The Oldest and Latest Community-Building Hub: Your Public Library

The Oldest and Latest Community-Building Hub: Your Public Library

Library for All, one of 22 Knight News Challenge winners. / Knight News Challenge

For most people, the word “library” evokes images of index cards, befuddling Dewey Decimals and dusty tomes. But the 22 projects honored by the Knight News Challenge on Libraries on January 30, winning a cumulative $3 million in grants, see a different vision.

“The view of libraries as outdated is outdated,” John Bracken, vice president of Media Innovation at the Knight Foundation, told EdSurge. He sees 21st century libraries as “adapting to use digital tools to perform the community functions they’ve had for thousands of years.” Bracken sees the institutions as a natural community space: “So many people have visceral connections with libraries in their lives, as where they take their kids to read or go to vote or do 3-D printing.”

The idea for the challenge came from the Knight News Challenge on strengthening the Internet in 2014. “To our surprise, some of the best ideas and largest winners came from library projects,” Bracken explained. “We kind of scratched our heads and said, oh, libraries, there’s real passion and momentum there.”

Eight of the challenge winners will receive investments of $130,000 to $600,000, and another 14 will each receive $35,000 through the Knight Prototype Fund. The winners will also all have access to the Knight Foundation’s network of previous challenge winners, as well as support from the Foundation with branding, access and mentorship.

The library projects honored in the Knight News Challenge have a diversity of approaches, from making Boston’s open data accessible to its residents to remote library internet hotspots. (The full list of the winners can be found here.)

Several initiatives aim to help local libraries better serve their local communities through open spaces for collaboration, from Co-working at the Library in Miami to Online Learning @ The Public Library in Chicago to Book a Nook to Measure the Future. Others aim to provide library patrons with creative tools beyond the pages of a how-to book, from Make it @ Your Library, which will lend maker kits, to Indie Games Licensing, circulating independent video games.

Educational Access for All

These projects aren’t limited to the library’s shelves and walls. One Knight News Challenge winner, Library for All, works to bring a range of educational content to the developing world by partnering with publishers and offering materials to schools and libraries on a digital platform, for $3 per student per year. Students read the material on tablets, Android phones, and soon--thanks to Knight Foundation funding--hopefully on older phone models.

Before receiving $265,000 from the Knight News Challenge, the nonprofit had operated from small donations and a Kickstarter campaign. “We’re also expanding to more school sites,” co-founder Rebecca McDonald told EdSurge. “We’re currently in Haiti and the Congo, and are planning to be in Rwanda later in the year.” (To learn more about Library for All’s pilot program at Respire School in Haiti, see its full report.)

Protectors of Digital Privacy

Winners envision libraries as playing a pivotal role in building more informed, protected communities. “Librarians and libraries have a really unique and powerful role in the fight for digital privacy,” Alison Macrina, whose Library Freedom Project won $244,700, told EdSurge. “We have a trusted relationship with the public that is without parallel, plus, we already teach computer classes and offer public internet terminals.” The Library Freedom Project teaches privacy workshops to librarians all over New England so they can advocate for privacy and protection of data within their communities. With the seed funding from the Knight Foundation, Macrina plans to take the workshops to libraries across the country, and to offer privacy resources online for all librarians to access.

Macrina isn’t the only librarian concerned about her patrons’ digital information privacy: San Jose Public Library’s Privacy Literacy project, which received $35,000 from the Knight News Challenge, aims to teach patrons about digital privacy literacy online.

Key to the City

Even at 120 years old, the New York Public Library doesn’t see itself as a relic of the past. But it can help you get there. That’s the idea behind the NYC Space/Time Directory, which won $380,000 from the challenge. The Space/Time Directory takes advantage of the NYPL’s vast maps collection to create an open source, historical map for the city. The result will be “kind of like Google Maps, but with a time slide,” explained Ben Vershbow, director of the NYPL Labs.

Over 30,000 volunteers have participated in the crowdsourcing initiative so far, and Vershbow envisions the Space/Time Directory as catalyzing the use of historical maps far beyond New York’s city limits. Several other Knight News Challenge winners also help communities share their histories online, from Culture in Transit in Brooklyn and Queens to the global Internet Archive.

As Vershbow sees it, libraries have a central role in connecting citizens to the past and future of their community: “Libraries are fundamentally about helping guide everyday citizens to information. And in a world that is completely defined by the flows of information, and how to trust it and use it, libraries have a great role to play as an advocate for the public.”

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