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Now that books and research are available from anywhere, what should libraries become?

That’s the question the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation asked — except when you’re the Knight Foundation, you have millions of dollars to help find the answer.

Today, the Chicago-based philanthropy named 22 projects that are together receiving $3 million in funding from the Knight News Challenge on Libraries.

In the spirit of these times, the Foundation’s announcement language sounds curiously like venture capital-speak. Eight of the projects receive what the foundation described as “investments” ranging from $130,000 to $600,000, although the recipients don’t need to pay back the money. These projects are intended to advance major library efforts that could become permanent activities.

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 VentureBeat that his organization expected “most [of these] projects will not work,” but, like any seed-funded efforts, some will succeed.

In September, the Foundation issued a call for entries containing ideas that “leverage libraries as a platform.” It received nearly 700 entries.

Library “patrons and citizens are passionate about their libraries,” Bracken said.

He noted that the proposals are propelled by “the energy of taking advantage of [libraries’] open physical space, and the fact that librarians are uniquely trained for information sharing.” This is the first time for the Challenge on Libraries, and Bracken said it’s not yet clear if or when it might happen again.

Even before the challenge, many libraries in the U.S. have been eagerly becoming “makerspaces,” centers of hands-on learning that sometimes include 3D printers.

One of the prototype projects, a Chicago-based endeavor called “Maker Tool Circulating Kits,” intends to test out “an equipment lending system” that shares maker kits between libraries the way they now share, say, books. Bracken noted that the shareable items include programmable robots.

And some libraries are electronically tapping their treasure troves, such as the phenomenal collections of the New York Public Library. One project, called Space/Time Directory, will turn historical maps at the NYPL into a mashup of city streets and historical records so that people can tour New York City across its history.

Here are the Foundation’s descriptions of the eight projects that received major funding:

  • Culture in Transit from the Metropolitan New York Library Council. It helps more communities share their histories online by creating a mobile kit that will scan and digitize print materials for public archiving in partnership with Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library. [This will enable residents to create digital archives of their own historical items, using the kit’s scanners and cameras. The digitized items will then be available in the Digital Public Library of America and other digital facilities.]
  • Space/Time Directory from the New York Public Library. This works with local communities and technologists to turn historical maps and other library collections into an interactive directory for the exploration of New York across time periods. The directory will be a searchable, digital atlas and database of historical places. [From the proposal: “The NYC Space/Time Directory does for old New York what Google Maps does for modern cities, turning historic maps and data into time machines. … A theater historian will not only be able to view all of the performing arts venues in the city across time, but venue maps will also be linked to production images, publicity materials, playbills, and newspaper reviews for the performances that took place there. Eating establishments can be linked to menus and culinary data sets.”]
  • Library for All: Digital Library for the Developing World. This makes books and educational content available at libraries and schools across the developing world through a digital platform designed specifically for low-bandwidth environments and accessible on mobile devices, including low-cost tablets and $30 feature phones.
  • Open Data to Open Knowledge from City of Boston turns its open data collection of everything from building permits to potholes into an accessible resource by working with the Boston Public Library to catalog it and make it easier for residents, researchers and public employees to navigate.
  • Activating the Public Library from Peer 2 Peer University. Recognizing that lack of peer-support and face-to-face learning in open online courses can be a barrier to success, especially for newcomers, Activating the Public Library will organize in-person study groups in local branches of the Chicago Public Library system.
  • The Internet Archive. This helps people create and share global collections of cultural treasures on the Internet Archive, one of the world’s largest public libraries. [“What Wikimedia did for encyclopedia articles, the Internet Archive hopes to do for collections of tools: give people the tools to build library collections together and make them accessible to everyone.”]
  • The Library Freedom Project. This provides librarians and their patrons with tools and information to better understand their digital rights by scaling a series of privacy workshops for librarians.
  • Measure the Future from Evenly Distributed. This helps libraries better manage one of their greatest assets — the building itself — by using open hardware to track data about its public spaces. The hardware will measure a variety of factors in each room, so that libraries can make better, data-driven decisions on how to use their public spaces.

And the Prototype Fund winners:

  • BklynShare by Brooklyn Public Library enables people to learn new skills through a service that connects knowledge seekers with experts in their own neighborhood.
  • Book a Nook by Harvard University metaLAB activates library public spaces for diverse community uses by testing a software toolkit that streamlines the exploration and reservation of physical library spaces.
  • The Community Resource Lab by District of Columbia Public Library advances the library as the primary anchor of an open information system that connects residents to essential health, human and social services.
  • Co-working at the Library by Miami Dade Public Library provides freelancers, entrepreneurs, and innovators a collaborative space for coworking in Miami-Dade libraries.
  • Indie Games Licensing by Concordia University’s TAG Research Center (Montreal) prototypes models for the licensing and circulation of independent video games at libraries.
  • GITenberg by Project GITenberg (Montclair, N.J., and Somerville, Mass) explores collaborative cataloging for Project Gutenberg public-domain ebooks using the Web-based repository hosting service GitHub.
  • Journalism Digital News Archive by University of Missouri Libraries and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (Columbia, Mo.) ensures access to digital news content through development of a model for archiving and preserving digital content that can be used across the country.
  • Maker Tool Circulating Kits by Make it @ Your Library (Chicago) shares the tools and technology of the maker movement by prototyping an equipment lending system — a process for sharing maker kits between libraries — that builds on existing interlibrary loan frameworks. [The inter-library sharing could include programmable robots.]
  • Making the Invisible Visible by Bibliocommons (Boston). This prototypes an app to give patrons a deeper library experience based on the user’s location, interests, and actions in the library.
  • Privacy Literacy by San Jose Public Library developers online tools that will help individuals understand privacy in the digital age and make more informed decisions about their online activity.
  • Regional Business Information Bureau by Kent State University Library experiments with models for a Business Information Bootcamp, connecting local entrepreneurs and small businesses to information and services that will support their growth and contributions to the local economy.
  • This Place Matters by Marshall University (Huntington, W.Va.) explores the potential of a location-aware mobile application to share African American history and link to library resources.
  • White Space 101 (San Francisco) creates learning materials for libraries to explore and implement TV White Space networks to support remote library Internet hotspots that will give people wider broadband access, especially in crisis situations.
  • Your Next Skill by Seattle Public Library helps people acquire new skills or expand their knowledge by creating a librarian-led, referral service that connects users with materials, classes, and instructors that will help them meet their goals.

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