Stuff That Works: A Funder's Valuable Advice for Public Libraries

Seattle's public library. photo:  Checubus/shutterstock

Seattle's public library. photo:  Checubus/shutterstock

In his recent piece on Alberto Ibargüen, David Callahan dubbed the Knight Foundation’s long-serving CEO and president "The Futurist" for good reason. The foundation has been working for years to help key institutions in U.S. society navigate an age of disruption. 

Callahan also noted that Ibargüen wanted to move the foundation beyond its constant experimentation and start doubling down on the stuff that "really worked." If the past year is any indication, Ibargüen has been true to his word. Knight has been active in identifying "stuff that works" across several areas—including libraries, an American institution beloved in theory and embattled in practice. 

In June 2016, the foundation announced the winners of its News Challenge on Libraries, which posed the question, "How might libraries serve 21st-century information needs?" The eclectic mix of grantees offered a range of possible ideas.

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

Knight has also been keen to connect American libraries with trends worldwide. Earlier this year, the foundation sent a cohort of U.S. librarians to the Next Library Conference, an annual gathering held in Aarhus, Denmark, that brings together global leaders to "spread best practices in library innovation, while helping libraries' capacity to meet new digital age demands."

Laura Sue Wilansky recently posted takeaways from the conference, "Five Lessons for Libraries Looking to Innovate in the 21st Century," on Knight's blog, and I consider them to be important for two reasons.

First, the piece provides a window into the grantmaker's thinking around the evolving role of libraries. The conference, according to Wilansky, was nothing less than an opportunity to "further inform our strategy."

And second, the piece focuses on a funding area that, despite widespread budget cuts, receives surprisingly scant support from big donors. Wilansky says that by re-imagining libraries as institutions that create "opportunities for communities to engage with information, new ideas and each other," Knight may help to change this dynamic. Given funder interest in areas like equality and engagement, it's very possible.

Takeaway No. 1 may sound familiar: "People need libraries to be more than information repositories." Indeed, back in 2015, when looking at winners of Knight's News Challenge on Libraries, I noted, "Public libraries, by their very nature, are public spaces conducive to gatherings, interactions and community engagement."

Wilansky affirms this sentiment. "Libraries can play a role in organizing town halls, and offer playgrounds, social services and much more," she said. "Flexibility, vision and open-mindedness in the design and architectural planning process are essential to facilitating this evolution."

Takeaway No. 2: "Libraries can play a key role in preserving and strengthening our democracy." This is perhaps the most tantalizing takeaway of them all.

The recent boom in civic-oriented giving suggests that civic-minded donors may give libraries a second look if they can strengthen our democracy—see the Trump Effect in the journalism space or anti-"fake news" efforts spearheaded by Pierre Omidyar, Craig Newmark and large institutional funders, including Knight. 

The question, of course, is "How?" Simple: "As civic hubs for information and engagement," Wilansky explained, "libraries can encourage people to get involved in their communities, connect with local issues and become more knowledgeable citizens and voters." 

Similarly—and this is takeaway No. 3—libraries "must be guided by public input on what services are needed and useful." They must also—takeaway No. 4—embrace "innovation and collaboration" while admitting failures. Lastly, "Libraries offer a place where people of different backgrounds and income levels can meet and connect." As such, libraries should "play a leadership role in revitalizing and sustaining communities."

Wilanksy's takeaways are intentionally strategic and thematic in nature. Should libraries pivot toward soliciting donor dollars, they must first establish what George H. W. Bush called the "vision thing."

It's no accident that many of the themes articulated by Wilanksy—inclusivity, engagement, innovation—are words you'd normally apply to nonprofit arts organizations. Much like museums and performing arts organizations, libraries are trying to attract visitors who have a finite amount of free time and a seemingly infinite number of options.

The idea of "flexibility" is important, too, as it enables donors to get creative and earmark funding for specific interests. (We saw this phenomenon play out earlier this year when Merryl Tisch and her husband James gave $20 million to the New York Public Library to expand its educational programming.)

Ultimately, the lack of donors dollars flowing to libraries can be traced to simple market dynamics. The wealthy, the argument goes, don't make much use of libraries, and don't develop loyalty to these institutions. Similarly, at least one recent survey found that the percentage of people visiting libraries has fallen in recent years.

So despite the "disruption" roiling the library space, Knight's multi-pronged solution is both familiar and radically simple. Create an inclusive and civic-minded environment. Complement community building activities. Embrace technology. And above all else, engage your visitors.