From Error to Excellence: Embracing Mistakes in Library Practice

Everyone makes mistakes. Few would disagree with this statement, yet many still shy away from discussing what went wrong and why – especially in a professional setting such as a library. To challenge this stigma, four interviewees reflect on their own professional blunders and why it's more sensible to acknowledge them than to deny their existence.

This post is part of a series that provides think pieces and resources for academic librarians.

If you were to adapt and update the classic novel ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre Dumas for the present day while remaining true to the theater’s guiding principle – tua res agitur (“it is a matter that concerns you”) – then it would be necessary, for example, to include a woman. After all, all-male panels are a thing of the past. And yet, it takes courage and boldness to step out of your comfort zone when it comes to one’s own profession.

Though you need not be a skilled stunt performer to do so, it helps to share other characteristics common to the protagonists of swashbuckling adventure films; to be individually minded, able to work as a team, and willing to challenge the mainstream – even under close supervision. And this is exactly the ethos our four interviewed colleagues from the library exemplify as they discuss their failures and acknowledge their mistakes.

“Recent years have seen a significant shift in attitude, mirroring wider developments witnessed at start-ups and in politics.”

Openly discussing one’s blunders is not commonplace in the library world. However, recent years have seen a significant shift in attitude, mirroring wider developments witnessed at start-ups and in politics. This shift in consciousness has also made itself felt in the library scene. Having made the long journey across the pond from Mexico – Montezuma’s ‘second’ revenge? – unappealingly named ‘Fuck-Up Nights’ have received ten years of positive media coverage, symbolic of a culture increasingly at ease with discussing its own mistakes.

The four musketeers featured in the latest issue of Bibliothek, Forschung und Praxis include Petra-Sibylle Stenzel, former director of the Dresden University Library, Dietrich Rebholz-Schuhmann, scientific director of the Central Library Medical Information Centre for Life Sciences in Cologne, Andreas Degkwitz, former library director of Humboldt University in Berlin, and Markus Walter, a Dresden-based mountaineer and travel entrepreneur.

Photos of the four interviewees
From left to right: Petra-Sibylle Stenzel, Dietrich Rebholz-Schuhmann (photo: ZB MED/Eric Lichtenscheidt), Andreas Degkwitz (photo: dbv/Lukas Bergmann) and Markus Walter

They come together not only to reflect on their own mistakes and failures on a case-by-case basis, but also to address the perceived dark side of success, acknowledging rather than avoiding its existence with the aim of drawing lessons for the future. Variety is the spice of life, and each of our contributors bring to bear a unique perspective on the subject, which informs in turn their respective jumping-off point and outlook.

Four Voices, Four Viewpoints

Petra-Sibylle Stenzel reflects on her professional life, thirty years of which were spent as chef de la bibliothèque. She perceives daily routines as more susceptible to errors than project work. In sum, she would have liked to see more training opportunities for those in management and leadership positions, allowing them to be made aware of and methodically prepared for the requirements of their roles at an earlier stage. Early and deliberate communication which caters to individual needs, she emphasizes, is also crucial to avoid triggering widespread failure following initial setbacks.

“Having already attained an excellent stage of development, why not dare to try again?”

Dietrich Rebholz-Schumann saw his entire institution undergo scrutiny in its attempt to be reinstated as a full member of a non-university research community. Despite making significant headway, the goal was ultimately unattained. This concerns an establishment that, in my view, scarcely needs to justify its relevance amidst the significant challenges in health and medicine today. As a research and infrastructure service provider, the need for the institutionalized existence of such a national-level information facility should be evident, especially in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. However, perception within the field differed. And yet there is a sense of pride in looking back at the many achievements along the way, as well as the initial successes of the internal transformation. But having already attained an excellent stage of development, why not dare to try again?

As a recognized and experienced library director, Andreas Degkwitz shared responsibility for a supra-regional network which sought to pioneer cooperation with private partners on a project-based, nationally oriented, cross-library scale. In the mature digital age, one expects to find that the inventory references, bibliographic information, item availability and other metadata scattered across thousands of individual catalogues would be centrally organized, curated and made available for reuse in Germany. However, the third-party funded project failed to achieve this goal, while a comparable initiative by other library networks and protagonists, largely self-financed, proved successful.

“The empirical findings are clearly laid out … demonstrating how the aspiration to a one-size-fits-all model continues to elude practical realization in this context.”

How could a lauded project falter under favorable conditions? Several aspects, according to the interviewee, would have been handled differently in hindsight. When faced with two privately operated, global competitors as partners – each vying for market share and thus representing their own interests – only limited openness and willingness to cooperate can be expected. Among other things, this increases the need for greater communication and creates hurdles for coordination. Moreover, with a heterogeneity of libraries come various standards and requirements, e.g. around continuous updating, on which a consensus should have been formalized beforehand. Later stakeholders who stood to benefit significantly over the long term should also have been included in the network to better tailor the project towards specific target groups. The empirical findings are clearly laid out to allow for the identification of potential weaknesses in comparable projects, demonstrating how the aspiration to a one-size-fits-all model continues to elude practical realization in this context.

For technical reasons, the interview with Markus Walter could not be published in the thematic issue “Error Culture in Libraries”. However, it will soon be published ahead-of-print and in print in issue 2 2024 of Bibliothek Forschung und Praxis.

How does our fourth contribution from Markus Walter harmonize with the choir? While public goods are managed and run differently from private ones, leading enterprises such as informational facilities – which may not necessarily generate profit but are nonetheless governed with equal vigor to usher in the digital, potentially AI-driven era – allow for a wider perspective. The crisis-stricken travel agency sector serves as a pertinent example, with Mr. Walter serving as its representative in this publication. He faces risks which are not only existential from a professional perspective, but genuinely life-threatening in his hobby as a mountaineer. How does he handle both business-related and mortal dangers to prevent critical failures, or reduce their likelihood? His insightful typology of errors distinguishes between those that are desired and permitted, and those that should be avoided at all costs.

Learning from the Mistakes Others Make

All four interviewees bring a wealth of experience to the table, offering appreciative reflections that extend beyond their personal contexts and which demonstrate a willingness to challenge their own attitudes and perspectives.

Engaging with the articles in this themed edition inevitably compels the reader to critically examine – and possibly recalibrate – one’s own personal attributes and qualities, with important takeaways for one’s personal and professional lives alike.

[Title image by patpitchaya/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Frank Seeliger

Frank Seeliger has been head of the academic library at the University of Applied Sciences Wildau since 2006. Previously, he studied and completed his doctorate in ethnology and library science at the Universities of Bonn, Ulm and the Humboldt University in Berlin. He is one of the guest editors of the BFP special issue on error culture in academic libraries.

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