Below are my notes and what I remember from a session I attended at Library Camp Australia 2012, titled “No Desk” and posted on the blog. The session was based on a talk given at VALA 2012 (which I did not attend) given by Shaun O’Dwyer and Kylie Bailin from the University of New South Wales about their experiences changing the service model in the UNSW library.
The concept of doing away with the traditional large, imposing reference/circulation desk is one which is being considered and trialled in many libraries. There is a movement away from the image of librarian as all-powerful holder of knowledge to the idea of more collaborative learning and librarians being more accessible, less daunting. As ideas of the use of libraries and the use of space in libraries also change, driven by increased virtual access to information and changing user perceptions, it seems to me to be an exciting time to be entering the industry. (Although I probably should note here that a speaker at one of my university sessions told of how people have been talking of the “massive changes in the library world” since the 70s….and probably before. We don’t have a monopoly on upheaval).
The library where I am currently working is embracing these new ideas of changing the way the desk is presented, championed by our trusted leader. With virtually all circulation now moved to self-service, as each branch gets a renovation new ideas of the positioning, shape and style of the ‘reference desk’ are being developed, as well as looking at the traffic flow in the library. Particularly in a public library, with the wide range of ages and abilities of customers, I think there’s always going to be a need for a sit-down desk for more involved reference queries or new member sign-ups. However, getting out from behind the desk and having some stand-up terminals can hopefully encourage customers to see librarians as more approachable, avoid the awkwardness of customers feeling like they are ‘interrupting’ a librarian and level out any ‘us vs them’ mentality which could cause confrontation and bad behaviour.
This is a topic which I am finding very interesting at the moment and I’m hoping to do some more reading on the topic when I find the time.
Notes from the “No Desk” session
Here are some things I remembered from the session, please feel free to add anything I have forgotten
- The session started with some ideas being put forward on what the idea of “no desk” meant. Some of these ideas included the idea of no barrier between staff and customer, no chair to sit on and the idea of a 24/7 service outside of the traditional library space.
- The experience of roving reference with the use of ipads was discussed. The technology novelty factor seemed to be viewed as a positive by customers. What software was used on the ipad was also talked about.
- The question was raised of how the loss of the desk as a buffer would affect interactions with confrontational customers. There was some experience that seemed to point to the lack of a desk having a ‘levelling’ effect which made the situation less confrontational. The idea was that perhaps being able to stand beside someone might make you seem more sympathetic.
- An example was given of a library having a series of service points with computer terminals, where a roving librarian could take a patron to assist their enquiry.
- The issue was discussed of how patrons are expected to recognise library staff when they are not behind a desk. A trial was done at one library where staff were asked to wear a distinctive t-shirt/polo shirt but there was strong resistance to this by the staff involved. Some session participants suggested that a lanyard seemed to be working fine at their libraries. Other suggestions included vests, bags with ‘info’ symbol and (jokingly) facial tattoos.
- This conversation also moved into the idea of language/signage to direct patrons when there is no large desk, for example “ask me”, “ask me your specifically library related question” and the information symbol.
- People also spoke of the idea of approaching customers to see if they needed help, rather than waiting for them to come to the desk with a query. This could be a challenge for some library staff to get used to. Also it was mentioned that cultural differences, for example with body language, could be an issue.
- It was thought that customers could get frustrated with roving staff if they thought that others managed to ‘push in’ by catching staff’s attention. The idea of ‘service points’ would give customers a place to queue.
- For the libraries where a large desk was something that was going to be around in the foreseeable future, some alternative ideas were proposed. These included having one staff member seated behind the desk and another standing in front to give the best of both worlds. Also, by seating the customer on the corner of the desk, at 90 degrees (rather than across the table) they would be able to see the computer screen and would be able to place their materials on the desk rather than juggling them if they were standing.
- The idea was put forward that as any move to a desk-less library would most probably be a transitional change, it is important to think of how to manage the change for the patrons so that they are not left confused and giving them a number of options in how they deal with staff could help with this.