Over the past hour or so, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where I can even begin to talk about the word “space”. I’m still not sure that I have a real answer — there are so many meanings, so many contexts, and so many things we can call spaces that the term almost defies any attempt to wrap it all up under a single banner. It’s almost as if the word is bursting at the seams from the weight and expanse of the concept behind it. The things we call spaces often seem to have nothing in common except that we somehow know they are spaces — whether it’s actual outer space, the space between the posters on my wall, a mental space or a digital one, there’s some nebulous thing that ties them all together without making itself any clearer.
That’s not to say that space doesn’t matter — it certainly does, but the ways in which it does so are almost beyond words to describe. The spaces that we inhabit can definitely affect us. For example, one of my favorite spaces for studying on campus is the Biomedical and Physical Sciences building. There are more than a few reasons why — there’s natural light in the atrium area, everything looks sleek and modern, and if I’m being honest I feel smarter and more important when I sit at the nice, sleek desks with comfy chairs and built-in outlets. It feels like there was significant more attention paid to the person stuck between classes in BPS than in most of the buildings on campus combined, where I often find myself struggling to find a decent place to study or being forced to sit on the floor, slumped against the wall. In BPS, I feel (and think that I am) more productive — and although some of it might just be my mind, it seems that the space facilitates that productivity.
What’s also interesting about this particular space is how that space can be changed by those who inhabit it. To me, BPS is its most beautiful when there is little to affect it — at night, when classes are finishing up and most people are already home. This contrasts starkly with the BPS of early afternoons, when 500-person lecture halls are at capacity, students are swarming, and the noise can make headphones feel like a necessity. It gets noisy, crowded, and turns a nice place to study into a large game of musical chairs where you and 100 other people have started the game five minutes after the music stopped. That’s not really a quality of the building itself, but it drastically alters the space inside of it — and it’s all brought in not by some fundamental change to the space, but a change in the things that are occupying it.
Space can also have different qualities to different people, whether those people visit the same spaces after years of transformation or simultaneously. Given that history has to focus on things that have happened in the past, considering the changes a space undergoes over time jumps to my immediately when thinking about space through the lens of digital history. The Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building is quite new (according to the cited MSUToday article), so I’m not even sure there was a building on the same site even 25 years ago — clearly, people would have very different interactions with a park or unused patch of land (or a forest, if we go back far enough in time). Even if there was a building there, interactions would still be different. Buildings are all designed with certain functions and purposes in mind, and the means of facilitating those functions can differ as well. There would even be differences between my interactions with the space and the interactions of the people who used it the year before I arrived on campus — buildings age, the people using the buildings change, and the social environment those people find themselves in changes too.
Like I said earlier, however, spaces can be perceived very differently by two people in the same instance. While my small-town background and introverted personality leads me to think of the quiet, barely inhabited version of BPS as its natural state, I can just as easily imagine that quietness being uncomfortable or foreboding to someone who is more used to crowds and densely packed urban areas. To someone from that background, the noise and bustle of people between standard class periods might be comforting.This draws to mind a story my dad told me from his time at Michigan Technological University, a fairly small school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. According to him, he and his roommate decided to try taking a shortcut through a patch of woods while walking somewhere one night. My dad grew up on a farm and had been out in the woods hunting since he was little, so a short walk through a patch of trees was something very comfortable or even relaxing to him. My dad’s roommate, on the other hand, had grown up in an urban area, and was decidedly less comfortable with the space he found himself in. Much to my dad’s amusement, his roommate started to act scared, said something about bears, and very quickly ended up sprinting for the treeline, leaving my dad walking calmly through a space he understood quite well to be essentially harmless.
As my time on campus at Michigan State has gone on, I have noticed times when the crowds of students creating the soundtrack to my studying sessions in BPS seemed to create perfect background noise for my work. Maybe spending time at a college with a student body (number from the University cited below) larger than the population of my entire home county (Census Bureau data cited below) has started to change some of my perceptions of space. In a way, that changes the space around me, just as that space can influence and change me. The interactions between our spaces, our cultures, and ourselves are very complex, and I look forward to seeing how we can use technology to learn about those interactions and the history those interactions can create.
“MSU Facts.” MSU Facts | Michigan State University. Michigan State University, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
“NEW BUILDING, NEW ERA OF SCIENCE AT MICHIGAN STATE.” MSUToday. Michigan State University, 12 Apr. 2002. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
“Population Estimates, July 1, 2015, (V2015).” Dickinson County Michigan QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.