Next Up for the "Cool Kids" at Knight: Helping Libraries Get With It

William F. Buckley, a founder of the modern day conservative movement, famously noted that "A conservative is someone who stands athwart history telling 'Stop!'" We'd be curious to hear Buckley's thoughts on the Knight Foundation. (Alas, he passed away in 2008.)

The Knight Foundation is the antithesis of Buckley's adage. Knight looks at long-standing pillars of civic life—higher education, journalism, the arts, and, as we'll soon see, public libraries—and shouts, "Change! Change now!"

Which is why we named Knight one the "most interesting foundations, 2014," and wrote, "This funder definitely sits with the cool kids in the nonprofit cafeteria."

Knight's not just cool, it's rich: If some clueless institution needs a makeover or a little push in order to get with it, the foundation is more than happy to open its wallet and move things along.

Such is the case with Knight's vision for public libraries in the 21st century, encapsulated in one simple question: What will the be primary role of a public library in 20 years? For an answer, they've ponied up $3 million for their Knight News Challenge on Libraries.

The foundation spread the funding across 22 projects that aim to enhance and expand the role of libraries in the coming decade. Eight of the projects received what the foundation described as "investments" ranging from $130,000 to $600,000, although the recipients don’t need to pay back the money.

The other 14 are "early stage ideas" that will get $35,000 each from the foundation’s Prototype Fund. Vice President of Media Innovation John Bracken told the website VentureBeat that if he were a betting man, "most [of these] projects will not work," but, like any seed-funded efforts, some will succeed.

(Quick side note. Could you imagine a CEO standing before his or her board, openly admitting, "Most of this stuff isn't going to work. But thanks for your support.")

To that end, VentureBeat notes that Knight's approach resembles that of a venture capitalist, albeit with one tiny caveat: There's no financial capital to be found in public libraries, which, of course, makes the program all the more cool. But Knight's investments shouldn't be viewed as risky shots in the dark. They're done their homework.

For starters, Knight understands the potential of untapped and underutilized assets. Public libraries, of course, are drowning in the stuff—books, archives, maps, you name it—but more often than not, they're misallocated or not easily accessible to the tech-savvy general public. Or, in opposite fashion, today's libraries have tons of technology that many of their older users are befuddled by. And so some of the funding will be used to recalibrate the allocation of existing assets to boost accessibility. Five of the eight projects in the foundation's Prototype Fund will serve this purpose.

Secondly, Knight wants to leverage the value of capacity. Public libraries are, in many instances, huge, cavernous spaces. Are these spaces being properly utilized? To that end, one of the Prototype Fund recipients, Measure the Future/Evenly Distributed, will "help libraries better manage one of their greatest assets—the building itself—by using open hardware to track data about its public spaces."

Lastly, and I'm speaking from personal experience here, libraries provide something that is woefully lacking at, say, the other end of the customer service call center at American Airlines: real-live humans. Librarians—i.e., "human capital"—are libraries' most valuable resource. (Don't believe us? Just ask the Gates Foundation.)

Knight funding will ensure that this human capital is properly leveraged. For example, one recipient, the Library Freedom Project, will provide librarians and their patrons with "tools and information to better understand their digital rights by scaling a series of privacy workshops for librarians." Another, Activating the Public Library, will organize in-person study groups in local branches of the Chicago Public Library system.

Sure, not every project will prove "successful" in a way that would make a Wall Street analyst swoon. But the beauty of Knight's give is that rather than create assets or resources out of whole cloth, many libraries can recalibrate what they already have.