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The “Messy” Librarian

If one word does NOT describe the stereotypical librarian it would be “messy”, so I was intrigued by Tim Harford’s book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (2016) and its application to the Hyperlinked Library in the twenty-first century. The basic premise of the book is that we often feel compelled to find a tidy and ordered approach to work (and life) when we would be better served by embracing the mess.

As someone who strives to be well-organized (but never quite gets there!), this book came as a huge relief. It turns out that the more creative and intuitive people (like myself) thrive in organizational environments that are less structured, less linear, and less hierarchical–and similar to the qualities that the hyperlinked organization embraces as well (Weinberger, 2001). I have never embraced complex filing systems for organizing my email (right now my Gmail says I have 5909 messages in my Inbox, yikes!), bookmarking web pages or tracking my expenses (according to the book I am a “piler” not a “filer”) but I am always able to find everything (I promise I do!). Harford tells us to relax, stop wasting time being tidy and spend more time embracing the inevitable disruptions and changes in daily life.

Daily Plans Are Tidy But Life is Messy

Hartford consistently stresses that what looks “messy” on the outside often has an inherent structure, one that flexible, networked, and disruptive. Rather than cling to the safer approach, Harford tells us to embrace failure. This aspect of the book reminded me of Brian Matthews’s “Fail Faster, Fail Smarter” concept who advocates building failure and adjustment into the process (Mathews, 2012).

There is a need to take risks and sometimes move faster than is comfortable. In libraries, it can be common to plan a big initiative over the course of months or years. But if we wait for everyone to agree and make sure every piece is in place, the world will have moved on and what gets implemented may not resonate with the community anymore. We need to take risks, be flexible, and move quickly—and if the initiative doesn’t work, analyze and course-correct. That’s messy.

Linda Braun, Everything is Messy

The discussion of diversity and decision making was especially insightful. Harford provides strong evidence that diverse teams bring “more fresh and useful ideas to the table; even if they do not, they’ll bring out the best in us—even if only by making us feel awkward and forcing us to shape up. That messy, challenging process is one we should embrace” (Harford, 49). When a library truly embrace “participatory” culture (Casey & Savastinuk, 2007), a certain amount of chaos inevitably surfaces because, as Hartford argues, people are “messy” and that is a good thing.

Moreover, Harford says that when we meet new people or enter new situations, we should ask go out of our way to ask “courageous” questions (i.e. Marcel Proust), ones that might stir the pot or make us a little nervous. Safe questioning often leads to the same results. So advocating for diversity at work is not only the “right” thing to do, but it also leads to more creative thinking and better results, values built into the Hyperlinked Library’s embrace of chaos and playfulness (Stephens, 2011). Harford insists that goal harmony is more important than team harmony.

The Enemy of Creativity is Boredom

As someone who works with youth, the book helped me to understand why so many librarians avoid working with children. Why? Children don’t follow directions or rules. Children ask goof-ball questions. Children can be awkward, shy and overly emotional. Essentially, children are messy. But that is their charm as well. Within libraries (and schools), there are learning theories that embrace the mess (where I lean towards) and those that feel learning happens best in controlled and predictable settings (bah!). Hartford reminded me that the Hyperlinked Library would welcome the chaos and disruption that children and youth bring to libraries.

The book reminded me of a wonderful documentary about the nature of play, risk and learning at The Land, a Welsh “adventure” playground. Talk about messy! At The Land children light fires, pound hammers, climb trees, throw snowballs in a play-space rooted where children are empowered by learning to manage risks on their own. The film is very difficult to watch and not wince a little at how the children “play”. Tim Harford would say that is the point. If you go to work everyday and never feel a little flutter in your throat or a knot in your stomach, you probably aren’t being messy enough.


Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J: Information Today. 

Harford, Tim (2016). Messy: The power of disorder transform out lives. New York: Riverhead Books.

Mathews, B. (2012). Think like a start up: A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism.

Stephen, M. (2011). The hyperlinked library.

Weinberger, D., (2001). Chapter 5: The hyperlinked organization in The Cluetrain Manifesto.

9 thoughts on “The “Messy” Librarian

  1. Michelle Sutor

    Great review of Messy! I read it as well, and also found it to be a huge relief. I tend to operate as not completely a mess, but definitely borderline chaos, so reading Messy definitely gave me a feeling of validation.

