In the past decade, more than 50 new libraries have been created in New York City elementary schools through the combined efforts of the Robin Hood Foundation and New York City Board of Education (now Department of Education). Last week the Architectural League hosted a panel discussion to take a closer look at the creation, development and architectural expression of the libraries. The event went beyond a congratulatory retrospective of these beautiful rooms to raise challenging questions about the nature of public/private partnerships in public service and the difficulty of scaling up and systematizing bespoke processes. Architectural League executive director Rosalie Genevro moderated the panel of David Saltzman, Robin Hood Foundation executive director; Harold Levy, former Chancellor of the City’s Department of Education (formerly the Board of Education); Lonni Tanner, Robin Hood’s former Director of Special Projects and one of the principal players in the establishment of the Library Initiative; Henry Myerberg, an architect involved in the initiative from its inception; and Scott Lauer, an architect and a former Director of the Library Initiative for the Robin Hood Foundation.
One open question that resonated throughout the conversation — and, to be sure, throughout the multiple plot twists in the design, construction and use of the Robin Hood Libraries — concerns the appropriateness of objective metrics for success in evaluating learning environments, especially given Robin Hood’s mission: to eradicate poverty in New York City. Saltzman earned applause when he listed the libraries, alongside piano lessons and little league baseball, as “things that are just good” regardless of whether or not their impact is quantifiable. More than one audience member remarked that the recent publication of The L!brary Book: Design Collaborations in the Public Schools by Anooradha Siddiqi, another former director of the Library Initiative and the event’s introductory speaker, reminds us that part of the process of qualifying the impact of a transformational environment, leaving aside quantifying it for a moment, relies on the testimony of students, parents, teachers, designers and school administrators. In that spirit, the Omnibus recently went to Clason Point to check out one of these libraries at Bronx Public School 69 and to see it in use. Impressed, we wanted to hear firsthand about how this library came to be, so we spoke with the designers, Richard Lewis and Jason Gold of the firm Richard H. Lewis Architect (the firm designed 10 Robin Hood libraries in total), and with Alan Cohen, the inspiring principal who made it happen. Check out the video below:
When asked why Robin Hood chose the library as the educational environment to target, Lonni Tanner explained the intention to find a place that “100% of school population could use.” Her guiding belief lay in the potential power of activating one space in the school where students’ “imaginations could run wild.” The Foundation determined that a library – if designed, equipped, staffed and programmed well – possesses this potential in ways that the classroom, the cafeteria and the gym do not.
That power is palpable in the P.S. 69 Library. Each of the libraries is beautiful (click here to see a slideshow of Library Initiative libraries). And each is, in the words of Richard Lewis, “its own little world” that attests in its own way to the stated goals of the initiative: to redefine the mission of the library as a resource for the entire school community; to rebuild the library with new design standards and unique imagery; to replenish the library with new books and technology; to retrain school staff to make full use of the library; and to reassess the impact of the school library to track progress and impact. What sets the P.S. 69 library apart is the way its location within the school makes manifest the priority the school places on reading and learning.
When Principal Cohen arrived at P.S. 69 seven years ago, he found a failing school on the verge of being taken over by the state. He immediately set about changing the school’s culture and raising student achievement. Siddiqi writes: “Displacing his own office and those of the rest of the administration, he advocated situating the library in a horseshoe plan around the stair at the main entrance to the school. Students walking into the building must enter up ‘through’ the library to the main floor, forcing them to confront the spectacle of the library coming in, going out, and passing through.” The library opened one year ago. It certainly inspires the imagination to run wild. And it inspires belief in the transformative possibility of making a principle – that reading and learning are central to student achievement and therefore central to increasing economic opportunity – no longer exclusively symbolic.