February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Library Transformation Hallmark of 2016 Knight News Challenge Winners

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has announced funding of $1.6 million for 14 digital and data projects aimed at reimagining libraries for the 21st century.

Winning projects in the Knight News Challenge on Libraries ran the innovation gamut, from preserving rural American history via small-town libraries to training library staff on how to bring more diverse perspectives to Wikipedia. “The winners show the potential of libraries to innovate and reinvent themselves in response to ever-evolving information needs. We hope they will inspire more innovation in the space and help highlight the many ways libraries can connect communities in the digital age,” says John Bracken, Knight Foundation vice president of media innovation.

A special kind of storytime

A family visit. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

A family visit. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

Among the lauded projects was “TeleStory: Library-Based Video Visitation for Children of Incarcerated Parents.” Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in New York will use the $393,249 investment (the top prize amount) to offer free services in 12 branches to help families stay connected. Studies show that the combination of trauma, shame, and stigma unique to parental incarceration can have a particularly detrimental effect on a child’s development.

“Libraries are essential in building more informed communities and closing the literacy gap. This unique project taps into this opportunity, positioning public libraries as places to connect and learn,” says Bracken.

BPL staffers who provide services in New York’s correctional facilities share information about the program and then contact the families of interested inmates. Project lead Nicholas Higgins explains the logistics. “For the first visit, library staff select age-appropriate books that we think the Telestory family will enjoy. After a few visits, when we have gotten to know them a bit better, we can choose books and materials to reflect the child’s preferences and personalities.” For instance, if they notice a child seems to love drawing or writing, they’ll make sure to have crayons on hand. As to whether the parents receive any type of “training” for the sessions, Higgins says, “We do work closely with the parents to help them make the most of their reading time. Many of our incarcerated parents have participated in the Daddy & Me or Mommy & Me programs, which teach early literacy skills and prepare them to help their children learn.”

Rosario D. reads to his child. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library.

Inmate Rosario reads to his child. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

Each video visit is scheduled for one hour, and while BPL sees a preponderance of toddlers and preschoolers, the program is open to all ages. Reading is encouraged, but families can draw together, sing songs, or just sit and talk.

“The program addresses what we have identified as one of our patrons’ chief needs, staying connected even when it is difficult to be together in person,” says Higgins. “Our hope is that Telestory will be adopted by libraries throughout the nation. This really should be a core library service.”

A beat all their own

Student Paulina P.,  left, interviews Bessie Rodriguez, mother of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, killed 42 years ago. Photo:  David Woo, courtesy of The Dallas Morning News)

Student Paulina interviews Bessie Rodriguez, mother of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, killed 42 years ago. Photo: David Woo, courtesy of the Dallas Morning News

A $150,000 award went to “Storytellers Without Borders: Activating the Next Generation of Community Journalists Through Library Engagement.” The Dallas Public Library (DPL) will host an intensive community journalism course for area high school students.

Branch locations in diverse neighborhoods will act as research centers, technology hubs, and venues for interviews with community members. Librarians will teach the teens how to use the library’s digital resources and databases to better understand their neighborhood, while the Dallas Morning News journalists will show them the ropes of interviewing, taking notes, and writing stories, as well as shooting videos and recording audio.

The idea was sparked by Alma Guillermoprieto, a renowned Latin American journalist and New Yorker correspondent, who proposed the concept at the Dallas Festival of Ideas last February. She suggested that Dallas’s literary life could be transformed by professional writers mentoring young storytellers across diverse neighborhoods—with the training conducted at public libraries, in order to strengthen those.

Student Naomi interviews a local business owner. Photo Courtesy of Dallas Public Library.

Student Naomi interviews a local business owner. Photo courtesy of Dallas Public Library

Details of the recruitment process are still being worked out, but the intention is to hold an open application process, based on an essay and letter of recommendation. High school journalism advisers will also be enlisted to identify potential participants. “Getting racial, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity will be key for the program,” says the Dallas Morning News project lead Tom Huang.

While use of the skills acquired to pursue a career is certainly a desired end result, “The goal of the project is really to get our teens to look up from the electronic devices and become more aware of what is happening in their neighborhoods and their city. The second goal is to remind them that the library is a valuable resource and a safe place for them to gather as a group or just to do research,” notes DPL project lead Maryjo Giudice.

“Storytellers Without Borders” is personal to Huang. “When I was growing up, even though I loved to write, I never had any journalists as role models, so I wasn’t sure how to make my way into the news business,” he shares. While he eventually figured it out on his own, he wants to give students the opportunity to find those mentors who can inspire and guide them.

“I’ve always thought that we can use the power of storytelling to bring diverse communities together. Dallas can be a divided city at times, and we’re going to depend on our young people to build bridges,” adds Huang.


Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.