Significant events

We just had our monthly staff meeting, followed by our monthly “Someone must be having a birthday” excuse to sit around and eat cake, drink coffee, and chat with each other.

During the chatting and eating cake portion, the group of coworkers I was sitting with started telling stories about the things they’ve messed up in their years of professional work.  We were discussing how with some student workers it’s easier to train them after they’ve made one big mistake; once they understand that their actions have consequences but that they’re reasonable consequences, and that screwing up is bad but not fatal, they’re sometimes easier to work with.  They calm down a little, and relax a bit.  Once we were on the topic, though… It turns out that in our shared drive we have a folder called “Significant Events”, so designated as the place to record the crazy “OMG I can’t believe I did that…” things that sometimes happen, and the fallout therefrom, so that people have a place to look to get background on some truly odd quirks in our systems and policies.

The prime mover in that folder is the time someone accidentally renewed all the books currently on loan, followed closely by the time someone accidentally renewed all books due on a particular Thursday.  Beware the Global functions of your ILS!  The laughing discussion of these mistakes led to other people admitting other “oops!” moments, ranging from humorous typing errors on cards in the days of manual data entry, to the ubiquitous “reply rather than forward” email mistake (“Ah!  Get it back!  I need that back!  AH!”), to the advent of the email-auto-fill address function leading to sending things to the “Staff” rather than one person whose name starts with S, to accidentally inviting an entire school of the institution to a meeting using a calendaring program.

The message I’m hoping to convey with that laundry list is not that making mistakes is okay, or that my colleagues are particularly mistake-prone.  Neither is true.  Mistakes are still problems that have to be rectified, and we were all, under our laughter, fully aware of the consequences, both short and long-term, of all of the above.  The message I’m hoping to convey is that everyone makes mistakes.  We just don’t talk about them.

I’ll bet that there are other libraries where a staff member has accidentally renewed, checked in, or otherwise modified the circulation or patron record of things that were never intended to be modified.  I know there are other people who have sent emails to places they weren’t intended to go.  I’m certain that other people and other institutions have sent out mailings with typos, inappropriate content, and other mistakes.  I know that other libraries have posted bad information unintentionally. I know that other people have saved a bad copy over good, or deleted the good, or lost the file, or otherwise been forced to start over. And on, and on, etcetera.

We all make mistakes.  We just don’t talk about them.

And the thing is, talking about them doesn’t diminish them, or us.  It makes us part of a community of people — some online, some eating cake, all trading stories — who live in the real world, who interact with it in real ways, and who sometimes create Significant Events.  We can learn from each other.  We can learn to put ourselves and our successes and failures into a context that’s meaningful.  We can learn tactics for coping with our mistakes.  We can learn to be better professionals.

But only if we talk about everything that makes us who we are.  Keeping pieces back means we’re limiting ourselves, and our dialogue.


  1. Several years ago I was chatting with a colleague who runs the hospital branch library of a major university medical center. She was telling me about some really amazing things that she was doing, and doing so in her usual self-deprecating manner. When I told her that I thought she’d found some real solutions to issues that seemed to be eluding people in similar situations in other places, she expressed amazement, saying that whenever she went to conferences and heard about all the great things that other people were doing it made her feel terribly inadequate. I had an epiphany and, only half-jokingly, said that was her problem — she went to conferences and listened to the presentations. When I went to conferences I hung out in the bar with other library directors where we moaned about all of the problems and disasters and failures we were experiencing in our libraries. So she always came back from conferences feeling that she wasn’t keeping up, and I came back feeling refreshed and reassured that at least I didn’t have that other guy’s disasters to deal with.

    It made me wish that we could have sessions at conferences where people did presentations about their disasters — rather than “how I did it good”, we should hear about “how I completely screwed things up and wasted a bunch of time and money — but survived and even learned a few things.”

    But I don’t think that’ll happen.


  2. Yes, it’s good to have a folder of “Significant Events” like that, just make sure it’s in a locked file cabinet marked “Do not open until Christmas”. I wouldn’t trust leaving it on a drive or server. Some computer interfaces are more prone to cause users to make errors than others. Errors, me? Nah. Hopefully no one noticed my blog called “DTV misinformation from ME!”


  3. No, don, see, I think that defeats the purpose of sharing the bad with the good. If you lock all your mistakes in a filing cabinet, and never discuss them, never look at them, never share them, how can you learn from them? How can you put them into a greater context? How can you acknowledge that while we try for great, sometimes we have to accept “good enough”, because we’re all human? Locking up the bad stuff just makes it look, to the outside, like no one has ever done anything wrong… and that’s just not true, and creates expectations no one could hope to meet. We all. make. mistakes. We need to own that, and use it as part of what makes us strong professionals.


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