Help Desks

Help Desks

I was going to call this “reference desks,” but enough of the libraries I’ve visited have disposed of the phrase, and I don’t want to re-apply it. This is a key element of any library space, in my mind, and is something widely and diversely interpreted. There is the back and forth between being big and obvious (in terms of furniture) and being as unobtrusive as possible.

photo 2Look at this one! This is a “branch” help desk on an upper floor of the five-storey Idea Store Whitechapel. It closes up when not staffed. The Idea Stores can afford to have smaller furniture for staffed points for one big reason: the staff wear a uniform. As you can see, this staff member (who was so friendly and helpful, as well as very well-informed about the history of mission of Idea Stores generally, and articulate about it, which indicates lots of good strategic communication with staff from the leadership) is wearing a branded sweatshirt and a name tag. I didn’t question whether he was an employee on sight, regardless of the temporary look of this help point.

The Idea Stores really have it in for anything that smacks of a reference desk. In the children’s library in the Whitechapel branch, which has the collection on casters, this is what staff have as computing infrastructure:

In case it’s not clear, this is a computer in a lockable closet. I’ve seen this kind of thing as the “instant office” plugged by places like Ikea for better uses of limited space, but I’ve never seen one in a library before. As it turns out, these closet staff computing stations exist on all floors of the library. I saw another, closed, up on the top floor near the cafe as well. I presume the idea is that you pull it open when the need arises, but leave it shut otherwise.

Here’s the desk in the children’s library in the Idea Store at Watney Market:

It’s more of a desk than they have a Whitechapel, but not by much. The staff at this branch (also extremely helpful) might have thought I was visiting specifically to check out this particular desk, had lots of feedback for me about it. It didn’t have enough storage, for one.

“Storage for what?” I asked her.

“Paper. Membership forms. Just stuff!”

All of this is very telling to me about what we think a desk like this is for. 

This is a recently-qualified librarian perched on the stool at her help point in the “Surfing Space” at Watney Market Idea Store. They are, as you can see, small workstations that don’t encourage the staff to sit and scroll through the internet when bored. They aren’t designed for comfort. They are, in essence, quick look-up stations, for 5-10 minutes of computing at a time, not office areas with lots of desk space to spread out. Nor are they collaborative in any way. They are tools to help staff interact with the things staff have access to, in order to help patrons. The presumption of these spaces is that the real value in the interaction is going to happen between two people, with no real support from computing.

Okay, this isn’t a great picture to illustrate my point. This is from the Canada Water library, which I will talk about in more depth later. You may not actually see their reference desk in this picture, but it’s down the first set of stairs, and on the other side of the second set. See it? Same wood as everything else. It’s a big, round, traditional reference desk. However, in a epic attempt to have your cow patty and eat it too, the policy at this library is for staff not to stand behind the desk. I understand the impulse: the furniture is there, it can be useful visually, but you don’t really want staff to stand behind it picking their noses and waiting for someone to need them. It’s a waste of resources and doesn’t look very good to the patrons. But if the staff aren’t behind it, the signal that this is the place where you can get help is kind of muted by it being unstaffed. Or staffed by someone who is hidden somewhere in the stacks or by the windows.

As a profession, we have not solved the issue of computing, help, and desks. We have lots of ideas, and we know what’s wrong, but we’re not sure yet how to fix it. We’re at this very interesting juncture between recognizing the problem and finding the best solution, so there are an unlimited number of solutions in action, for better or for worse.

All of the help points that I saw presume that technology is something the staff can use to help them answer questions, but is not critical to the enterprise. These are public libraries; that might have something to do with it (but I doubt it). There is no sense in these spaces that help involves working together with computing. The furniture doesn’t allow it.

Perhaps that’s not what they want. It’s easy for me to stand back and say, “I couldn’t do good work with this space.” Though that’s true: I would struggle to do good work in these spaces, because the kinds of questions I need to answer don’t involve a standing person coming up to me to ask a question I can answer without them sitting down with me, opening up their own computer or taking control of one of mine, and walking through a process together. We’re at odds with how to integrate computing comfortably, without alienating patrons, setting up de facto workstations where staff ignore patrons (or seem to be), or play solitaire all day. It’s a challenge, and our metaphors have largely failed us.

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