. I have colleagues in the eight cities engaged in what is happening in those cities. They and the foundation are deeply involved, committed, grounded in the communities in which they live and are a major part of helping us know what is coming next in journalism and media innovation on the ground, what emerging technologies and behavior is driving the way we get information about our lives going forward.”

Social media is a big part of the challenge’s goal, Bracken explains. “We realize that the value of these issues is far beyond the small amount of money we are able to give. When you post your ideas for each challenge, you can tweak your idea, as you see the reactions, support, and comments of others who hear about your ideas.”

“For the last challenge, on one, we had 700 applications, yet we could only fund 19. We see the value of the idea and the value of the exchange of ideas. If you decide to post an entry for the challenge, it’s a posting on our website, not a PDF or printed application that you submit, so you can go back and edit or tweak it over the next few weeks as you see what others are commenting or from social media or whatever,” says Bracken.

An Exciting Time for Libraries

“We are hoping people will come to us with some ideas, ideas that we couldn’t come up with on our own. In the last challenge on ‘How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?’ we had three of the 19 winning ideas come from libraries, which I never would have expected,” Bracken explains.

The 19 winners split $3.4 million to fund “issues from privacy and censorship, to expanding the diversity of the tech workforce, to improving digital access and connecting communities with online content in easier, more useful ways.” Ten early-stage ideas received $35,000 to get into demo stage, and more developed projects received $200,000–$500,000 each.

“The goal of the challenges,” Bracken says, “is to make the internet a strong force in our future, and libraries have unique assets that few other organizations have: Physical space in communities across the country—neighborhoods, small communities, and large cities—as well as a professional workforce that is trained in information curation, discovery, and sharing. This is something that is incredibly valuable, essential for the development of a strong internet—far more valuable today even than in the pre-digital era.” He notes that libraries are trusted spaces and institutions in this age of civic doubt and commercialization and hopes that these collaborations will impact communities in positive ways.

Bracken believes this is an “exciting time for libraries, and I’m excited to see what we come up with. I anticipate that most of the project ideas that we receive are ones that we couldn’t have anticipated as we open the challenge. If we do our job right, I hope this will spur some ideas and conversations that may be on the tip of people’s tongues and that we can pull those ideas into action.”

Looking for Solutions That Work

Although pedigree and qualifications are fine, novelty and good ideas are what the KF is really looking for, as shown by past winners. It has provided multiple awards to the same organization and funded ideas that never occurred to the KF staff until it had the chance to read through the proposals. “We realize this is seed money,” Bracken admits, “but we know that good ideas depend on outcomes as well as taking risks. One of the things we’ve been conscious of is to build a network of people and to help them build beyond the projects themselves, their growth in the information/media space.

“We’ve learned that people outside of our organization and building know a lot more than we do,” Bracken says. “The questions we ask are broad and wide-open because we want to see a variety of options for solutions. At the beginning of the last internet challenge, I never would have thought that we would have given three library proposals funding. So we try to keep as open as possible as we look at these proposals. We want to give all applications a fair hearing and see what we could learn from all proposals.”

As the KF’s mission statement notes, “We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.” Got ideas? If so, the KF wants to hear from you.

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Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Kate Patterson9/9/2014 1:31:32 PM

This is a great opportunity for libraries and anyone who cares about books, learning and civic responsibility. I love the graphics and the author is right about the unique aspects of this. Can't wait to read who wins this challenge! Thanks for a great article!

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