Design your service desk for the future

As I write this post, I am sitting at the reference desk in our very popular Learning Commons, wondering how heavy, and at what velocity a wayward book truck would have to be to knock this monolith down. This desk is not even 10 years old, built in 2004 when the floor was remodeled, yet I loathe its existence. I have fantasies of sneaking into the library late at night (when we aren’t open 24 hours) with a chain saw and sledge hammer.

Selfie at my big 'ole desk
Me and my big ‘ole desk

The desk was built when two different cultures occupied the space. On one side of the desk, traditional library services such as reference, book circulation, and study room check-ins were offered. On the other side, staff and students from the Office of Information Technology (at the time, called “Computer Services”) circulated 50 laptops, unjammed and filled printers, and answered technology-related questions. OIT pulled the one staff supervisor out of the library in 2009, and the library retained the student employee budget. Over time, as students hired by OIT graduated, and as we hired our own students, the cultures became one. With merging the two cultures, the student workers who provide library and technology services are now trained and supervised by library staff, enabling us to provide more consistent and better customer service. As a result, it no longer made sense to staff two sides of the same desk, making the “good idea” from 2004 now obsolete. We now only staff one side of the desk (the right part of the image below), and the other side holds our staplers, office supplies, and paper cutter.

The two sides of our desk, designed for two cultures
The two sides of our desk, designed for two cultures

When the desk was built in 2004, it was basically an updated version of the traditional reference desk. The wood paneling was replaced by a Corian countertop, and the wood accents were lighter in color. If only we had known better and tried to work with a more-flexible design. It’s ironic that all of our chairs in the Learning Commons have wheels, allowing our users to position the furniture wherever they like, yet our desk is immovable. In the past year, my staff and I have changed our staffing layout on the desk three times in hopes of making the inflexible desk work better for us. Over winter break we changed the desk, hopefully for the last time, at least until we can bulldoze the thing.

We currently have a librarian or paraprofessional (another post entirely on whether that is worth our time) and two students staffing the desk most hours of the day. We’ve tried to locate the librarian in different locations to increase visibility, work productivity when he/she is not busy (thank goodness for Remote Desktop), and supervisory view of the student workers. In our various ways of configuring the desk, we found that the librarian sometimes was too far from the questions to make sure our students were answering them correctly, had her back to the front door, or the  was checking out more than his fair share of laptops and study room keys.  I think we have found our ultimate configuration, and the funny thing is, it’s almost identical to how we staffed the library services side of the desk in 2004.

If I was going to design a desk today (yes, we still need a desk of some sort) here is what I would suggest.

  • The desk should consist of multiple modules, with the ability to break the different section apart to reconfigure as needed.  Wheels on the sections are a must. Ideally, the legs of the desk should be adjustable, allowing us to raise and lower the desk height as needed.  We should be able to change the footprint of the desk depending on our need.
  • The desk modules should be able to be powered and networked anywhere on the floor, allowing us to move the desk to experiment with new locations on our open floor plan.
  • Instead of desktops, we would have docking stations for laptops.  Library staff could bring their own laptop (or tablet) to the desk, allowing them to be more mobile around the floor.  If they needed to go help someone on the other side of the floor, they could take the laptop with them and still be connected to the chat service, email, etc, as well as their own files.
  • The design of the desk should be more transparent and inviting, rather than a huge barrier/bunker that guards/walls the library staff from the patrons.  We should have adjustable comfortable seating for our patrons, should they like to sit down for a longer conversation at the service desk.
  • When a desk module is not in use, we should be able to transform the module into something that can be used by our patrons, such as a scanning station, hold office supplies, or general seating.
  • Shelving and storage at the desk should be highly adjustable to allow us to change up where we store items.
  • Monitors, keyboards, and wires should be flexible in how we can position our displays.

Fortunately, our library is planning a renovation over the next several years, and it is likely we will have the opportunity to redesign my service desk, as well as others around the building.  My hope is as we make plans, we look for the most flexible design options available, and distance ourselves from our wood and Corian past.