Does Place Really Matter? If So, Why?

In my last blog post, I asked the question “Does place really matter?” In our increasingly digitized, flattened, and shrunken world, does our physical location make a real difference?

Most of those who answered this question, through comments, social media, or email, said, “Yes. Place does matter.” I think most people have a gut sense about this. Even though we can communicate with people across the world as if they were right beside our ears, and though many people can work well when they are not at their place of work (if they even have one), and though we can Skype with our relatives on holidays and not feel quite so left out, there is a sense in which place does make a difference.

The carrels and stacks of Widener Library. Yes, that is a coffee up you see by my computer. And, yes, it is now legal to bring a drink into Widener.
The carrels and stacks of Widener Library. Yes, that is a coffee up you see by my computer. And, yes, it is now legal to bring a drink into Widener.

I was thinking about this last week because I found myself in a familiar place, a place where I once spent countless hours. I’m referring to Widener Library at Harvard University, the main library populated by lots of grad students and over 3,000,000 books. I was using the resources at Widener to help me in writing a commentary on Ephesians. In addition to using books and other resources, I also spent hours upon hours studying and writing in Widener, just as I had while a student at Harvard.

It’s funny what happens to me in that space. I find myself better able to concentrate, able to work for longer periods of time, less tempted to check my email or messages, and generally much more productive. Now, you could say all of that is a result of being in a quiet space dedicated to research. You may be right, to a point. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. When I’m in Widener, even though I have not been a residential student at Harvard since 1983, its as if my whole being knows what to do. Athletes will sometimes talk about muscle memory, which enables them to do physical things with ease. I wonder if academics have something like this. It seems like I do, at any rate.

This is just one example to show that place matters. And it also suggests one reason why. Place and memory are intertwined. Place evokes experiences. It reminds our subconscious mind about what we do when we are there. Being in a certain place can help us work better, more effectively and efficiently, perhaps even to think more deeply .

But I believe place matters for reasons beyond the inspiration it gives for work. I’ll say more about this in my next post on this topic.

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