March 22, 2018

Willing to Fail: The Beauty of Trial and Error—and Trial Again | Editorial

Rebecca MillerIt’s rare to get to talk with five of the top thinkers from the library field all at once. I got to do that as moderator of the keynote panel that kicked off the virtual event “The Digital Shift (TDS): Reinventing Libraries,” held October 16. Participating in a group webcast from all over the country were Dan Cohen, founding director of the Digital Public Library of America; Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services [IMLS]); Deborah Jacobs, director of the Global Libraries initiative for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Barbara Stripling, assistant professor at Syracuse University and president of the American Library Association; and John P. Wilkin, university librarian and dean of libraries, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As fodder, I asked them each to supply two words, one to describe the library of today, and the other, the ideal future state. Their answers were intriguing. Hildreth: “transition” > “collaboration.” Stripling: “access” > “community.” Wilkin: “independent” > “interdependent.” Cohen: “objects” > “objectives.” Jacobs: “vital” > “community-engaged.”

The hour-long program was shared live with over 2,000 audience members and will continue to be tapped in the event archive. LJ’s Ian Chant has covered the conversation more fully, but one theme especially struck me: the need for less perfection in exchange for an experimental approach to development.

Flipping a question about what disruptions we should expect in libraries, Jacobs said we should not worry about the next disruption but instead be prepared to be flexible in the face of it. Wilkin later got at the “how,” when discussing the need for problem-solving skills. “We need people who can work through the challenges that present themselves,” he said.

Cohen called for more willingness to fail through beta testing and experimentation. “You launch things that are imperfect,” he said, “and you move toward perfection”—and seek opportunities to scale up the great ideas that work. Hildreth emphasized the emerging role of libraries as places of production. She was seconded by Stripling, who, among other things, noted potential in empowering people to create, not just consume. The testing and scaling of Chicago’s YouMedia labs was cited.

Jacobs nailed the concept by placing it, rightly, in terms of limited resources. “If everything you are launching is a home run,” she said, “then you are not investing wisely.”

This got me thinking about the event itself, which had more than 7,000 preregistrants from across different types of libraries, publishing, and schools and a full 3,555 live participants. This virtual event is itself an example of an iterative process from one year to the next, requiring tolerance for what’s become a sort of constant beta. The Digital Shift event was first created three years ago as a forum to explore the explosive and controversial issues surrounding ebooks. The editors at LJ and School Library Journal saw how robust the digital conference environment could be and since have played with the format of the presentations, paid versus free registration, and the process for how we arrive at ideas for the content. Past programs tracked by library type, but this time we focused on the commonalities, grouping tracks by content areas, with all library types represented in each. “We blew it up,” said TDS project manager Barbara Genco, in order to get at the vitality in the field and fuel cross-fertilization.

Ever aware of flaws and missed opportunities, as well as the moving target of what libraries need to know now, we’ll continue to evolve the format as we look to our fifth event, next year. We’ll deploy some of the very strategies explored by the thinkers at this year’s forum: beyond listening to our guts about what worked, we’ll mine the evidence that comes from surveying participants, see what keeps resonating in the archives, and pay heed to anecdotal feedback. Reflecting on another important theme—the need to articulate what libraries do in terms of outcomes instead of outputs—we will be on the lookout for examples of how the takeaways from the event led to real-world solutions in the library.

Keep up the trial and error. LJ will, too.

This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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