Library innovation focus of five projects receiving nearly $1 million in new support from Knight Foundation

New report offers lessons in innovation for urban libraries

MIAMI — March 30, 2017 — The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced nearly $1 million in support to five projects aimed at advancing innovation in U.S. public libraries so they can better meet digital age information demands. The new funding is informed by the foundation’s previous work with libraries, detailed in a report also released today that explores opportunities and challenges to innovation in libraries, and highlights lessons for the field.

“At a time of rising distrust of institutions, echo chambers and concerns about the accuracy of information, libraries are more essential to American democracy than ever before,” said John S. Bracken, Knight Foundation vice president for technology innovation. “But in an increasingly digital world, they need the resources, skills, people and practices to embrace new innovations and take on an ever-important role in informing the communities that they serve. The projects and research we’re supporting today aim to advance this goal.”

The projects receiving funding focus on libraries as essential to addressing information challenges and creating new opportunities for communities to engage with ideas and each other. They support the transformation of libraries as digital age community hubs addressing issues from measuring the success of library programming, to using technology tools to make library collections more accessible and open, to giving librarians access to the skills and resources they need to innovate and better support their patrons.

The projects receiving investments include:

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library | $250,000 | Charlotte, North Carolina: Supporting a design and visioning process for transforming the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library into a leading example of a 21st century urban library. The process will help the Main Library, which has not renovated in 30 years, better address the current and emerging information and education needs of the community by updating its public spaces and developing new partnerships, service delivery tools and staffing procedures. Library staff will engage design firm MACHINE to help craft the vision and hold workshops with city residents and others to get input from the community.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology | $250,000 | Cambridge, Massachusetts: Advancing innovation in public libraries through a residency program at the MIT Media Lab that will enable librarians and technologists to collaborate on projects. Librarians who participate in the program will spend two weeks at the Media Lab and Media Lab researchers will spend up to three months working at their partner library.

Peer 2 Peer University | $135,000 | Chicago: Expanding a program, including learning circles, that makes open online courses easier for people to access and complete by organizing in-person study groups for patrons in libraries. This project previously won funding through the 2015 Knight News Challenge on Libraries. New support will help scale the program, initially piloted in Chicago, to 10 new libraries, including: Boston Public Library (Massachusetts), Detroit Public Library (Michigan), Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (North Carolina), Multnomah County Library (Oregon), Pierce County Library (Washington), Providence Public Library (Rhode Island), Richland Library (South Carolina), San Jose Public Library (California), and Wichita Public Library (Kansas). In addition, Peer to Peer University will  further develop the open-source learning circle toolkit, which supports a growing community of learning circle facilitators around the world.

Richland Library | $247,000 | Columbia, South Carolina: Developing a patron engagement tool to better measure attendance at library programs and understand the benefits that patrons receive from participation. By tracking attendance at programs, the library can more easily measure outcomes, recommend additional resources to patrons, and connect communities. Tools developed as part of the project will be shared with other libraries.

Southwest Harbor Public Library | $35,000 | Southwest Harbor, Maine: Making special collections from local libraries more accessible using data visualization, a technique that allows a user to view a database item, such as a photograph, while graphically seeing every other related item. Funding will help develop a visual relationships plugin for Omeka, an open source software solution from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The plugin will allow archivists to add relationship data so that database items are connected in ways that make it easy for users to discover related information.

Support for these projects is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to strengthen the capacity of libraries to meet digital age demands. To this end, Knight released a report today, produced by MACHINE, titled “Developing Clarity: Innovating in Library Systems.”

Based on interviews from 25 leaders in the library community and other experts, the report explores the state of the field, identifying advantages and opportunities and innovation challenges, as well as the role of technology in library innovation. Importantly, it also provides libraries with a framework for developing an innovation agenda and defines the characteristics of innovation-ready urban libraries, including:

  • Clearly framed innovation problems: Library leadership, funders and staff understand the main problems, questions and challenges that are the focus of the system’s innovation efforts.
  • Patron focus: Patrons of innovation efforts have been identified (for example, new immigrants to a city who are unsure of how to best take advantage of the library), and the library engages in a process of understanding and elevating the patrons’ experience of the library system.
  • An identified innovation process: Libraries develop a clear approach to innovation and manage a pipeline of scheduled innovation projects.
  • Experienced innovation project leadership: Skilled project leaders guide less-experienced staff and partners through the process of innovation.
  • Technical proficiency and resource availability: Libraries are able to build and integrate technology and digital solutions into their offerings, in accordance with patron needs and preferences.
  • Deliberate storytelling and marketing: Those in charge of leading innovation craft compelling proposals for funding, and capture and share project stories to inspire staff and attract more investment.
  • Manage a strategic portfolio: Multiple, complementary projects happen at the same time, with incremental resources allocated across the portfolio of projects. And strategic decisions are made about what projects should scale, adjust or stop.

To read the full report, visit

Since 1971, Knight Foundation has made nearly 200 grants totaling more than $12 million to library projects across the country. The importance of libraries was a key finding of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. More recently, the foundation supported the launch of the Digital Public Library of America; and announced further support to help it expand in June 2015. The foundation has also funded 36 projects via two Knight News Challenges on Libraries; winners for the first one were announced in January 2015 and winners for the second were announced in June 2016. The Knight News Challenge on Strengthening the Internet also included the New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library and the Digital Public Library of America as winners. 

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit