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Context Book Review


The power of disorder to transform our lives

Tim Harford

Tim Harford’s Messy / The Power of disorder to transform our lives offers multiple examples in which elements of chaos and imperfection combine to help create historically transformative experiences and breakthroughs. Using the throughline of the juxtaposing of elements, he provides countless examples that support the theory that messiness and chaos are key ingredients in creating successful collaborations, workplaces, innovations, and creative solutions. Harford details “messy” examples in music, mathematics, technology, business, military, and even neighborhoods, showing in each situation how the elements of disorder, diversity, randomness, individuality, and improvisation serve as essential building blocks of success. 

These themes resonate strongly with Library 2.0 and the hyperlinked library. As libraries evolve into increasingly user-centered collaborative beings, messiness will serve them well in creating innovative lasting partnerships and services with and for their users. Harford’s thoughts on juggling multiple projects to encourage cross-pollination of creativity can help libraries create mash-up programs that bring diverse users together, in turn creating greater information society group capital. This idea can be taken much further than just the newly popular Drag Queen Story Time. Multiple library programs can also incorporate the benefits of Drag Queens: Makerspaces (Costume Design, sewing, knitting/crochet), dress-up time (not just for toddlers, but for all ages – makeup techniques and hairstyling), performance classes (karaoke nights, lip sync battles, and runway walks), and, of course, watching parties for RuPaul’s Drag Race show. 

The biggest similarity with Harford’s Messy and Library 2.0 is the example he gives of Building 20 at MIT. Originally intended as a temporary office building that needed to be quickly built to house the Radiation Lab, the building was designed in an afternoon and erected equally as quick out of cinder block and plywood. MIT did not care what the faculty and students did with the space, as it was destined to be torn down in two years. But at the end of WWII, there was an influx of students with the GI Bill, MIT needed space, and the building stayed. It housed the radiation lab, linguistics, electrical engineering, computer science, particle physics, adhesives lab, acoustics lab, plastics research, photography labs, anthropologists, architects, the list goes on and also includes the model railroad club. Building 20 had confusing office numbering, with lettered hallways that were not in alphabetical order and a floor numbering system based on the British method where somehow room 226 was on the third floor, not the second.

The diversity of the inhabitants combined with the illogical building layout and cheap temporary design of the structure, combined to form a space where creativity, collaboration and  innovation flourished. The occupants of Building 20 were responsible for nine Nobel Prize winners, war time radar systems, the first atomic clock, one of the first particle accelerators, the first arcade-style video game, Bose speakers, and the first internet networks and email. 

Building 20 sounds like the ultimate Library 2.0 example. Users had control of and customized their spaces, with the space fostering collaboration between users. This directly relates to Weinberger’s (2012) Library as Platform. Weinberger envisions libraries as “messy, rich networks of people and ideas, continuously sparked and maintained by the library’s resources”(Weinberger, 2012). 

While Harford doesn’t expand the ideas of MESSY into a reorganization of the corporate power structure, he does advocate for the embracing of individuality and diversity within the structure. Creating a space for individual expression and a rejection of “groupthink” are themes that also transfer to the hyperlinked library model. The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine, 2000) not only embraces the messiness of the internet and life, it advocates for a decentralization and reversal of the traditional hierarchical power structure. I think Harford should have taken MESSY to this next level, but as he writes books mostly aimed at the marketing and business world, it’s obvious why he didn’t. 

I enjoyed MESSY on a librarian level and on a personal level, if those are indeed two separate things. As a person who is constantly juggling too many things in too many directions, living amongst various piles and stacks of “organization” and who enjoys doing research but usually ends up “winging it” in the end, I found the book to be a great emotional validation of my lifestyle. I’m looking forward to not chastising myself over how cluttered I am.

Harford’s TED Talk about all things messy.


Casey, M., & Savastinuk, L. (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. 

Levine, R. (2000). The cluetrain manifesto: The end of business as usual. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.

Weinberger, D. (2012, September 04). Library as Platform. Library Journal. Retrieved from:

One response to “Context Book Review

  1. James L ⋅

    I’d never heard of Building 20 before, but I can tell that I’d be driven nearly mad trying to get around in it based on the description you gave! I’ll definitely admit that a little chaos is absolutely needed in our lives to help create innovation and spur breakthroughs, and in that sense can see where libraries trying to embrace models that prompt creativity and creation of resources and information in general would want to allow for some disorder in the larger scheme of things.

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