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.
- Reflection: Library 2.0
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