There is a lot of talk of FAIL these days; two-thirds of the “Innovation, Risk & Failure” track of last week’s Internet Librarian 2010 conference was dedicated to failure. Afterward, attendees put together a website dedicated to sharing library failures. I agree it’s very important to learn from our mistakes in libraries, but I also think that failure that we really learn from can’t be captured in a snapshot or without the context of the risk in which it took place. There is a human dimension that can be left out in those snapshots.
Everything we do is trial and error, whether in libraries or in life. Every project, every interaction has the potential for failure; luckily, what most of us focus on is the potential for success. Maybe the word “failure” makes me uncomfortable; in thinking about projects that I’ve worked on, I can point out things that didn’t work, things that had to be done twice, things that took too long to accomplish or simply didn’t get done. I would not label these failures, though, but obstacles that were worked through and either addressed or (gulp) lived with. As long as I am a good listener and dynamic about addressing and communicating the issues, is this approach wrong? I like to think it’s not.
Libraries are one of the most quickly-changing industries in the country, and probably one of the most threatened, though we mostly aren’t admitting it. We are pulled constantly by market forces, shifting user needs, and technology that outpaces us in spite of our considerable innovation. The library that does not respond to this change and to the mistakes that it inevitably makes in its wake is an endangered library. It’s a library without empathy that is not connecting with or serving its community and therefore failing in its mission. Hey, there’s that F-word again.
That said, failure hurts. We are taught from an early age that to make a mistake is to have done something wrong, and that people who do wrong get punished. Libraries busy celebrating their failures cannot forget that those mistakes stem from human action (and interaction) and should be addressed with kindness. Every time someone posts to twitter about a bone-headed user comment or blogs about their library’s crazy rules that address a single problem patron, we all must remember that it was another human being who took that misstep, and that in all likelihood, he or she is a good person who is doing his or her best. That person deserves to tell his or her side of the story and to put that mistake in the past and move on.
There is nothing wrong with pointing out failures as long as it’s done without mockery. There's a difference between saying "look at these idiots and their stupid policy" and finding something wrong in a library and understanding that this is something that librarians can collectively improve. Owning your own mistakes is one thing, but the cry of “FAIL!” can be driven by meanness and only serves to make those who made the mistake feel small. Snide invective may attract a lot of viewers or readers--and it might even make us feel smart or superior--but at the end of the day, it’s our kindnesses that make us human.
Photo: “Empathy” CC:by-nc-sa courtesy flickr user TonZ