What Should 21st Century Libraries Look Like? Here are Fourteen Answers.

Fun fact: Ben Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. It was America's first lending library and can lay claim to being the predecessor of the free public library.

And it isn't much of a stretch to argue that the basic function of your typical public library remained more or less the same over the past 284 years. But that was before the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge on Libraries.

The creatively disruptive foundation recently announced the 14 winners out of over 600 proposals, each of whom will receive a share of $1.6 million to develop a project in answer to the question: "How might libraries serve 21st-century information needs?"

The winners represent a mix of libraries, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, small, for-profit startups, and museums. Five winners will receive awards ranging between $150,000 and $393,249, while the other nine will receive $35,000 each to develop their early-stage ideas. This marks the second News Challenge on Libraries for Knight Foundation. 

When we last looked at Knight's News Challenge on Libraries, we picked up on a couple of themes across the winning projects. First, many winning projects effectively leveraged capacity. As we noted, "Public libraries are, in many instances, huge, cavernous spaces. Knight wants to make sure these spaces are being properly utilized."

Secondly, Knight doesn't necessarily equate "innovation" with "technology." In fact, many News Challenge on Libraries winners bypass technology entirely. Instead, they position themselves as public spaces conducive to gatherings, interactions, and community engagement.

So how do this year's 14 winners—which you can check out here—fare in comparison? Three themes jumped out at us.

The first is making mountains of information readily available to the general pubic. A good example of this is Dublin, Ohio-based Online Computer Library Center's efforts to "make library resources more accessible to Wikipedia editors and engaging librarians as contributors to Wikipedia through a national training program that will include community outreach to increase local information literacy." (As previously noted here, the idea of managing Big Data is very near and dear to Knight's heart.)

Which brings us to a second theme—boosting childhood literacy, best evidenced by the Brooklyn Public Library's program for "increasing childhood literacy by offering video story time and visitation services for children of incarcerated parents in the trusted space of public libraries."

Lastly, Knight seemed particularly keen on projects that embrace local culture. One winner, the digital, user-generated archive of historical photos, videos, and audio recordings known as Historypin, plans to "measure the effects of public library-led history, storytelling and local cultural heritage programs in three rural American communities."

For additional insight on how innovative libraries are pushing the envelope while keeping at least one foot planted in the brick and mortar world, click here.