Building From the Top Down

Yesterday I had an excellent conversation with a colleague. He asked me what would I really like to do in the future. My quick response was something like: “I want to build a library from the ground up…well, really from the top down. What I mean by this is not beginning our building with bricks and mortar but with philosophy and commitment so that we are always poised to experiment, ready to adapt and have more limitless thinking and action.”  It’s ultimately the invisible that strengthens the visible.

Here are three more questions that can help stimulate “building from the top down” thinking:

1. What if we crafted an entirely user designed library, organization, event?

2. What if our main guide for implementation was “Quick and Effective?”

3. What if we weren’t so concerned with counting resources, people, objects?

What big questions help YOU think (and build) from the top down?



  1. I love this idea! I hear so many comments about what we want but seldom what our users want. In learning/training there is a saying “it’s not about us it’s about them” and “whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.” It’s true for libraries as well.

    I like your idea too of “What if our main guide for implementation was ‘Quick and Effective?'” I’ve been thinking more and more about designing training around the “un-handout.” It takes a lot of time to design and layout these 20 page handouts. What if we just did a 1 page sheet of highlights. Imagine how much more time could be spent on the actual learning.

    Keep the good ideas coming Tony!

  2. I think that’s absolutely the best way to design a library or design services is philosophy first!

    We’re in the middle of renovating our library–and our philosophy was to make it more transparent and barrier free so that it is easier for our “customers” to use. Hopefully the design will reflect that.

    It’d be interesting, speaking of your “quick and effective” idea to study how long people spend in a library(like we study how long people spend on a web page). It might give us a better sense of how long our users have to spend with our instructions, handouts, layout or website.

  3. Hi Carolyn,
    It can be so easy to lean away from our philosophies and commitments when we’re up to our elbows in cement. Good luck with your renovation project and thanks for being someone who believes in building with philosophy.
    I also like your comment about studying how long people spend in our libraries. This could really effect how we design spaces and “tools.”
    My best,

  4. This is right on — our library is doing a facility study right now; we began by getting community vision for future library services and are working to get a sense of the most important “top down” criteria for planning. The architects will use these to develop some scenarios. Form follows function, function follows philosophy.

  5. Hello Terry!
    Yes, the visible–bricks and drywall- works better (in this humble opinion) when it follows the invisible–philosophy, commitment and need. Best wishes with your library redesign. Here’s to keeping our eyes on the meaning behind our methods.
    Best to you,

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