Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

An evolving, essential role for libraries

Sept. 30, 2014, 11:09 a.m., Posted by Dan Cohen

Knight News Challenge: Libraries closes today, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. The challenge offers applicants a chance to share in $2.5 million by focusing on the question “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Below, Dan Cohen, founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, writes about the essential role libraries play in the democratization of information.

Libraries occupy a special place in our society. As the approval ratings for nearly all public institutions continue to plunge in the United States, libraries are treasured by a remarkable 90 percent, and they are used at all stages of life, from ages 3 to 93. People visit libraries for lifelong learning and entertainment, for Internet access and digital resources, for job searches and local meetings, and to research and contribute to the history of their communities. In many places in America and even more so around the world, libraries are the only available point of access to critical knowledge.

But as central as libraries are in our communities—in the U.S. there are 16,000 public libraries, more branches than Starbucks—there are worries about their continuing roles and future. Over the last decade so many of us have started reading on devices for which the convenience is great, but the lock-in, with specific software and digital rights management, is even greater. Libraries have found e-books hard to purchase, and although publishers have become more open to licensing e-books to public libraries in the past few years, they treat those e-books like physical books—restricting borrowing to one user at a time—and have engaged in pricing for libraries in ways that many have seen as unfair. The Web, not the library, has become the starting point for most research.

10 lessons for Giving Days, and one question: How can we make them more sustainable?

Sept. 30, 2014, 9 a.m., Posted by Bahia Ramos

It’s impressive if you think about it: In just a few years, community foundations have learned to raise millions for local projects in 24-hour sprints. To do it, their Giving Day campaigns have embraced new technologies and outreach strategies to make philanthropy easy and, well, a ton of fun.

But now with a few Giving Days under their belts, we hear more and more community foundations asking how these campaigns fit into their long-term strategies. Certainly, they put philanthropy on people’s radar and raise money for great causes. A big win. But are they financially sustainable for the organizations that run them? How could these campaigns be organized to benefit both the community and the causes the foundation cares about?

Reimagining libraries as conveners of information and innovation

Sept. 30, 2014, 8:50 a.m., Posted by Kalev H. Leetaru


Figure 1: Mapping the Geography of American Television News  

Knight News Challenge: Libraries closes today, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. The challenge offers applicants a chance to share in $2.5 million by focusing on the question “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Below, Kalev H. Leetaru, a data scientist and the Yahoo Fellow at Georgetown University, writes about libraries as centers of information innovation.

Imagine a world in which libraries and archives had never existed. No institutions had ever systematically collected or preserved our cultural past: Every book, letter and document was created, read and immediately thrown away. Alternatively, what if everything had been kept and the Library of Alexandria had survived to present day, archiving all societal knowledge through the millennia? How would life be different in these two worlds, one of no history and one of all our history, and what can this suggest to us of the future role of libraries in society?

Today both of these worlds have become reality: Libraries ship the physical book world of our history off to storage, eliminating the serendipitous discovery of browsing, while the Web simultaneously creates a virtual Library of Alexandria that unifies societal knowledge. No longer do libraries serve as gatekeepers to the world’s information: The Web has democratized access to information and with a single mouse click provides far more than any single library could ever offer.  Have libraries truly been rendered obsolete in the digital world?