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January 17, 2013

Failure Is a Part of Success

Earlier this week I attended the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) Annual Meeting (#metrocon13). This year’s meeting — or, technically, last year’s meeting, as it was originally scheduled for the week that Hurricane Sandy landed and was understandably postponed — was an innovative new approach to the annual get-together. Rather than a centralized meeting with a parade of speakers in an auditorium, the meeting was set up as a conference. Along with morning and afternoon keynotes, throughout the day there were 30 minute blocks with five concurrent sessions featuring METRO members presenting about projects or initiatives their institutions have been working on.

This rapid, inclusive approach was informative and exhilarating. We were quickly exposed to projects and ideas without being overwhelmed or getting sleepy (a great boon for the post-lunch speakers!), given time to mingle and discuss, and then leapt back into the fray at whatever presentation caught our fancy. New York City and Westchester County have such a wealth of libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, etc., that even the opportunity for 25 panels in one day barely scratched the surface of what collections are out there and what people are doing.

And that is an energizing, elating thing, to see all the great projects coming out of collecting institutions that are making materials more accessible and more useable by the public. I would imagine that for the Solos out there or some smaller institutions the projects presented were inspirational or revelatory, because, heck, even for someone like myself who is lucky enough to visit or work with lots of different institutions the scope of what METRO members are doing is pretty amazing.

Equally inspirational to me was not just what people are doing but how they are approaching it. Namely, many projects were following a rapid release, responsive model that embraces the reality of failure, similar to many contemporary software development models. METRO Executive Director Jason Kucsma encapsulated this in his closing remarks by discussing METRO’s commitment to developing services and resources that are most effective to the largest segment of members. To him this means trying lots of different things at a smaller scale and then feeding those things that really resonate and catch on, but quickly identifying things that are not working and letting them “wither on the vine quietly”.

One of the projects that took this approach most to heart was the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum open data initiative. Perhaps obviously because it is data-centric, but still, by working with the museum curators to streamline the minimum number of fields necessary for a catalog record and determining what could be considered publicly releasable data, the Museum was able to increase the number of online records available for search and viewing 10-fold. This was followed by releasing their dataset on GitHub and opening it for anyone to analyze and play with, thus adding back to the knowledge about the collections as a whole and an understanding by the museum of their data and where there may be gaps or points of interest.

The New York Philharmonic Digital Archives is a much larger project that wouldn’t seem to be as nimble because of the massive scope and long history of the Philharmonic (they have records for all performances dating back to the opening in 1842!), but the approach is the same: Get what you have available out there and then keep adding to it in phases. Because the Philharmonic had such a complete and detailed performance database, they were able to publish that on the web, and then selected a period to start scanning and publishing programs and scores and photographs that would use that data, with plans in the future to start adding their audio and video content. Because at least some assets are available, they are able to track usage and get regular user-based requests for more assets to be scanned and released, thus underscoring the importance of the collections and need for continued funding. And much of the work has been done with open source software and workflows that are continually adjusted as new situations arrise.

Even non-tech projects are using an adaptive approach, as with the New York Archivists Roundtable Archives Education Institute, a program that brings together archivists and educators to discuss the use of archives in classrooms and to develop curriculum around it. Starting from scratch with the initial workshop, the NYART team has continued to refine and improve the program based on participant feedback and other input.

And I think this last example underscores and important point. These approaches are not really anything new and are not data-centric. As librarians and archivists and curators and information professionals and whatnot, we have always been focused on providing service to the public and providing care to our collections. There have been many large scale, paradigm shifting events in the past, such as the shifts to, and then away from, card catalogs. And there have been many changes to the ways that we provide access to the public or what services we provide them. These efforts are accomplished through phasing of projects, generating and responding to feedback, and lotsandlots of trial and error. The shift into the digital world does not change that and should not change our drive to try… and to fail.

Failure happens when you try, even within the crevices of success. The response to failure is not a binary of either keep trying or stop trying. There is a single response: What do I try next?

Joshua Ranger

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