‘It feels like you’re in heaven’ in suburban private school’s new, kid-designed library
Kids’ ideas ranged from whimsical (light-up floor, treehouses, live sharks returning books to shelves) to practical (soft places to sit, bright colors all around, benches between shelves.)
Ask Abe Genkin about his school’s new library and the 9-year-old’s face lights up.
He loves the history books, the enormous circular cushions spread among pristine stacks, and the video screen in the theater area that sometimes projects the image of fish floating in burbling blue water. It’s just the right mix of cool and cozy, said Abe, a fourth grader at Germantown Academy.
“It’s just beautiful how they laid it out,” Abe said. “It feels like you’re in heaven — it’s just crazy.”
While some schools and districts are eliminating libraries and librarians, Germantown Academy, the Fort Washington Pre K-12 prep school, has invested $1.5 million in a new “library and learning commons” for its youngest learners. (And it’s not the only library on campus. A separate library and library staff serve middle and high school students, and two separate “maker spaces" with 3D printers, laser cutters, and hand tools allow for hands-on learning.)
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The aim, officials said, was to create an academic hub, a modern, inviting space for students to read, learn, and grow.
“It is a space where children can become more curious, it’s a place where they can nurture a love for reading, it encourages collaboration and inspires a spirit of innovation,” said Sue Szczepkowski, head of the lower school, where tuition ranges from $23,065 to $31,470 for pre-K to fifth grade.
There’s a reason Abe and his classmates feel so at home in the library: They helped design it. GA students last year completed a design challenge to dream up what they wanted to see in the new space, producing 100 prototypes that informed the final product.
Kids’ ideas ranged from whimsical (light-up floor, tree houses, live sharks returning books to shelves) to practical (soft places to sit, bright colors all around, benches between shelves).
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Gwen Conners, lead designer on the project and a principal with the New York-based firm 1100 Architect, said that students’ ideas influenced the library.
“We were so thrilled to be able to incorporate their great ideas into the design,” Conners said.
The new space required a physical redesign — instead of repurposing the former lower school library space, GA chose to move the library to a more central area that once contained classrooms. And to achieve a light, airy feel, they raised the roof.
Books are front and center, but technology is featured heavily, too.
The library has no computers; all GA students have iPads and can access the collection from anywhere. But technology is present; a media studio, complete with green screen, is tucked in one corner. There’s a “writer’s theater” and a mobile smartboard for lessons.
Heather Tannenbaum, the lower school librarian, loves watching children walk into the library, drawn to the stacks or cushions, or the window seats or media studio.
“There’s almost no limit,” Tannenbaum said, “to what we can do in our classes here.”