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The Idea Lab does not belong to the library

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It is sad to see that our library lacks a scholarly appearance. It lacks the architectural grandeur of many other university libraries, or even its nearby neighbor, Old Main. It’s a shame because the architectural grandeur adds to the intellectual life. That said, there’s not much we can do about the outward appearance of our library. What diminishes the erudition of our library the most is the laboratory of ideas, located on the second floor.

Although the Idea Lab is now a popular space among students, it caused quite a bit of backlash when it was introduced in 2017. Some students feared that the Idea Lab would present itself as a capitalist intrusion into a community space (this was raised primarily because the Idea Lab falls under the Office of Entrepreneurship). Others were dissatisfied with the extra-academic appearance of the space in what they saw as the heart of university life. Similar points to the argument that I am about to present have already been made a few years ago, but I think that some of these points are worth repeating.

It is obvious that the Idea Lab is not the most conventional of academic spaces. When I think of an academic library, I think primarily of books, journals, and similar sources of intellectual value. This does not mean that the Idea Lab does not serve any academic purpose. In 2018, Paul Cantrell of the MSCS defended the Idea Lab against this argument, graciously listing a whole bunch of scholarly work that has been done or completed by the Idea Lab. He’s absolutely right: Idea Lab resources can enrich academic studies, and many professors have already incorporated them into their courses.

I also want to acknowledge that the Idea Lab probably helps a lot of students learn. It’s a space dedicated to creativity, and I tend to believe that the space has a lot of pedagogical importance. The method of learning arts and crafts is not my personal preference, but I won’t argue that the Idea Lab shouldn’t exist, rather that the library doesn’t belong there.

The library should be a place where people sit and write articles without getting up to mend jeans. It is important that we make distinctions in the organization of our campus, giving each building and each space a clear and distinct vocation. There is still a logic behind all this: we want the members of the college community to be able to orient themselves efficiently and effectively. Olin-Rice, for example, is where you study the natural sciences. If you go to Old Main, you will come across the humanities. The library has a unifying function for all disciplines: whatever the field in which you undertake your studies, the library is the place to devote yourself to serious intellectual activities. As such, the library should be able to cultivate a dedicated space for serious academic inquiry.

Given this objective, the presence of the Idea Lab on the second floor of the library does a disservice to the building and to our community. The second floor of the library is not a place for serious intellectual pursuits, but a place to play with legos and fix jeans. Let’s face it: whatever the intention behind the Idea Lab setup, it was a mistake. Our library has sacrificed some of its collegiate gravity for a childish and entertaining arts and crafts station.

Some readers may accuse me of having a regressive and traditionalist attitude towards education and what academia should be. That’s absolutely right: what bothers me most about the Idea Lab is that it deviates from a more traditionally academic environment. I am not opposed to the Idea Lab at all. My only claim is that the library should remain a traditionally intellectual institution where people go to read and write. There are other buildings on campus that are better suited to accommodate such a space. With all his dedication to the arts and creativity, JWall would be a good fit. Kagin, as a non-academic building, can also make it a good home. The amount of glitter and legos that can be found there also suggests that Ramsey Middle School is a suitable location. Our options are many.

In the end, it’s good that the Idea Lab exists. I know people who love space, and there are many ways our community uses it. I’ve touched a bit on the academic use of the Idea Lab, but for the most part it’s a non-academic place: it’s generally used as a low-stakes, relaxed creative environment where students can go relax. On the contrary, our campus could benefit from more of these spaces. It just doesn’t belong in a university library.