Library Matters / Libraries Matter: A Beautiful Mess Posted on September 26th, 2018 by

A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the newest group of POL 200: Analyzing Politics students, who were joining me in the library classroom for a semester-long library lab.

Research is conversation,” I told them. “Whenever we do research, we are listening to conversations that are interesting to us, figuring out how the conversation is described, and identifying key voices and how those voices are communicating. And,” I added as an afterthought, “it’s messy.”

Later that day, as I returned from a walk, I reflected on my final, unscripted thought: Research is messy. I strolled the length of the library building, windows bright under a prairie sky. Those of you familiar with our building know it is orderly, structured by straight lines and rows both inside and out.


And yet within the structure…..that’s where the magic happens. That’s where we find exploration and conversations and discovery and the pursuit of learning and questions and all of those messy, frustrating, gorgeous encounters with the ideas of others. Whenever I walk past students in our library, hunched over laptops and books and research articles, I wonder about all of the aha! moments that are happening beneath this very roof.

We need both structure and wild creativity to do research well. We need to understand how information is organized, whether by understanding the structure of an academic article or why the books are shelved the way they are.  Once we unlock the structures (with help from library faculty and course instructors), we can start to play, exploring conversations and wrestling with ideas, surrounded by books, study spaces and each other.

It is a messy. There is no clear road map, no format that can be imposed from on high, no insights that can be found by filling out a form. There are rabbit holes and dead ends and detours and unexpected delays. But it’s worth it. Sometimes only by taking a wrong turn do we end up in an unexpected and breathtaking place. The structures of research serve as touchstones as we explore unfamiliar terrain.

Here’s how the rest of my introduction on the first day of lab goes: “We do the work of research so we can then contribute meaningfully to conversations.” That’s the goal of research  – and the entire educational enterprise. We engage in the thoughts of others – wrestle, explore, digest, dissect those thoughts – so we can contribute our own unique, informed voices to the world.

This post is part of the Library Matters/Libraries Matter blog series




  1. Gerard Saylor says:

    I miss using LC classifications.

    • Julie Gilbert says:

      It has some quirks, but we are also fans. It’s always fun to explain to students why the books are arranged the way they are. We get lots of, “Oh, NOW it makes sense.”