Last week, in what is perhaps the most controversial article to appear in the Mac Weekly in my four years at Macalester, Editor-in-Chief Yigit Kahyaoglu argued against the placement of the beloved Idea Lab in the library — a building which ought to be, as he calls it, “a traditionally intellectual institution where people go to read and write.” Since its release, his article has elicited reactions ranging from laughing sympathy to unfettered outrage and an outpouring of Idea Lab patriotism.
As tempting as it is to respond to his provocative characterization of the Idea Lab as “a place to play with legos and repair jeans” and “ a distracting, puerile arts-and-crafts section” or his suggestion that it be relocated to Ramsey Middle School, to do so would miss the greater questions he, and Noah Elkins before him, have raised. Namely, what ought to be the purpose of collegiate libraries? And how should they represent themselves? I believe their purpose is to serve the communities of which they are a part.
The first argument Kahyaoglu and Elkins raise is aesthetic: the Idea Lab detracts from the library’s academic image. For them, the mere presence of glitter, buttons, and string is an affront to the austere atmosphere posed by leatherbound Wittgenstein and desperate typewriter clicks of an essay on Marx due half an hour ago. Macalester’s reputation for academic rigor is tragically brought down by hot glue and sewing machines. This aesthetic argument contributes to their normative claim that college libraries ought to serve as places for traditional academic inquiry (i.e. writing papers and reading texts), and the library’s image should reflect this purpose.
Some have argued, as Kahyaoglu acknowledges, that the Idea Lab serves an academic purpose, and is thus justified in its location. Students use resources in the Idea Lab to complete assignments and professors will occasionally teach classes there, so why shouldn’t it be in the library? Art can be a very powerful pedagogical tool — something which Kahyaoglu acknowledges, but not with the proper significance it is due. As someone who needed to draw pictures and make up weird stories to get through basic chemistry, I understand how important artistic expression can be to learning. However, I have to agree with Kahyaoglu that much of the Idea Lab’s utility lies in its playful, creative atmosphere, which allows students to take a break from the stresses of academia, as well as a resource for non-academic activities. One could also argue that because the Idea Lab only takes up part of the second floor, leaving four and a half other floors devoted to more traditional academic activities, it does not slander the library’s traditional image the way Kahyaoglu and Elkins claim.
However, neither of these arguments challenge the notion of a collegiate library as a place which ought to be, “a traditionally intellectual institution,” as Kahyaoglu puts it. Here is where I disagree.
Collegiate libraries should incorporate creativity and playfulness into their structure. As a building where students from all disciplines come to study, creative spaces can challenge the toxicity posed by traditional ideals of academic rigor. Rather than valorizing long hours spent stationary at a table, poring over the same pages over and over, we should be encouraging students to take breaks and experiment with different mediums.
Apart from the instrumental value these activities hold for traditional learning, creativity and playfulness should be valued for themselves. I think students should draw, make collages and tinker around because it’s fun and it makes students happier — not just because it will help them with their chemistry homework or because they may discover some dormant artistic talent. Moving the Idea Lab to a different building would decentralize these activities and wouldn’t challenge harmful notions of traditional academia.
Collegiate libraries should also serve extracurricular community goals. Spaces like the Idea Lab provide students with materials to pursue activities such as community building and activism. Over the years, I and other students have gone to the second floor to make posters, signs, and pins to protest everything from Line 3 to fake women’s health centers to racial injustice and police brutality. This work should likewise be central to academic life at Macalester, and the library in many ways embodies that center.
I don’t believe Elkins or Kahyaoglu would disagree that the Idea Lab has value; Kahyaoglu acknowledges in his article that Macalester might even benefit from more low-stakes, creative spaces. But while both ardently oppose its location in the library because it challenges ideals of traditional academia, this is precisely why I think the library is the best place for it.
Macalester’s library might not have the “architectural grandiosity” of other university libraries, but getting rid of the Idea lab will not change that. Instead we should be aiming to create a space that best serves our community, rather than one that conforms to some idealized dark academic aesthetic. That means more glitter, less dust.