6 Association of Research Libraries Research Library Issues 292 2017 Failure, Risk, and the Entrepreneurial Library Tom Wall, University Librarian, Boston College This past spring, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg addressed the graduates from Harvard College and said that “the greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.”1 Likewise, in a recent letter to shareholders, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos made it a point to equate invention with failure, calling them “inseparable twins.”2 Arguably leading two of the most innovative companies in the world, both CEOs have essentially the same message: without a culture that accepts the inevitability of failure, and learns from it, innovation will remain elusive and/or nonexistent. Clearly with risk comes a degree of failure, but by playing it safe you get exactly what you would expect: mediocrity. That the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has established an Innovation Lab acknowledges that many research libraries lack the wherewithal required to innovate, despite leadership that yearns to embrace change. Several reasons contribute to the entrenchment of library practice, most notably legacy staff overly comfortable with playing it safe and desiring order. Unfortunately for those who are risk- averse, entrepreneurial culture by its nature changes rapidly, tolerates risk and failure, and tends to have periods of disruption. It’s not the image most have of libraries, but ironically libraries have been passive change agents for a long time. Even when we consider some of the best companies in the world, many of their services and innovations mirror long-time library practices: Facebook with personalization, Amazon with delivery, Google with search and discovery, Netflix with streaming content, and Apple with mobility. None of this is new to libraries, we just did not go out and form multinational, multibillion-dollar companies to provide these services. The irony, however, lies in the fact that we are now playing catch-up with the same companies that learned from our success.
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