Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Failure, Organizational Culture, and Library Management

Image via Memecenter.
People fail, and they fail often. Failure is natural and organic. It happens. Organizations, however, are different. They are biased against failure to the point of denialism. Organizations are the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand when it comes to failure: they don't want to hear it, and because of this, they don't prepare for it. These organizational biases against failure are themselves a form of failure.

The above was informed by Sharon Epps' closing presentation at the Maryland Chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries day-long program on failure at The Johns Hopkins University on Friday, November 15th. Details about the program are here.

Can we make organizations a safe space for failure, for experimentation? If so, how?

As a library director, I fail on a regular basis. Armed with data, with the language used by our strategic plan, and with righteousness on my side I walk into a room and make my case. We need more full-time staff, more money for materials, and administrative rights on library computers, among other wants and needs... and I fail at all of these. To be a library director is to fail over and over and over again.

To the extent that I can change the organizational culture of my place of work to accept failure, and to encourage risk-taking, experimentation, and curiosity, I'll do so. I'm unsure of my abilities outside the library building, but inside
I called a meeting of all our full-time and part-time staff, and told them to treat the library like a laboratory. We’re going to try some things here. We will fail some of the time, but that’s life, and I’ll do my best to limit the damage. 
I'm grateful to ACRL MD for holding this program. I wish we in librarianship would not only talk more about failure, but encourage it. I hope this is a start. 

Source of the above offset is here: New Year, New Library (kind of)
Elsewhere on this site, explore the tag "failure." 


  1. This: "treat the library like a laboratory."

    This is why companies like Google and Apple work. This is how crazy-seeming ideas become life-saving vaccines. This is how people find the solutions to problems that have bothered them for generations.

    Try. Fail. Try again.

  2. What Carolyn said. One question is how to get public/governmental organizations the freedom to do this, how to help taxpayers/etc get comfortable with the concept of their tax-funded entity sometimes failing and admitting it.

  3. I also agree with Carolyn's point. To get this sort of course change rethinking the discourse of librarianship. Libraries by their very nature are conservative. This is in part due to the very idea of a library as some place that selects the best and preserves for all time. Of course libraries are much more than this, but in effect notion libraries has been part of the library DNA since time immemorial.

    I would suggest in part we need modify the narrative so that libraries are seen by the general public as places where experimentation is a constant activity.