Success and Failure
by Barbara Quint
The wondrous British writer, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote, “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” Of course, this remark by the Paragon of the Paradox was meant to redefine an axiom written by an American wonder, Benjamin Franklin — “A thing worth doing is worth doing well.” The difference between the two thinkers was the definition of “worth doing.” Franklin’s saying in his Poor Richard’s Almanac referred to doing the little things — everyday activities and tasks. If a person puts their hands to a task, he or she should give it an attentive and energetic effort, if only to reinforce the habit of doing good work and to impose the merit of their own humanity on the world around them.
Chesterton looked at the “worth doing” as applying to acts of great merit, such as doing the right thing or practicing the cardinal virtues, the things that increase the merit of one’s humanity. And in such cases, it’s important not to let slips and trips, undesired outcomes, or occasional transgressions become a rationalization for giving up the pursuit of virtue. Like the song says, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” You can’t let failure stop you. In fact, maybe it can teach you how to succeed. But even if it doesn’t, even if the end finds you still slogging down the road far from your destination, it will find you being the right kind of person still doing the right thing. And gallant failures have been known to inspire future success. Woman’s liberation comes to mind.
Way back at the end of the last century, Steve Coffman wrote two articles that turned out to be the highest impact, probably most read articles in Searcher magazine’s history. In these pieces (“Building Earth’s Largest Library: Driving Into the Future,” March 1999 [www.infotoday.com/searcher/mar99/coffman.htm] and “The Response to ‘Building Earth’s Largest Library,’” July/August 1999 [www.infotoday.com/searcher/jul99/coffman.htm], Coffman proposed remodeling the interlibrary loan system around the Amazon model. Well, that ship of ideas sailed and sank. Nowadays, the task of universal delivery of books seems to have fallen to a technological solution — ebooks. We asked Steve to produce another article on the ideal library of the future, which would, of course, be an all-digital one. He sent me a draft in response to that request entitled “Building an Electric Library?” But after reading the piece, to comply with labeling laws, this editor had to retitle it “The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire.” The piece turned out to be an inventory of the major efforts librarians had made over the years to take a leadership role in the digital revolution still rocketing through our venue.
At first read, I found the piece somewhat sad and depressing, but then I began recalling some of my own experiences as part of that history. In particular, I remember the excitement I felt when I first heard of IBM’s intent to issue a personal computer. Back in those days, a new commitment by Big Blue meant a technological explosion that could change the world. And it did, as we now know, though it also meant that the existing pioneer at putting computers into the hands of individuals would have to wait another couple of decades to achieve dominance in another technological revolution, i.e., iPhones and iTunes. My joy at the arrival of the IBM PC was quickly crushed when I learned that a modem was not to accompany each PC as part of the standard package. You see, I had thought that putting computers into the hands of everyone would mean that everyone would have the ability to go online. I remember protesting, “But online is why someone should want a personal computer.” So we lost 10 years of end-user opportunities as online continued its slow climb into the popular consciousness. Finally, of course, it was email and the internet that pushed it over the tipping point.
But how was that slow, steady progress maintained, both the one before the PC’s launch and the decade after? Let’s not allow false modesty to deter us from telling the truth. We librarians, we intermediary searchers, kept on amazing clients, one search at a time. We librarians kept pushing vendors to give us databases, not just print tools. We librarians kept making a market for those databases, buying into new packages for them (remember CD-ROMs), talking up new features. (“Hello, Full-Text. Where have you been all my life?”) We kept online searching alive and visible. We did our job and did it right. And the world is better for it.
Our role reminds me of another player in online history that doesn’t get the credit it deserves — the federal government. For decades, the feds followed a strategy that proved uniquely suited to advance computer technology, particularly online databases. The federal government paid the initial costs for developing much leading-edge computer hardware and software and for digitizing massive content archives, including indexing and abstracting services. To support their efforts, federal agencies tapped two earmarked flows of federal funds with both R&D grants and procurement contracts. The procurement money bought them services they could use themselves, a particularly advantageous mode for the development of online, where having real people with real problems on whom to test your designs is so critical.
Of course, there was one problem with this approach. It left the federal agencies with services developed at just past the prototype stage. The ink was barely cool on the end of contract sign-off documents before the contractors were onto turning the products and services into new commercial services. And, of course, the new services added more bells and whistles every year. In a fairly short time, the federal agencies ended up looking kind of dimwitted for using such primitive and underdeveloped online search tools. Gradually, those earliest of online services were dumped and federal searchers switched to the commercial services that would never have existed without federal funding.
If the federal government were a profit-oriented corporation, this pattern of behavior might have gotten some suits fired. But the federal government is supposed to serve the interests of its citizens, in this case, by creating and encouraging the spread of superior technology and growing businesses to better the economy. That job it did — with or without all the credit it deserved.
And speaking of doing the right thing, you can expect to see a future article by Mr. Bitter Truth, Steve Coffman, in an upcoming issue of Searcher. This one will focus on his initial assignment. For unless Mr. Coffman can convince this editor that nothing more needs doing to support the betterment of human knowledge and understanding, that librarians have no possible services to perform to cure human ignorance — with or without all the credit and rewards, then he still owes us all a vision of the future that needs building.