Fail fast, fail cheap – a new approach to public library innovation


The title to this post is a quote from Corinne Hill, Director of Chattanooga Public Library that I just love.

It’s the public library version of Google’s ‘fail fast, fail often’ mantra and it ironically reflects the reality of public library funding constraints, while also describing the creative, entrepreneurial energy her library embodies. Her inspirational approach to library innovation is something we can all learn from. We need to get away from fear of failure and move towards embracing new ideas, even if they don’t turn out to be quite the right ideas for us in the long run.

You can hear her talk about her approach here


Corinne attributes the successful innovation of her library service to a number of factors:

  • a strong strategic vision that enables her to prioritise activities – and axe things that aren’t working
  • distributed leadership which means that anyone has permission to try something new – as long as it fits with the organisation’s aims and isn’t too expensive!
  • a completely open mind as to how she might achieve her aims – including a total openness to partnership working and reciprocal arrangements
  • letting the community (who are partners in delivering the innovation Chattanooga creates) design the space and the interventions in a way that makes sense to them rather than dictating how it should be done

She describes the 4th Floor at Chattanooga Public library as a ‘Beta Space’ for the library. The place where things can be tested out and allowed to fail – if they really succeed they get integrated into the library offer throughout the rest of the building – as 3D printers now have in Chattanooga.

I love that idea, but I’d like to take it further.

I think the Public Library as a Beta Space for community innovation is a really exciting idea. A place where people go to try out and test things when they don’t know exactly what they’re for or how they might work. The new tech or community group or creative idea might not be a neat, finished product and lots and lots of them might not last more than a couple of weeks. But this approach would position the library as a hub for ideas, creativity and enterprise in the community – which is exactly where it should be.

But that means it will host a fair few failed projects…

What’s the worst that can happen? That’s what I always think when I hear people discussing the risks of innovation. Sure, if you’ve invested thousands of pounds in a new library management system or reference suite that no one uses, that’s a pretty scary failure. But the art of innovation is to understand which are the failures you can and can’t afford, even which are the ones that you should embrace and the ones you can really learn from.

The approach to digital innovation I advocate involves a lot of partnership working – and that’s not always going to work out. If not you can just shake hands and go your separate ways. There are lots of other tech partners out there in the universe.

Innovation takes a lot of work and energy, and failure can sometimes be a blessed release from constantly pushing that resistant boulder up a hill (although as Jacqui Thompson from Gateshead libraries says, when you’re starting something new you can’t be put off easily). So you need to recognise what is a genuine failure that you just need to let go of, and what could work out with a different approach, or just more persistence.

Lots of failure can be depressing. No one wants to keep falling over. So we need to learn from each failed project and make sure we don’t fall into a pattern of similar failures. Partly that’s about having a strong strategic view – what are we trying to achieve? Where do we want to get? And reviewing what went wrong when things didn’t quite work out like we wanted, in case there are some approaches or behaviours we need to address, skills we need to develop or factors to take into account next time.

But sometimes it’s no one’s fault. it just didn’t work, even though you wanted it to. So don’t sweat it, the chances are that no one even noticed that stumble over there – they’re noticing all the amazing things you are making happen through your hard work.

(All of Corinne Hill’s views are my own interpretation)

Image: Mike Linksvayer P1040010


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