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Robin Hood Foundation Library Initiative
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The Robin Hood Foundation prompts architects to re-envision the public school library

By Jane Kolleeny

 
 
Click image to enlarge
 
  Photo © Peter Mauss/Esto
   
  For many more images please see our September 2005 issue.
 

I had a dream of reinventing the library for elementary students,” says Lonni Tanner, who headed special projects at the Robin Hood Foundation for 11 years. In 1998, she and Henry Myerberg, AIA, a partner at Rockwell Group in New York, visited a school in Brooklyn and saw what passed for a library: a room with a few dusty books and out-of-date computers. Soon they discovered that many of the public schools in New York City had similarly dispirited spaces posing as libraries. The kids deserved better, Tanner felt. Essential to their thinking is that libraries—at the heart of learning and education—can have a lasting effect on poverty. “You can't change all the classrooms in a school, but you can make a library—which takes only 5 percent of the physical space of a school, but has a 100 percent influence,” says Myerberg. “That's a great rate of return.”

So began the Robin Hood Foundation's library initiative, which has evolved into a unique collaboration with New York City's Board of Education to create, fund, and maintain school libraries in some of the most impoverished areas of the city's five boroughs. Myerberg worked closely with Tanner to jump-start the project, asking other architects to volunteer their services. He was amazed at how easy it was to get help; it took 10 phone calls to get nine New York architects (plus himself) to design the initial 10 projects, which were completed in 2002. Since then, on the second round, he designed seven of the next 21 libraries, which opened in 2004. For the third round, he will undertake about five of a total of 25 libraries, which will be also be designed by seven other local architects, four of whom created prior libraries for the project.

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The goal of the first round was to create a model that might be applicable to other school districts in the U.S. “It's not about creating a box or a room or putting books on the shelf,” says Tanner. “I wanted the library to do its duty with the rest of the building and the school's program.”

The library initiative fits perfectly into the mission of the Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 by commodities broker Paul Tudor Jones and two friends in an effort to give something back to the less fortunate in a society that made them wealthy. The foundation has become a favorite of New York's high-flying hedge-fund managers, many of whom have given to it generously in recent years as their own fortunes soared. The group funds soup kitchens, education, job training, and programs for the homeless, supporting about 140 organizations in the greater New York City area. Executive director David Saltzman says, “The library initiative is a model of what public/private partnerships can and should be. Generations of poor children in New York City will benefit.”

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