Single Service Desk: Thoughts After #Medlibs Tweet Chat

Last week I summed up the previous week’s #medlibs tweet chat on alternative reference services.  I mentioned that I would go into more detail this week on my thoughts around the reference desk and single service desk in the library.

We have one public service desk in our library.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the library staff at my library tend to call our desk the reference desk or front desk.  In reality it is a single service desk where all sorts of things happen.  It is really the only single established place within the library where patrons can ask questions.  Yes they email, phone, and stop us if we are walking by, but the front desk is the one physical spot to get service.  It could be checking out a book, paying fines, asking for the bathroom, checking out a room, help with a computer/printer, or an actual reference question.  All of our library employees staff the reference desk throughout the week.  The library director, cataloger, ILL personnel and student workers (when we’ve had them) man the desk.

Various people on the tweet chat mentioned several concerns:

  • Isn’t there a blending of our professional status of having both librarians and library assistants essentially doing the same thing (manning the desk) and don’t you have patrons (or administration) thinking we are all the same and interchangeable?
  • You don’t do a lot of “professional” things on the desk. You do more assistant type things such as telling people the location of the bathroom. Isn’t that a waste of time or (to be nice) isn’t there a better use of your time?

First, all of society thinks anybody working in a library is a librarian, so from that perspective it doesn’t matter who staffs the service desk, because everybody thinks they are a librarians. Society’s perspective isn’t going to change on that.  Second, I don’t think of it as bluring our skills and making us interchangeable to patrons.  Why?  I guess because we each have our specialties and if we are on the desk and somebody asks a question outside of the norm and outside of our specialty we freely tell them to wait just a second while we get somebody else who can best help them.  Medical professionals are very familiar with the concept of specialists.  So while all of us work the service desk there are times where we have to have the “Circulation Specialist,” or “RefWorks Specialist” help the patron.  So our patrons see us doing similar services but they also have experienced us getting a “specialist” to help with things certain questions. 

Define professional.  My job is to help people find information.  Information is different for all things, and I am helping people.  While I am on the desk I am constantly looking at ways to improve or help people. I view the service desk as my test kitchen and I am a master chef.  I am able to see what dishes (products) people select and how they use them.  It doesn’t always have to be reference related either.  For example, I have learned a lot just renewing people’s books.  If they tell me they never received the “reminder to renew” email, I am able to double check their email and add a secondary email (that has less stringent spam filters) to their account.  Sometimes I am able to recommend another similar book our research avenue.

I know how my patrons are searching (or not) the catalog and why they can/can’t find things.  I know how they are looking for full text ebooks and I can fully appreciate their frustration with ebooks.  Working on the service desk provides me with the opportunity to work with our patrons and better understand their needs more than any established office hours would because I get to see the patrons in action.  I firmly believe catalogers and tech service people should work the service desk so they experience how their users find and access things.  How are they able to know there is a problem if they are back in their office cataloging all day?

This is just my overall philosophy. Not every situation works for every library.  I think if we had two desks (a reference desk and a service desk) it might be a different story.  Also I think it all boils down to the fundamental real estate philosophy, location, location, location.  If you are off the beaten path you will have a totally different perspective.  We are a very large institution and while the library isn’t exactly centrally located to all departments, we are definitely in a prime location and on one of the main walking thoroughfares.

I believe librarians need to get out and get to know their users.  How they do it can be varied.  The single service desk is just one way.  Abolishing the desk may not be a good thing to do if you have good usage. Our desk has lulls but more often than not, it is hopping.  Getting rid of the service desk would be a disservice to our patrons. Of course keeping the service desk because it has great usage, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do outreach.  There are still lots of people who don’t come in the library and they need to be reached.  However, the idea that the service desk is dead isn’t true in all libraries, in some libraries it is alive and a great place to meet users.