Librarians Are Experts In Failing

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
-Thomas Edison

Research is an exercise in failure. You try a search in Google, or the catalog, or a database and often you don’t find what you’re looking for right away. You then try something else and perhaps get a little closer. Each time you try a search though, you learn a little more. You find new useful keywords to try in your next search. You learn what doesn’t work or what kind of works.

The reason librarians are research experts is because they realize that research involves failure. It doesn’t scare them and they don’t easily lose heart. They often see it as a challenge. They fail, but fail quickly, trying different iterations and learning along the way. Their searches are like the process of evolution involving multiple failed mutations until something comes along that works and flourishes.

Failure is necessary to succeed. It’s what allows us to learn. We should take the same approach in our careers that we do with our research and see failure as a tool… a necessary means to an end. Failure means you’re trying. It’s nice and safe to perpetuate the status quo. You won’t fail doing that. But you also won’t grow, and the library will stagnate.

Do something. Anything! Even if your idea isn’t fully fleshed out, start trying it. Your failures will help you to flesh it out. We don’t start research knowing the answer. We create our answer from a mix of failure and success. We also don’t know exactly how we’re going to build the perfect library. But we can figure it out. Sure they’ll be some failure, but you won’t even notice if you’re focused on what that perfect library looks like and how to get there.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. The only addendum I would offer to add is for librarians to examine their failures. It's one thing to go off and try a half baked idea; it's another to take the time and effort to figure out why something did not work. Trial and error really only works when we know and understand the mistakes that are made and seek to learn from them. Experimentation should reflect an element of calculated risk that can be measured. Failure is certainly a teacher, but it should not be a school of hard knocks.

  2. Nice comment Andy. I definitely agree. Stringing failures together isn't productive if you're not learning. Like in research you have to learn from failures. Maybe the term “jipsie” doesn't work, but you realize that it's spelled “gypsy,” and then from there you learn that gypsies are also called “Roma.” (used this in a class). Each time you learn something more and are able to improve and fix what wasn't working.

    I very much agree with your point that reflection on our failures is necessary for success. Not moping reflection, but reflection with persistence and tenacity that drives us forward. Thanks for the comment!

  3. The more humorous way of looking at it is imagining if the Ed Harris character in Apollo 13 said “Failure is completely an option, just not the one we will accept.” Within the library context, I think there are a couple of tiers: failure to prepare (is this something patrons have asked for? what's the reasoning behind offering it?), failure to implement (is your staff on board? is your boss on board? what is your marketing plan? is this getting enough of your attention to make it work?), and a failure to analyze (why did it work? why did it not work? what stays the same? what changes?). The time spent asking these questions and learning is time saved trying to guess at why something does or doesn't work.

  4. Very cool link Miguel. The Cult of Done. I really like #2: “Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.”

  5. I knew I shouldn't have decided to read my feeds after lunch. I was going to post a link to the same manifesto but Miguel beat me to it.

Leave a Reply