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Student Voices Inspire Design of GA’s New Library and Learning Commons

On Tuesday, October 22, Germantown Academy opened the A to Z Library and Learning Commons in its Lower School during a special ribbon cutting ceremony.

The A to Z Library and Learning Commons blends cozy learning ‘neighborhoods’ with 21st Century enhancements to serve as both the academic centerpiece of the Lower School, and as a community hub for visiting authors, parent talks, club meetings, and multi-cultural celebrations. 

“At GA, our libraries are a place of refuge and a place to come together, places for quiet introspection or not-so-quiet collaboration,” said Head of School Rich Schellhas. “In every division, our libraries are the academic and community centerpieces of our school. Thanks to the vision of Sue Szczepkowski and the generosity of many donors, our new A to Z Library and Learning Commons has truly become that magnificent centerpiece for the Lower School.”

The most impressive part of the A to Z Library and Learning Commons was that 1100 Architect (NYC) designed it in collaboration with GA Lower School students and faculty.

“We approached this design collaboratively, turning to the Germantown Academy students, faculty, and community,” says Gwen Conners, a principal at 1100 Architect and the lead designer for the new library and learning commons. “We wanted the library to directly address a new way of thinking about a library as a learning commons, a place to inspire creativity and to nurture a love for reading.”

In October 2018, GA students went through the design thinking process to create their prototypes in response to the following challenge: “How can we create a library that inspires us as learners, readers and creators?  What would be in the library and how would it feel?” Design thinking is a creative five-step problem-solving process founded by David Kelly of the Institute of Design at Stanford that includes empathizing (interviewing for need), defining (articulating the need), ideating (generating as many possible solutions to the problem), prototyping (building your ideas), and testing (having users interact with the prototype).

GA fourth and fifth grade students worked with Prekindergarten and Kindergarten buddies to help prototype their designs and all grades shared displays in the Lower School lobby that highlighted their creations. Fifth graders collated all the designs from Lower School students to find trends in the data. The results were exciting, creative, and inspiring.  Popular design ideas included cozy nooks, fluffy hammocks, slides, light-up floors, moving shelves, treehouses, and live sharks who help to return the books to the shelves.

They presented their findings to GA’s Board of Trustees at its February 2019 meeting where they wrote the script, created the presentation, and answered questions from board members.

The collaborative design process also included surveys, brainstorming sessions, and crowdsourcing exercises. Architects incorporated many of those ideas in the design of GA’s new space. 

The result is an extraordinary multi-level, flexible library and learning commons that includes spaces to collaborate, technology hubs for writing and research, soft spaces for cozy read-alouds, a green room for podcasts and video production (Padcasters, created by GA graduates Josh Apter ’89 and Jon Goldberg ’89, are used), as well as a theater space for presenting student projects. The space is an invitation to engage in the best 21st century learning opportunities.

1100 Architect has led several projects at GA, including the Beard Center for Innovation (2015) and the Tinker Lab (2018).

The creation of the A to Z Library and Learning Commons is in line with GA’s Strategic Vision, which “doubles down” on its commitment to early childhood education. With inspiring, collaborative, and innovative programming happening in its PreK-5 classrooms, GA has embarked on a mission to create hub spaces across Lower School that are equally forward-thinking and supportive of 21st century learning.