Themes from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge Grant Competition

This year’s Knight Foundation’s News Challenge project grant competition focused on the premise that libraries are “key for improving Americans’ ability to know about and to be involved with what takes place around them.”  While the Knight Foundation’s mission traditionally focuses on journalism and media, the Foundation has funded several projects related to libraries in the past, such as projects enabling Chicago Public Library and New York Public Library to lend Wi-Fi hot-spots to patrons, Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox Project, and a DPLA project to clarify intellectual property rights for libraries sharing digital materials.  Winners receive a portion of around $5 million in funding, and typical awards range between $200,000 and $400,000, with some additional funding available for smaller (~$35,000) start-up projects.

The News Challenge this year called for ideas that “leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities”.  There were over 600 proposals in this years’ News Challenge (all of which you can find here), and 42 proposals made it into the semi-finals, with winners to be announced January 30th, 2015.  While not all of the proposed ideas specifically involve digital technologies, most propose the creation of some kind of application or space where library users can access and learn about new technologies and digital skills.

Notably, while the competition was open to anyone (not just libraries or librarians), around 30 of the 42 finalist projects have at least one librarian or library organization sponsor on the team.1  Nearly all the projects involve the intersection of multiple disciplines, including history, journalism, engineering, education/instructional design, music, and computer science.  Three general themes seem to have emerged from this year’s News Challenge finalists:  1) maker spaces tailored to specific community needs; 2) libraries innovating new ways to publish, curate, and lend DRM-free ebooks and other content; and 3) facilitating the preservation of born-digital user-generated histories.

MakerSpaces Made for Communities

Given how popular makerspaces have become in libraries2 over the past several years, it’s not surprising to see that many News Challenge proposals  seek funding for the space and/or equipment to create library makerspaces.  What is interesting about many of these makerspace proposals is that many of them highlight the need to develop makerspaces that are specifically relevant to to the interests and needs of the local communities a library serves.

For example, one proposal out of Philadelphia – Libraries as Hip-Hop Techspace – proposes equipping a library space with tools for learning about and creating digital music via hip-hop.  Another proposal out of Vermont focuses on teaching digital literacies and skillsets via makerspace technologies in rural communities.  Of course, many proposals include 3D printers, but what stands out about proposals that have made it through to the finals (like this one that proposes 3D printed books for blind children, for example, or this one that proposes a tiny makerspace for a small community) are those that emphasize how the project would use 3D printing and associated technologies in an innovative way that is still meaningful to specific community learning needs and interests.

One theme that runs through these maker-related proposals, whether they come from cities or rural locations, is the relevance of these spaces to the business and economic needs of the communities in which they are proposed.  Several entries point out the potential for library maker-spaces to be entrepreneurial incubators designed to enable users to develop, prototype, and market their own software or other products.  Many of these proposals specifically mention how the current “digital divide” is, at its heart, an economic divide – such as this maker space proposal from San Jose, which argues that “In order for the next generation of Silicon Valley’s leaders to rise from its neighborhoods, access to industry knowledge and tools should begin early to inspire participation, experimentation, and collaboration – essential skills of the thriving economy in the area.”  Creativity and experimentation are increasingly essential skills in the labor force, and these proposals highlight how a library’s role in fostering creative expression ultimately provides an economic benefit.

Publishing and Promoting DRM-Free Content

Like maker spaces, libraries serving as publishers is not a new trend.3  What is interesting about Knight Foundation proposals that that center on this topic are the projects that position libraries as publishers of content that otherwise would struggle to get published in the current marketplace, while recognizing the desire for libraries to more easily lend digital content to their users.

A great example of this is a proposal by the developers of JukePop to leverage “libraries’ ebook catalogs so they become THE publishing platform for indie authors looking to be discovered by the most avid readers”  JukePop is a publishing platform for indie authors that enables distribution of ebooks – often in serial form – to readers who can provide feedback to authors.  Downloads from library websites are DRM-free.4 Other proposals – like this proposal for improving the licensing models of indie games – also have a core value of figuring out new ways to streamline user access to content while providing benefits and compensation to creators.

