Library Service Desks and User Experience

A picture of a notepad with writing of "user experience desk"

Many libraries these days either have or will have “wrestled” with the idea of what to do about “reference” or the reference desk. Iris at Pegasus Librarian has written some thoughts about the topic. Thanks to Stephen Francouer for the twitter tip.

In her post, she discusses that reference desks provide patrons with visible help and offer low barriers to use. She writes that these are values that users will have, and whether we have a reference desk or not, our users appreciate and find comfort in seeing friendly, knowledgeable people helping others at an easy to find service point. Iris writes:

Even if patrons aren’t actively seeking out the service or actively learning about support options, they should be able to see you being kind and welcoming and helpful and engaged and excited about other patrons’ information needs. Maybe your patrons will walk past you a million times on the way to and from the printers, or the bathrooms, or whatever, but they become passively aware of the service and its function. And they become passively aware that librarians love the act of information seeking, love the hunt, love the puzzle, and love more than anything else the opportunity to engage with people who are curious or confused and who will have their lives made easier by access to some information or a more nuanced ability to evaluate and use what they have found.

Three years ago our library consolidated service desks and functions and changed the staffing model. During the first six months, we continued to have librarians staff the primary service desk during peak daytime hours, then moved them to another satellited desk near the Writing Center (a big failure), and finally changed to our current on-call model. We now have two service desks on separate floors, and both are now just dubbed “service desk.” A desk that “owns” reference is no more, as both desks now answer and refer questions of all types.

While this move has allowed our subject librarians to focus more on work within their subject disciplines, it’s also meant that they don’t answer as many general questions anymore. We’re now at risk of losing touch with the “general” library user, who I’d loosely define as the users who use our physical and virtual services who may never know their subject librarian or visit their Libguides. I’d also define a general user as anyone who is using non-subject-specific service and tools, such as printing, the library website, the catalog, the discovery layer, or study rooms at that moment. In other words, even if they have a phD, if they aren’t using a specialized resource within their discipline, they’re a general user in the moment.

Iris writes that it is very important for librarians to be able to have “access to a broad cross-section of questions.” As an example, if I only wore my business librarian hat while working on our library website migration, then I would not be keeping the interests of the rest of our users in mind. I have to remember to don my User Services cap. But given that I don’t work the desk as much anymore, and our librarians don’t work the desk at all, we’re at risk of associating all users as the same, or forgetting about the general user entirely. Our subject librarians no longer work the desk in part because the questions no longer required their subject-level expertise. The easy questions get asked at the desk, and the more difficult one get referred to the on-call librarian or a subject librarian. But Iris writes:

In a lot of ways, the “easy” questions are more telling than the complex ones if your goal is to keep tabs on what your population finds easy or hard. These “basic” questions may be accommodated by a variety of service models, but they are decidedly not unimportant questions. If anything, they may be the most important questions — the questions that tell us valuable things about tools or services that we haven’t set up right. It’s not the patron’s fault for asking the “wrong” questions — The User Is Not Broken. It’s on us to make it so that, wherever possible, “easy” things are easy for our users, too. 

It’s these easy, frequent questions that our user services work should focus on first. I’m excited that we are about to start on some experiments in reorganizing some of our work among subject librarians and user services staff. My department will now be able to more strategically (and hopefully efficiently) address user services challenges for all patrons. Some ideas for things we can work on include:

  • Track common questions on chat and at the service desk. Identify trends and investigate how to make those questions even easier for users to find answers
  • Collect feedback from users at all points about the new website, and follow up if necessary
  • Identify barriers to subject librarians’ Libguide usage. For example, are patrons searching for topics where a guide might be useful?
  • See themselves as the conduit between general library users and subject librarian
  • Observe common traffic patterns and study spaces
  • Identify how furniture is being moved and used
  • Study how our desktop computing is being use, or in many cases, moved out of the way
  • Find pain points for our patrons
  • Organize all of this information in a way that is easy to collect, use, understand and communicate

Our department will meet soon as a group to start working on our new goals and roles within the library. My overall goal is that each user services staff member can see themselves as a user experience advocate for all library users and feel empowered to communicate patron needs at all levels.

3 thoughts on “Library Service Desks and User Experience

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  1. I love this — you put practicalities and real-world heft behind the more amorphous ideas I’ve had floating around in my head. Now… if only practical solutions were as simple as thoughts. 🙂

  2. I feel like this is a place academic and special librarians are at a disadvantage to public librarians. At the publib the desk was hopping with a huge variety of questions. It really forced me to learn our collection and hone my skills. I’m sure I’m rusty at these standard questions even as I spend a lot more time working really hard questions

    1. 10-12 years ago was when our general reference skills at our library started to wane, due to our referral process and the overall decline in questions. We’ve lost our “jack of all trades, master of none” status as we’ve moved into our subject silos. Something gained is also something lost.

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