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Reference Desk Reverence?

In my own experience (and somewhat amplified by the Master’s Degree posts (first, second), there is a mystique that is lent to the reference desk like no other place in the library (save for closed stacks, the final mystery of the library world). It is the sacred space for the librarian immortals and perhaps the paraprofessional demigods who prove themselves worthy of its station. From behind this lauded furniture, answers are dispensed to all who seek wisdom within the walls of the library. It is the desk of last resort for those who continue to question, the deliverer of information redemption, and start of many journeys into discovery. To hear some of my peers talk about the reference desk, you would think that the desk was made of wood cut down by God, carved by Jesus, and blessed by his library apostles, Dewey and Ranganathan.

Ok, that was a bit of enjoyable hyperbole, but for me, I really don’t see the reference desk is such a lofty position. Sorry folks, but while the desk is a good central point for people to come to for questions, I’m in the camp that believes the following things about the reference desk:

  1. It creates a unnecessary barrier to patron-staff interactions (some of these desks are not the most approachable);
  2. It creates a refuge for librarians who, rather than get up and walk around and see about helping patrons in the library, sit on their butts;
  3. It represents an older ideology in librarian thought regarding the passive role of the librarian out on the floor
  4. And it is a bunch of dead space that could be utilized for another set of chairs or table, sometimes in front of outdated reference material (not a great image boost there), and is sometimes aesthetically displeasing.

Now that I’ve dumped my opinion about this, what’s your take on the reference desk? Keep? Dispose? Or evolve into something else?


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Your frustrations run so totally counter to my experience that I can't really agree with you on any point. Our reference desk is low slung and welcoming (and I think it's purty). Students/profs/etc seem to be completely comfortable snagging a chair and sitting down beside to a reference librarian for a consult - it just doesn't have the From On High feel about it. Thinking about it as a patron, I don't want you hovering over me when I'm doing stuff - I want you to stay in an easy-to-find, noticeable place, so that when I *do* need you, I know where to look - rather than sitting around wishing for you to appear, or forlornly walking through the stacks hoping our paths cross. I think of how when I go into a large store, I frequently have to wander the aisles hoping against hope to find a customer service person among the acres of stock, and how frustrating that feels, and I shudder to think of libraries going the same way. You walk in the front door at my library and you see the people who can help you RIGHT THERE - so if you want help later, you know exactly where to find them.

I'm not against roaming. It can be pleasant and serendipitous. I think it is good to magically show up from time to time JUST when someone was wishing you would. But my gut is baffled that *anyone* finds it so much preferable that they would get rid of staffed desks.

I don't think it's the desk itself that is a barrier for patrons to approach the librarian but the librarians themselves. Take those few librarians away from the desk and I'm sure they could still put forth a "don't approach me" body language that would act as an invisible barrier.

isn't the only barrier, true, but the desk helps. At my location it is a honking huge piece of furniture that, except for the side facing the Juvvie department, is shoulder height when sitting (counter height for people standing on the other side). It was designed at a time when staffs were larger, and ready reference materials were numerous & not on the web (it is a huge semicircle with alcove shelving across the back) so it takes up a tremendous amount of floor space that could be better used for patron furniture. It is also poorly located near the front of the building, while the people who need help are located in back. It was a good design for a different service delivery model, but that model isn't in operation any longer. I hope we can find the money to change it.

The discussion here is years old by now. And I personally think a hybrid of what you suggest and the desk often work the best for many libraries.

Like one commenter already said, it's often not the desk itself, but the people staffing the desk. Even if you take the desk away, they aren't suddenly going to become more approachable. Experience says that some people really aren't cut out for public services. Or the organization itself doesn't encourage the type of interactions that you are desirous off by removing the desk. Training might help. I think we need to get into the habits of generally getting off our butts occasionally and walking through the library for those serendipitous encounters. It keeps all the staff in a library better acquainted with who is using our services, makes us familiar faces, and follows that Hyvee model that I like. A helpful smile in every aisle.

I'm still for having that physical space for people to find. Sometimes we librarians get so caught up in trendy and new and forward thinkingness that we forget our library users are not anywhere near the same page, if they're even in the same book as us. I've not see stores get rid of customer service counters. People are used to having a physical location to go to when they need assistance. But we definitely can do a lot towards making that physical location attractive. The fortress desk with the moat full of alligators around it should be banished to the dungeons along with those unhelpful staff.

Bottom line: each library will have to figure out what works best for their patrons.

The reference desk I use the most looks like this:

People have no problem going to a tall bulky piece of furniture. It depends on how they're treated when they get there and if the service is worth sticking around.

I agree with the comment that the barrier isn't the desk. It's the approach to customer service and the librarian who, rather than ask if they can help wait for the user to approach.

I have to say that I find it annoying when I'm continually approached in stores by staff asking if I need any help, when I would prefer to browse on my own. When I do need help, I don't like to wander the aisles looking for someone who works there. I would prefer to go to a service desk to ask a question. Or, I also like the phones that they offer in stores like Target. I can call to ask where to find something, and they can usually just tell me which aisle has it. If my question is more detailed, they will send someone out to help me. This is great, unobtrusive customer service and it doesn't do away with central service points.

This is easy...EVOLVE!

You can have my reference desk when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.

I don't want to get closer to the patrons. I don't want to be friends with the patrons. The purpose of the reference desk is to provide them with the information they need as quickly and efficiently as possible.

As for those old raggedy reference books, you can trust them a lot more than you can trust some guy you met on the internet. They come to the library because they want real research, not hearsay from Wikipedia.