  2. Jacqueline

    At home, I’m a completely messy person (I’ve been promising myself I’ll clean my room for weeks now) but at work, I’m pretty organized, I guess because the stakes are higher—I don’t want to lose a note or forget something. But I like the points you bring up about embracing the messy. I especially love your closing line: ” If you go to work everyday and never feel a little flutter in your throat or a knot in your stomach, you probably aren’t being messy enough.” That’s so true! If we’re getting too comfortable in our positions, it means we’re not trying new things, and since libraries are constantly changing, we need to change with them.

  3. Tori

    What a great post! As someone who is obsessively tidy (current unread email count in my inbox: 0), I can vouch for the fact that I am also quite risk-averse, afraid of working with children…and kind of bored at work and worried that I’m not really nurturing creative impulses in my day-to-day life. :/ It sounds like I’ll have to learn to embrace messiness now and then–or at least check out this book!

  4. Christine Barone

    Hi Cristin!

    I have you beat in the unread email department. My personal email inbox currently has over 9k unread emails! Shocking, I know. (I’m on way too many mailing lists.) I did spend several hours this summer weeding my Yahoo account, but gave up trying to tame it at some point. I’m a messy person at home. Not so much at work because as Jacqueline said, the stakes are higher. I also liked your last sentence: “If you go to work everyday and never feel a little flutter in your throat or a knot in your stomach, you probably aren’t being messy enough.” I think I need to read this book!

  5. Jeff Gibson

    Thanks for sharing the Proust Questionnaire, Cristin. I was out a work happy hour the other day with a lot of people I didn’t know and I felt like I was asking really safe questions. I’ll bust these out next time and let you know how it goes.

  6. Tiffany Song

    Hi Cristin,

    Thanks for sharing! I find that I’ll have to add this to my reading list because it sounds amazing!

    I also have found that I’ve been told constantly to put things to order, to tidy things up, and have a place for everything. Well, I too love being reassured that it’s okay that we aren’t like that.

    Your quote: “more creative and intuitive people (like myself) thrive in organizational environments that are less structured, less linear, and less hierarchical–and similar to the qualities that the hyperlinked organization embraces as well (Weinberger, 2001).”

    This is incredibly reassuring because I feel like my ‘chaos’ system works for me especially since I don’t have that much space anyways. I’m also an artist and people always say we’re disorganized anyways. I’m a piler as well (or dragon-like hoarder as I like to say) but I too find my things (most of the time ehe). I feel like we have our own system and just because it’s outside the ‘box’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning to us nor does it mean it’s not working.

    I think it’s true that we need to take the time and reassess how we see things. Sometimes, it’s easier to go with what’s traditional and what we think will best work and what’s safer. I also find that I’m risk-averse (when it comes to roller coasters and people in general (that aren’t teens, college students, or children because they’re the easiest for me to connect to)) but I’m all for inclusive programming that most people have hesitation towards, which in this case, would be the Drag Queen Storytime my library hosted over the weekend. I’ve gotten better at conquering my fear of 4D rides so I’m getting there.

    I’ll have to work on incorporating goal harmony, asking the courageous questions, and being more confident when it comes to meeting new people.

    I loved how you listed the things that make kids kids as their charm point because I full-heartedly believe in that as well. I think we often forget the creativity and the ‘lack of following the hierarchy of order’ that comes with beign a kid. They have such boundless energy and imagination that I’d love to have and use daily and professionally. I think we should think back to our most creative days and the times in which we were happily involved. I think it would be important for us to remember the idea of ‘play’ and incorporate that mindset.

    1. Cristin Marie Post author

      So glad that you could relate to what I wrote about being “messy”…I related to your “piling” and love of the imaginative side of children…and I can become a hoarder too because everything can eventually become an art project, right?! I really do recommend the book because it validated a way of living that I always felt a little bit bad about…it turns out it works for more creative and intuitive people like us.

      1. Tiffany Song

        Hi Cristin,

        I agree! Everything becomes an art project in my opinion. It’s incredible to know the possibilities.

        I think it’s always great to know that our personal lifestyles are validated especially when we’ve been told otherwise. We have our own ways of doing things and it’s okay to have them be different than what everyone else is doing. Personally, I think it adds to the fun.

  7. Melina Dabney

    Hi Cristin,

    Your analysis of this book reminds me of how Dr. Stephens has been talking about “being ok with chaos.” I feel like “messiness” and “chaos” are similar if not synonymous. Both terms evoke a sense of disorder. But I like how the book seemed to say that creativity is generated from “messiness” and “chaos”. I think that it can be hard for some librarians and library support staff to just “go with the flow” when things get messy. There can be a lot of anxiety in the face of chaos, so I think it’s also important for there to be leadership that reassures staff that everything will be ok if we just “go with it” and embrace the chaos.

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