Gardener or Train Conductor?

Are you a gardener or a train conductor?

One of the authors we’ve been reading in this class that caught my attention was Brian Mathews with his “think like a start up” manifesto. I was doing some searching for his work on the web: for a while he had his own blog (ubiquitous librarian), then he blogged for the Chronicle until mid-2015, and then (maybe?) he started another kind of strange blog with a sports image on it . . . But maybe that’s not his blog. Anyway, I finally tracked him down at the Virginia Tech website, where in September he posted a monograph on changing his focus from innovator to gardener (to use his words).

As gardener, he is now focused on how organizational structure in libraries needs to change to “cultivate a more creative culture that enables us to be more resilient and better suited to tackle the complex and unpredictable nature of the work that lies ahead” (Mathews, 2017).

I am taking a project management class, and what Mathews writes about here really resonates with that class (kind of as a counter point–if he advocates gardening, I think PM advocates keeping the trains running on time–which is another metaphor that Mathews uses). We need both, I guess, to keep the trains running on time and to cultivate. . . But gardening sounds a lot more appealing for some reason.

In libraries, I wonder how the organization is structured–gardening? Trains running? Mathews argues that it is generally the later, and this is “an obsolete operating system”. Is there room in library management for creativity and at what cost? Listening to our guest speakers who both seem to be strong advocates for creativity, it seems like at least in some libraries that trains aren’t running over the garden (Ledden, 2017; Casey, 2017). But this has to be a tension between going user-heavy and keeping all the ducks in a row; between what might seem like impending chaos and orderly functioning (Mathews draws a graph of “the edge of Chaos” to depict this situation–see below)? Mathews clearly got “burned out” from “driving an innovation train” (and I have to say, listening to Stacie Ledden and the work the Anythink library is doing, I could see how one might get exhausted diving into all that innovation full speed ahead without losing control of the train, running off the track or crashing the train).

Mathews conclusion is that the library needs a more organic approach–he provides some conversation starters to initiate such a change, but what he is arguing is that for complex systems, change management does not work. One needs a fluid, creative and risk taking approach that is responsive and flexible. The strategies he notes as essential to changing the inflexible structures currently in place are also ones that libraries could use with their patrons: he notes the need to get everyone engaged, to get diverse groups of people together to just talk and see what comes out of the conversation, to work towards consensus.

What strikes me most when thinking about these issues is the changes that are happening in libraries are not short term adaptations or short term enormous changes that are then “behind us” but a long term shift in how social communities are functioning. Developing long term strategies that serve to meet the needs of users and communities is essential, but it’s also essential that those strategies nurture and reinforce those of us doing the guiding, gardening, and conducting.


Casey, M. (2017, Sept. 27). Lecture. Hyperlinked Libraries. San Jose State University.

Ledden, S. (2017, Oct. 16). Lecture. Hyperlinked Libraries. San Jose State University.

Mathews, B. (2017). Cultivating Complexity. Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “Gardener or Train Conductor?

  1. I think what I like best about the gardening mataphor, is the implicit understanding that gardening is sometimes messy. User input provides the seeds of ideas. Staff provide resources and space for people to grow. This organic, holistic service method requires a confidence that mysterious and wonderful things are happening, where we cannot see or control them.

    As to messes, such as potential disorder in the stacks, food in the library, things being done ‘out of order’ or ‘not on schedule….” This is not in our control.

    I wonder, have we ever fully controlled our spaces or our user experiences — even with all our rules, and our signs, and our hypervigilant staff?

    What freedom there is in allowing things to germinate and unfold!

  2. Thanks F. Lane for your response. Your development of the garden analogy makes me think of just exactly what are the weeds? (Sometimes I feel like I have a decidedly negative perspective. . . you talk about space for people to grow and I think weeds. . . ). Anyway, I love the idea of mysterious and wonderful things happening often where we can’t see them.
    I also like the question you raise: have we ever controlled our spaces? It’s interesting to think about where that urge to control the space comes from–fear of chaos running amok? But, that need to control seems to get in the way of so many other important and vital processes (like our need to control weeds, led us to pour pesticides on anything and then we killed all the birds and ruined the water supply. . . ). In the library the need to control gets in the way of people actually using the spaces.

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