Embracing Chaos

I am not a well-organized person. Despite the binders, folders, and crates of hanging file folders that I use in a desperate attempt to keep the literal thousands of papers in my classroom organized. Despite the carefully designed bullet journal of my own creation. Despite the label maker in my closet and the drawers, boxes, and fabric storage bins containing all manner of objects. The idea of organization is there, the potential, I might dare say, but when the stacks of papers on my desk cover the entire surface and I haven’t gone through my mail in two weeks, I cannot in good conscience call myself organized. And I definitely cannot call myself tidy.

According to Tim Harford in his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, this is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it could be beneficial in a number of ways! Although counter intuitive at first glance, the major concepts behind Harford’s book are actually quite logical: mess forces people to think more, predetermined targets can skew future data, feeling in control is more helpful than feeling tidy, and trusting a computer too much can lead to danger.

Music artists forced to improvise are more creative. Students forced to focus more to figure out what something says retain more information. Drivers forced to think about where the road is going are safer and more considerate of others. A number of the chapters of Messy addressed this idea that disorder can lead to positive results. The entire point of developing a practice into a habit is that the brain literally does not have to think about what to do. While undeniably useful when it comes to eating healthy breakfasts, exercising, and accurately applying mathematical formulas, the side effect of not having to think about our habits means that we think less about what it is that we’re actually doing.

This video is about neuroplasticity. I actually show this to my students at the beginning of the year to encourage a growth mindset, but the concept of how habits physiologically make it easier for our brain to not think about what we are doing is well illustrated here.

This idea applies to all people in every aspect of their lives. Students trying to learn, office workers trying to be productive, bicyclists trying to get home safely, and people both using and working at libraries. In order to meet the needs of its patrons, a library needs a decent amount of organization. People visit libraries expecting the books to be organized the same way today that they were yesterday. The method used to check out and return books should be consistent. However, mixing things up at the library could spark new and improved use. New displays can catch the eye of someone who planned on merely picking up something they had on hold. Artwork from the community could inspire someone walking by to try something new or to get involved in some way. A group gathered for an event in a more open portion of the library – rather than always being behind closed doors – could beckon more attendees. The results could be people feeling more connected, trying new things, meeting new people, or even just finding new books that they otherwise would not have looked for.

Harford also discussed how setting targets based off of statistical data can sometimes have undesirable results. In his book, he gives one example of ambulances bringing patients to the hospital within 8 minutes of answering a call. Statistical analysis showed that this was a good goal, as this time frame tended to lead to better outcomes. However, pushing ambulance drivers to meet that arbitrary goal that is only indirectly related to their actual job – safely transporting a patient to the hospital for treatment as quickly as necessary depending on the situation – both ignored other positive indicators and neglected other possibly negative factors. Similarly, librarians need to be careful not to focus too much on the data and forget why they are analyzing the numbers in the first place – to determine if users’ needs are being met. Meeting those needs is the priority, not having the numbers that some authority has decided reflects their success in doing so.

Not quite the same kind of misuse of statistics, but as a math person who ardently loves the beauty of mathematics and vehemently detests the abuse of numbers known as statistics, I just had to share something pointing out how people misuse statistics. PS xkcd is hilarious. If you have never seen these comics before, you are really missing out!
Source: http://xkcdsw.com/2274

One of the aspects of Harford’s book that I personally found the most validating was the idea that clean, cookie-cutter work spaces were proven through scientific research to not lead to the most productive workers. Rather when workers had the option to control their own environment, however tidy or messy that ended up being, they were much more productive.

If anyone gives me a bad time about my eclectic classroom walls again, I’m referencing this book.

This idea that those actually using a space benefit the most from it when they are allowed to provide input on its design echoes the ideas of Casey and Savastinuk in their Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service; “empowering the user” through “user-centered planning” is something that libraries should take into consideration when designing their spaces and their services (2007). The entire concept of participatory services reflects this very idea.

One of the more serious portions of Harford’s book included the tragic tale of an airplane that crashed when a storm led to an equipment failure that lead to the autopilot system being turned off, leaving three professional pilots who did not know what to do. Of course, they theoretically knew what to do, but the situation was so unexpected that they did not react quickly enough. Over reliance on computers and technology in general, especially when it comes to making decisions in the place of a human being, can lead to dangerous outcomes. For librarians, the system behind the scenes needs to be extremely well-organized in order for the librarians to do their jobs. In fact, this is one of the major benefits of technological developments to libraries today. As described by Michael Buckland in Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto, the so-called “Automated Library” allows librarians to focus less on the behind-the-scenes cataloging and data storage while also easing searching. However, librarians need to make sure that they do not get over-reliant on technology. Librarians should prioritize the needs of library patrons over the computer, whether that means figuring out a fine error or ordering books not recommended by the computer’s analysis.

Overall, this book was an excellent read, with applications not only for librarians when considering their organization of the library itself, but in the interaction of the library patrons with the space, the services, and the librarians themselves.


Buckland, M. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto. Berkeley: American Library Association.

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

Harford, T. (2016). Messy: The power of disorder to transform our lives. New York: Riverhead Books.

3 thoughts on “Embracing Chaos

  1. Nice review! It’s really interesting to see which parts spoke to each of us (Cristin read Messy too). We all seem to be eclectic pilers for sure.

  2. Since libraries are traditionally places of order and organizations, this idea of introducing a bit of mess and chaos is totally intriguing. This leads me to ask how can the library surprise patrons in unexpected ways that gets them thinking differently? Will this spark new interaction and increased engagement? This seems like a great lead into the participatory programs articles that engaged patrons in unexpected ways or places outside the library.

    Definitely adding this one to my reading list. Great review!

  3. I wish I had walls like these. I’m stuck between two cubicles and would love a vertical surface to make my own.
    Thanks for making me feel better about my messy desk! Although I find it necessary to purge every now and then as a nice re-start.

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