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The Reference Desk Under Fire

Every so often, I hear variations on the theme of “Why sit behind a reference desk? What are you — scared of the students?” I’ve heard everything from wearing uniforms so that we’d be recognizable while we were “out doing our work in the stacks,” to carrying a cell phone, to simply “walking around” and being available. I’ve heard eloquent deconstructions of the barriers we put between ourselves and the students when we sit at a reference desk. And I’ve sensed unspoken assumptions that if we’re “just sitting there” we aren’t actually busy or working.

Now, I completely agree that desks can pose barriers, especially when they’re the podium type that raises the librarian on high and requires timid students to crane their necks just to see us. I am also a huge proponent of making myself not only be available and approachable, but also seem available and approachable. Not only that, but I’ve seen wonderful and creative examples from other institutions who have abandoned their desks altogether.


Why, then, do I steadfastly argue for my desk shift? Because I can’t think of any way to make myself be or seem more available and approachable to my user population. Of course, our particular desk configuration helps. We sit at a very low desk that is no more substantial than any of the work tables in the reference area (and it’s on wheels, though we haven’t moved it in a while). We also have a chair next to us for students to sit in while we work with them. We’re also directly across from both of the public printers for the main floor of the library and right next to the main floor’s computer area (which is in this room and just off the upper right side of my picture).

But simply having a non-scary desk in the highest-traffic area of the busiest building on campus isn’t enough (though it helps). That simply means that we’re visible, not that we’re approachable. Rather, having a predictable place where we can be found at predictable times, making the most efficient use of space in our somewhat unwieldy library, and playing off of the culture of our campus all contribute to my sense that our desk, or something like it, is necessary.

The physical library space needs little elaboration. There is simply very little space for anything other than books on the lower three floors of the library (remember, people enter our library on the fourth floor and work their way down). Not only that, but there’s no predictable traffic pattern on the lower floors, and the discussions that happen at the desk would disrupt the quiet levels on the lower floors. Of course the argument could made (and has, in fact, been made) that we would simply walking around down there, so traffic patterns and, to some extent, noise levels needn’t be an issue. But the fact is that the other librarians and I are rarely called upon to do work that would involve wandering in and out of the stacks. We go there to collect books in preparation for our classes, or with students when we’re in the midst of an appointment or reference interaction. But that’s about it. Then there’s the problem of the computer. Most questions need at least some computer interaction, and the computers in the library are usually all in use by students. It’s far easier to know that while librarians may be wandering around, there’s also one who’s scheduled to be either at the desk or who will be returning to the desk shortly.

No, the strongest argument in favor of the desk as a physical, predictable, and intuitive space lies in customer service. There’s nothing more frustrating than wandering 4 floors without any long sight-lines, looking in and out of stacks, climbing up and down 6 stair cases, just trying to find somebody who can answer a question.

What’s more, the librarians function in an analogous way to professors when we sit at the desk. Just as students can make appointments with their professors but can just drop in during office hours, they can also make appointments with us or simply drop in on our desk hours. Culturally, this meshes well with campus culture and student expectations.

I’ve wondered for over a year now if I’m simply defensive and stuck in the mud when I baulk at challenges to our service model. But I’ve come to the conclusion that there are very good reasons for having a reference desk, as long as that desk is positioned and designed with approachability and usability in mind, and as long as the people sitting at the desk make sure to look up, take their hands away from the keyboard, and smile whenever they’re approached. After all, approachability has at least as much to do with the person as it does with the furniture.

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4 thoughts on “The Reference Desk Under Fire

  1. It sounds like you’ve done a great job thinking this through, Iris.

    I’m not sure where I stand on this issue, assuming the librarians are approachable in the first place. Maybe I’m just too old, but I really don’t expect the library to be, say, Best Buy. I don’t want to go looking for a librarian when I need one. But then I do see some merit in different approaches.

    I can’t speak for the typical student but I know I’m going to get freaked when some stranger comes up to me in the stacks and asks if they can help.

    I do think it is fully dependent on the physical library situation and campus culture, and it sounds like you have reasoned yours out well.

  2. Hi Mark, I’m glad you emphasized that the decision should be situation dependent. I think that’s really the key, and I wish that people would think about that before condemning the desk outright. What I’d like to see is someone who thinks through the key issues and decisions to be made and present us with those rather than the conclusion that fit their libraries.

    But even when you think of the Best Buy model, you have physically small areas, each of which is staffed with at least one person, and within which there are usually good enough sight-lines that you can see the wandering high-schooler who’s about to help you make and “informed” decision between two laser printers. If we look to them for a service model (minus the unhelpful high-schoolers), we’d have to staff ourselves with many more librarians and cut the stacks down to shoulder hight.

  3. Hi Iris! I totally agree with you. Here at Norwich, we only have one librarian staffing the reference desk at a time (we have a very small reference staff). If I spent my time walking around looking for people who need help, people would likely have a harder time finding me, since our library has 5 floors and I could be anywhere. I sometimes walk around the reference area and the computer lab on the same floor as the ref desk if it’s really slow at the desk, but if no one is at the desk, students usually assume no one can help them. I know I hate hunting around for someone at Circuit City and I greatly prefer the Barnes and Noble/Borders model with the desk in the middle of the store where I know I will find someone. But, like you said, it is totally dependent on the set-up and staffing situation at the library.

  4. Hi Meredith, Your Barns & Nobel example is a good one because usually there are people “in the stacks” but there’s always somebody at the information station.

    Luckily, at Carleton I can wander the reference area and the lab at the same time, because the lab is integrated into the reference room. So I try to do that several times per shift if it’s not too backed up at the desk. But other than that I feel like I’d be reducing my chances of helping students rather than increasing them if I wandered any farther.

    By the way, I’ve really appreciated your recent blog posts!

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