May 25, 2018

We Talked About Failure | BackTalk

FifeThe Utah Library Association (ULA) dove headfirst into failure on February 19–20. Along with the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL), ULA hosted Strikethrough: The Utah Library Association Failure Workshop. Billed as an interdisciplinary discussion of failure for librarians, it brought together librarians, medical doctors, and performance artists.

Strikethrough began in May 2015 when Pamela Martin, then president of ULA, declared that she was tired of only discussing successes at conferences. Martin wanted to hear about failures. This was at a preconference hosted by library consultant Maureen Sullivan, American Library Association past president, 2012–13, who thought it was a great idea and wanted to be involved. John Spears, then executive director of SLCPL, and Andrew Shaw, SLCPL manager of communications, decided they would love to host an event about failure and jumped into action. By the end of the day, space was booked, a planning team was being assembled, and ­Sullivan was tentatively set to keynote.

Building a growth mind-set

Sullivan masterfully brought together current thought on resilience, intelligent failure, reframing your journey, and changing your mind-set. She taught us to think of failure as a gift, to use it as data, and always see it as part of a journey.

Edward Clark, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah, put failure in perspective as he discussed a $1.3 billion study about pediatric health that went unfinished. Every librarian present will now think about trying to revive a billion dollar study when they are frustrated that only three people showed up for a program.

Jorge Rojas, performance artist and director of education and engagement at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, taught us how to fail successfully. This included experimenting and taking risks, trusting our instincts, continuing to play, being flexible, failing hard if you are going to fail, and seeing how future successes are connected to past failures.

Peter Bromberg, associate director for public services of Salt Lake County Library Services, led small groups through the practice of sharing, hearing, and discussing failure. He also led an unconference that walked people through group discussions and individual contemplation.

Jean Shipman and Christy Jarvis, librarians at Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah, showed how they have created an environment that doesn’t fear failure through leadership that promotes experimentation and fast-prototyping. Also, they are trying to capture other peoples’ experiences through a failure reporting form.

Failure feedback

An anonymous survey captured key takeaways. Among them:

  • “Failure often leads to personal and professional growth.”
  • “Temporary failure should be allowed, planned for, and defended. Progress and perspective will be greatly hampered without failure. ”
  • “Sharing our failures helps ourselves and others learn from our failures.”
  • “Some of the most important learning opportunities are direct outgrowths from failed initiatives. Institutions should reward individuals for being brave enough to try new things, rather than punishing them when these initiatives don’t go as planned.”
  • “I need to emphasize to the people I supervise that fear of failure should not restrict them from trying; I need to support my colleagues’ attempts to try new things; I need to be more transparent with those who can help me succeed.”
  • “I am going to create a better culture of possibility and failure at my branch, I am going to try to capture stories of success and failure, and I am going to be a little braver in my own personal risk taking.”

Among the lessons repeated throughout the feedback was do not ever feel isolated or alone! From a library association perspective, this is what was important. We wanted to invest in our members and give them an opportunity to learn and grow and to feel connected to other librarians and perspectives.

We can always do better

Though attendee feedback was remarkably positive, the event itself did not go perfectly, and it is important to recognize that. We did not plan for parking. We did not provide food and coffee for one of the activities. Some of our more introverted guests felt like there was not a space for them. And—as is common at many conferences—men were over­represented in comments and conversations.

The dialog was powerful regardless of these shortcomings. Attendees saw that they are not alone when it comes to failure. ULA will continue this conversation with follow-up events and participants were encouraged to take the conversation back to their organizations. If we avoid talking about failure, we will never harness the powerful information that it gives us, and who loves information more than librarians?

Dustin Fife is Outreach and Patron Services Librarian at Utah Valley University, Orem; Past-President, Utah Library Association; and a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker. We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to

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