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.