A somewhat different – and super interesting – manifestation of this theme is the Gitenberg project, which proposes utilizing Github as a platform for version control to enable libraries to contribute to improving digital manuscripts and metadata for Project Gutenberg.  The project already has a repository that you can start forking from and making pull requests to improve Project Gutenberg data.

Telling Community Stories through Born-Digital Media Preservation

Libraries and archives have always held the role of preserving the cultural heritage of the communities they serve, but face challenges in easily  gathering, preserving, and curating born-digital media.  While individual users capture huge amounts of media on mobile devices, as the Open Archive proposal puts it, “the most common destination for this media is on social media platforms that can chill free speech and are not committed to privacy, authentication, or long-term preservation.”  StoryCorps, for example, proposes the creation of better tools and distributed education for libraries and archives to record and preserve diverse community stories through interviews.  CurateScape “seeks to remake public life through a distributed and participatory network of digital storytelling,” emphasizing the need for technology that can be adopted by libraries to document local community histories.  The Internet Archive proposes more streamlined tools and frameworks to enable users to more easily submit content for preservation to archive.org.  The Open Archive project, also associated with the Internet Archive, emphasizes empowering users through their local libraries and archives to capture and submit their media to community collections.  Recognizing that there is still an enormous amount of pre-digital content waiting to be preserved New York Public Library seeks to “democratize the digitization process” through mobile and distributed digitization tools.

The element that seems to motivate many of these proposals is an emphasis on unique, community-centric collections that tell a story.  They focus on the importance of local institutions as connection points for users to share their content, and their experiences, with the world, while also documenting the context surrounding those experiences.  Libraries and archives are uniquely positioned as the logical place to document local histories in the interest of long-term preservation, but need better solutions.  It’s definitely exciting to see the energy behind these proposals and the innovative solutions that are on the horizon.

Start Thinking about Next Year!

Full disclosure:  I was part of a team that submitted a proposal to the News Challenge, and while we’ve been notified it won’t be funded, it was a fantastic learning experience.  I definitely made some great connections with other Challenge participants (many tweets have been exchanged!) – and it’s not surprising to me that even in a competition, library people find ways to work together and collaborate.  While winners for this years’ competition won’t be announced until January 30th, and the specific “challenge” prompt for the next competition won’t be identified until late next year (and may not be specifically library-related), I would definitely encourage anyone with a good, relevant idea to think about applying to next years’ News Challenge.

There’s also some interesting stuff to be found in the “Inspiration” section of the News Challenge, where people could submit articles, discussions, and ideas relevant to this year’s Challenge.  One of the articles linked to in that section is the transcript of a 2013 speech by author Neil Gaiman, which features a lot of lovely bits of motivation for every library enthusiast – like this one, which I think captures a central thread running through almost every News Challenge proposal:  “A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it… It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.”

Notes

  1. The projects that do not have direct library/librarian involvement listed on the project team – including “Cowbird” (https://newschallenge.org/challenge/libraries/evaluation/building-libraries-of-human-experience-transforming-america-s-libraries-into-community-storytelling-centers-for-the-digital-age) and “Libraries as Hip-Hop TechSpace” (https://newschallenge.org/challenge/libraries/refinement/libraries-as-hip-hop-techspace) are definitely interesting to read.  I do think they provide a unique perspective on how the ethos and mission of libraries is perceived by those not necessarily embedded in the profession – and I’m encouraged that these proposals do show a fairly clear understanding of the directions libraries are moving in.
  2. http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/?p=2340
  3. See http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2014/03/publishing/the-public-library-as-publisher and http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0017.207
  4. Santa Clara County Library district is a development partner with JukePop – you can check out their selection of JukePop-sourced DRM-free titles available here:  http://www.sccl.org/Browse/eBooks-Downloads/Episodic-Fiction

2 thoughts on “Themes from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge Grant Competition”

Comments are closed.