Failure is Always an Option
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Info Failure

Failure is always an option

from Flickr user Carolyn Sewell

Last week I met with a student working on her senior capstone project. She was looking for a particular psychological measure, which, as any social sciences librarian will tell you, is always tricky business. We tracked down a few journal articles, a couple of book chapters, and a reference source, but the best I could come up with was a collection of twenty or so sample items from the original measure. It’s a better-than-nothing result, and it was certainly better than I thought we’d do, but the student was visibly disappointed, and I was too. Here’s where things started to go down hill.

What I should have said:

I know this isn’t the complete measure, but it is a great starting point and the sample items give you a sense of what this measure is all about. Assessment tools are notoriously difficult to get a hold of for a variety of different reasons. They can be copyrighted as stand alone testing kits and only available for purchase to people with certain qualifications  like social workers, psychologists or school diagnosticians. Or they can be somewhat guarded by the researchers who developed them either because they are continuing to use and refine them or because they want to prevent potential subjects from accessing the assessment and compromising its effectiveness. Other times these measures are just buried in obscure journal articles. It can be a challenge, and you just have to do a bit of digging and be open to using different measures.

What I actually said:

Oh wow, these are only sample items (*frown*). I’m sorry I couldn’t find the complete measure for you. Ugh. This stinks. I could show you how to find other measures used in this kind of research. I know they won’t be the one you’re looking for, but they could be similar. I’m sorry about that.

The difference: I was apologetic and down-played what I actually helped the student locate (which was better than what she had: nothing). I should have been encouraging and educational. I know that research is never linear and can often be frustrating, but the uncertainty that comes along with it is also kind of exciting. Researchers are often introduced to new material in their search for something else. I wish I had shared that sentiment with this student.

Instead I immediately felt like I had failed her. I thought about my initial reaction a lot of the next few days, and I realized it came from a mistaken sense of my role as a librarian. If you are a firefighter and you’re unable to put out a house fire or save people from fire you’re naturally going to be very upset. The vary nature of your profession is in your name: You fight fires. Not doing so can make you feel like a failure. Of course there are always things out of your control (wind, weather, materials used to build the house etc.) but you have a very clear professional obligation that you try to uphold. When I think hard about my job, I would describe my role as a librarian as someone who teaches people to

  • ask interesting research questions
  • find information they need or didn’t even know they needed
  • understand the way research tools work and why they work that way
  • think critically about the information they find
  • use information effectively.

But my knee-jerk reaction when people ask me what librarians do is always to say: We help people find stuff. Thus, when I cannot help a student find what they need, I feel like a professional failure. I’m not sure how to resolve what I know I do for a living with what I feel people think I should do for a living.



  1. Kate

    This really resonated with me — I am a young (under 30) high school librarian and I feel like I am constantly battling with the stereotypes of K-12 librarians. I get so excited when students ask for reference help that I always end up apologizing for basically not being able to actually write the research paper for them.

    This post reminds me to use reference interactions as scholarly conversations rather than a search-find-deliver mission. Thanks!

    • Kate, I like your idea of reference interactions as scholarly conversations. I can definitely understand the excitement that comes along with a student asking for reference help. I sometimes get so amped by a research question that I have been known to go info-overboard. There is a fine line between enthusiasm and librarian over-excitement!

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