Mess and Macrohistory: Design Thinking and Beyond feat. @tegalex / Part 3

We’ve been talking about how to address the messy reality of library services over the last few weeks: not just the artists’ impression, the managerial vision, or the designer’s response to a brief.

With Dr. Kate Davis, my colleague at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), we looked at using information experience to address community needs; before that, Auckland’s Jerome Rivera gave a wry take on the demands of frontline library service under the tagline “Code Brown“.

It goes beyond cleaning up after users in a public library setting, though. Code Brown  – understood more broadly as an attempt to address overlooked aspects of library information work – takes many forms and exists in many spaces.

At the campuses of universities in Sydney and Queensland, I’ve seen signage displayed in the bathrooms because increasing numbers of users from different cultures meant adapting to suit those who prefer a squat toilet.

Code Brown is about whether you treat the public with respect and welcome, or as potential criminals:

That’s not a challenge for libraries per se but it quickly becomes one when you ask whether libraries are a tool of the state or a space run for, with, and by the community.

Australian librarian and researcher Tegan Darnell conducted a macrohistory of librarianship as part of her doctoral studies. Tegan tells us that macrohistories, looking at entities over long timescales, allow us to focus on “patterns, themes, cycles and/or repetition” rather than get bogged down in historical minutiae.

Tegan writes:

As a liberal and critical thinking library professional, I like to think of the profession as a kind of rebellious and radical information distributor; challenging the dominant paradigm and bringing about social change. Perhaps this is true for some, but the profession as a whole belongs to the powers that be.

Although there are moments to be proud of in recent history – American librarians resisted demands to share users’ borrowing habits in the era of the Patriot Act., for example – culture professionals today have to ask where they draw the line in surveilling, monitoring, or intervening in people’s lives on behalf of the authorities.

Tegan reminds us that, historically, library values have largely been determined by whoever holds the purse strings. Cultural institutions, collections, and archives – plus the staff who maintain and develop them – don’t come cheap. Tegan’s research led her to conclude that,

as a member of the LIS profession, I come from a long line of what can only be called “culture enforcers”, with a repeating theme of the reinforcement of dominant forms of power. It has made me decidedly uncomfortable.

It comes back to the mess of Code Brown, and asking if you want to live in a world that acknowledges that mess or tries to hide it . In his Imaginary Cities, Darran Anderson reminds us:

“We can Copehagenise our future cities, make them as green and smart as we can, but provided we are still embedded in systems […] that provide poverty and degradation, it will be mere camouflage. Dystopias will have cycle lanes and host World Cups.”

Design and innovation agendas won’t truly make the world a better place if they’re not wise to the historical context in which they’re embedded. Work like Tegan’s reminds us that a decision to run a service a certain way for a certain community in 2017 is built on hundreds of years of choices about power and priority.

It’s also true to say that design and innovation mean little if they’re not responsive, non-procedural, and creative when they meet the real problems we face in our lives.

As Lars Coenen, Chair in Resilient Cities at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute puts it, there is a danger of “innovation” being tidily, uselessly trapped within science parks and other bounded, privileged spaces.

Breaking innovation out of such pigeonholes and into the dirty world around us doesn’t require much ideological wrangling: just the same sense of getting the job done and making things better which a librarian anywhere across the world has when they wearily accept the call of the Code Brown.

After the Code Brown discussion came up, we saw British libraries being encouraged to find opportunity in the cuts to public services by taking over the statutory public lavatory functions of their council…

…which is just about as Code Brown as it gets, in the age of British austerity.

So where does that leave us? How do we celebrate the mess and stink and unruly nature of life when – as truly public institutions must – you meet it head on?


In work with the State Library of Queensland and other institutions including Griffith University and USQ, I’ve been encouraging staff to embrace mess and unpredictable outcomes – going beyond the basic mantra “of try, fail, learn” and trying to test more wayward avenues to success.

It’s an attitude which recognises that the problems we face are messy and imprecise – because our business is people and change, and both human beings and the future are always imperfectly known. (If we fully grasped either human nature or the shape of things to come, we’d bottle it, profit from it, and no election result or political crisis would ever surprise us).

At Griffith we smashed together baking and theoretical models of healthcare; in Australian libraries we hacked chocolate eggs while questioning the etymology of that word “hack”; at the State Library, we rethought our offering to under-5s in an imaginary Viking mead hall, and at USQ, we embraced new textures and materials to challenge conventional thinking – building mission statements into shaving-foam pie fights and challenging staff to unearth strategic goals from a mound of dragon poop.

Now some of those creative approaches are coming together in our statewide consultation for the future vision of Queensland’s public libraries.

messy-hb-us-206x300The playful activities I mention have their basis in the embrace of mess, imperfection, and the refusal of real life to neatly fit the systems we impose upon it.

Economist Tim Harford’s book Messy articulates this approach across a range of fields from healthcare to forestry, town planning, musicianship, and academic research.

The book examines how chance interactions, random challenges, awkwardness, and discomfort breed success and growth – despite our tendency to prefer that which is cohesive, secure, manageable, measurable and predictable.

As Harford puts it,

“Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist or engineer in unpromising territory – a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upwards again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher.”

Something similar is true for dedicated, skilled professionals who find themselves dealt an unexpected hand – much as the librarians of Christchurch, New Zealand did during their earthquakes, or those in Ferguson, Missouri did during civil unrest, they rise to the challenge and even excel.

We may not want to force such crises upon our institutions, but nor do we want to succumb to an increasingly procedural version of “creativity” built on design templates and Post-It notes.

As Brian Eno tells Harford, if you stick to the same old approaches, “you get more and more competent at dealing with that place, and your cliches become increasingly cliched.”

R. David Lankes, echoing John Palfrey, says we need a “new nostalgia” to replace the old one of musty books and shelves. A new nostalgia is fine; new cliches are not.

So let’s make our future library vision wild, flexible; messy, even.

It’s the only way to keep it real.

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