The Reference Desk: An Awful Idea

It seemed like such a great concept. The library had a problem: it had no central reference area. Or, rather, that area was me. When a patron wanted tech help, they hunted me down. When a patron had a question, I had to get someone to cover the circulation desk for me. When I was “off-desk,” that is, doing work in the staff area, I was invisible. I might as well not have been there. Lame, right?

When we updated the library, I begged my director to install a reference desk. I’d spend all my time there, I enthused, and that way patrons would have 100% access to tech help. I could bounce down to circulation for instant readers’ advisory recommendations. Best of all, I could keep stats on computer use! Wins all around! I made Google Sketchups of our space with various desks and cost estimates. Finally, my director got me the Ikea Malm pull-out desk. Boy, was I excited! I was going to put out multimedia, display extra handouts, and just generally rock everything. You should have seen my proposal. It was a thing of beauty.

Sad face

There are so, so many reasons that I now regret all of this effort. I’m not even really sure where to start.

First of all, no amount of signage will make the general run of patrons come into the reference room. I have three signs, each progressively more blaring, begging patrons to ask me questions. While patrons will comment on them, they will generally do so while passing by on their way out the door. When they do come over, it feels like I’m on a throne and they’re approaching as supplicants. There’s a runner on the floor that I thought was classy, but looks like a red carpet, and the stairs are right in front of that, just like a dais or an altar to the classic Hollywood spinster librarian. It’s so, so unfortunate.

There are other logistical problems with this thing that I’ve really come to hate. First, because the library is located in a pre-digital building, there’s no way to put a wired computer at this desk. There’s just no jack, and even if there were, there’s no room. Instead, I use my personal laptop and the public wifi. Not only is my laptop tiny, but it is unable to print to any hardware that we have in the library. Even its appearance is a problem, because having a MacBook sets me apart from the rest of the staff. Try explaining to a patron “why that librarian is different.”

Without spending time at the circulation desk, I don’t know what people are reading. It turns out that the circulation staff is more than happy to do RA at a second’s notice. Calling me just takes too much time. My readers’ advisory incidence has gone from a high of ten per day to zip all the time. Even passive RA is tougher now, since my computer can’t print the pamphlets and bookmarks that I used to make on the networked desktops. I’ve been Google Driving everything and then retrieving it on a desktop, which is weird since I no longer really have dedicated computer space.  Thanks to the setup I vied so hard for, I now budge my coworkers off their machines whenever I want to get anything done.

Finally, but worst of all, I no longer get to talk to patrons. There’s just no opportunity when they don’t come over here and I don’t go over to circulation. They don’t see me as friendly or approachable anymore. This kills the joy of my job dead. Life was a fecund jungle when I was at the circulation desk; now it is a desert. A desert called REFERENCE DESK.

If I had an option, I’d dismantle my desk and send it right back to Sweden. But it’s too late. I’m leaving in less than a month for my new digs, where my job will be very different, but where I will absolutely insist on spending time on circulation. As for my current job, all I can do is hope that the next reference librarian will use the damned reference desk for kindling.


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