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Library as a Classroom: Messiness

“What’s this say?” One of my co-workers calls out as I’m about to exit the office. I turn around, walk back in and look at where their finger is pointing, at one of my notes: “Patient sleeping.” “Oh, I thought it said ‘Politely Sheeping’.” “My doctor’s handwriting” they call it. At work, I’m usually in a rush so I scribble down my notes. Same goes for class. Usually I’m sitting there with the reading and my notebook open, trying to make my motor skills match my reading skills. Sometimes I’ll use shorthand—a smorgasbord of my own lines with my own meanings—to try to keep up. For example, “c~~~~~” is “collection” in my Collection Development notes. Notes are also generally all over the page, wherever I can fit writing. If I’m interviewing someone or getting quick info, I’ll start somewhere, run out of room, move to the middle, etc. Later, I remember the path of the conversation and am able to make some sense out of it.

Photo of a notebook, laptop, set of keys, iPad.
My messy work/study area

TLDR: I’m messy.

As a result, the articles within the Library as a Classroom module that stood out to me were Block’s “Embracing Messy Learning.” Reading this article had me thinking about the messiness of learning. Reading Bookey’s “8 Awesome Ways Libraries Are Making Learning Fun” and Mathews’ “Curating Learning Experiences: A Role for Future Librarians?” afterwards helped me think about this in the context of libraries. “Embracing Messy Learning” emphasizes the importance of the “messy” part of a project. This quote stood out to me: “If I don’t allow learning to be messy, I eliminate authentic experiences for students as thinkers and creators. I find it important to regularly remind myself that frustration leads to insights and that learning is not necessarily the equivalent of mastery.” This has been my experience as well. So often I’m obsessed with perfectionism at the early stages of either a creative or educational endeavor that the project will flounder, stop entirely, or depend on that age old fallback—a frantic and sometimes last-minute rush to finish it. I’ve come to realize that the first draft will always be messy, the outline will only make sense to myself, only I can read this handwriting. Embracing that is difficult because growing up I was taught “do it right the first time” which works for cleaning and chores, but not for learning.

Messy notes
Messy Notes

In the context of libraries, embracing messy learning should be practiced. Usually in pop culture we have an artist, a student, a mad scientist at a desk surrounded by a slew of papers, drafts, art—libraries are no different. Libraries should foster areas were learning can be messy, play is encouraged, ideas fleshed out over time. To go back to my messy notes and terrible handwriting, my notes are the beginning stages of my assignments, my writings.

This led me to think about some of the projects in Bookey’s article “8 Awesome Ways Libraries Are Making Learning Fun.” Most of the projects described depend on creativity and engagement, along with some level of messiness. Cleveland Public Library’s ArtLab began because one of the unused storage rooms had a sink in it. Even Skokie Public Library’s program, talking about issues of race, has an element of messiness to it as new thoughts, concepts, ideas that we haven’t thought of can be messy at first but become developed and articulated as we think about them. Providing these spaces for creative and thoughtful reflection in libraries is important.

The last article that links with all this is “Curating Learning Experiences.” Not so much in the actual events of the article (a librarian purchases a premium WordPress theme), but the bigger idea of collecting any material that facilitates and encourages learning, even in a virtual space. He asks “Where does this fit in?” Which to me expresses the messiness of collecting these materials. How do we catalog premium WordPress themes? How would we catalog an app that could be used for an event or program? Where do these fit in? In thinking about all this, librarians should be curating, encouraging, providing the space (both physically and intellectually) for messiness. This isn’t advocating messy stacks, disorganized books, a badly designed webspace, but in terms of individual and group learning, messiness should be embraced in libraries, from specialized research to art to children’s programming. It has a place in the library.


  1. Hi Vincente,

    I have to say that I think there is a special talent to utilizing short-hand. I’m not confident that I can remember the meaning to short-hand symbols so I’ve always been compulsive about writing everything out. I like the your analogy about how tackling things to completion at first attempt is only applicable for cleaning and chores, a method not exactly applicable for learning. Indeed, it’s important to remind ourselves the that the idea of life-long learning exists to revisit lessons learned and keeping ourselves humble to improve upon our acquired knowledge and open to making changes to familiar routines when it becomes less than optimal. Thanks for the reminder!

    • I’m not even confident of my shorthand. Haha. I think I have utilized a key to help remind me. I completely agree with your thoughts about life long learning and humbleness. Hope the very little of the semester left goes well!

  2. Hi Vincente,

    After reading your post, I believe we might be kindred spirits 🙂

    I particularly resonated with this “I’m obsessed with perfectionism at the early stages of either a creative or educational endeavor that the project will flounder, stop entirely, or depend on that age old fallback—a frantic and sometimes last-minute rush to finish it.” OMG, me too! I think it’s only after I wear myself out on the perfectionism front that I can actually move forward. Sometimes this happens at the last minute which then requires heroics, but that approaching deadline also forces me to relinquish the perfectionism.

    I also really liked this, “embracing messy learning should be practiced.” I concur! Messy learning should be embraced everywhere and anywhere that learning is taking place – especially at the library.

    • Haha. I like your use of the word “heroics” cause that’s exactly what it feels like at times. Though at others like a slow slog through a swamp! I really liked this topic and the readings for this module and I’ll hopefully be applying these ideas in librarianship! Thanks for the thoughts! Hope the rest of the semester goes well!

  3. Hi Vincente,
    Much like @christineb, I related deeply to this post! In addition to being a bit of a perfectionist (who can be paralyzed by that perfectionism, constantly reminding myself to remember Anne Lamott’s timeless advice about first drafts…), I have absolute chickenscratch handwriting. (I once loaned a friend my copy of 1984 that I’d been marking up for a class, and I remember they commented that they couldn’t tell whether I’d been crossing out sections or underlining them. …I’d been underlining, but I’m not very good at drawing straight lines, and I thought it was a funny text to have been accidentally censoring.)
    I’ve made an effort to embrace the messy learning process by taking handwritten notes for all of my classes, and my work/study area looks quite a lot like yours! I use a notebook with unruled paper, though, because I reeeally wanted to lean into that lovely creativity-sparking anarchy 🙂

    • I had to look up that quote, but it definitely makes sense. I always find myself thinking about Hemingway’s advice “Write drunk; edit sober.”

      I like the unruled paper for some reason. I’m sure my lines would be all crooked and that would bug me, but I totally get it!

  4. Okay, in the interest of honesty, I must say I am similar too. I overthink so many things early on and then dive in. I will also say that sometimes my best work is done at the last hour.

    @vgutierrez I appreciate your candor and insights in this post.

    • Have you heard that story about the artist who was hired by the king to paint a picture of a crab? He kept asking for extensions then finally when the king got upset, the artist quickly painted an amazing portrait? I heard that version a while ago, but it may have been taken from this: http://www.laurenkindle.com/blog/2016/5/31/the-artist

      I feel like I relate to that story so much, but sometimes that portrait ends up like a stick figure drawing. Haha.

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