In the past decade or so, many public libraries seem to have switched to the one-desk model of service. That is, in the past, library patrons might have had to choose whether to go to the circulation desk or the reference desk, depending on their question. The one-desk model consolidates departments, making it the single point of reference for individuals, whether they are asking to update a library card or needing assistance with a complex research question. The idea seems to be that, because the average library patron does not distinguish between departments or the roles of individuals in the library, it is simply easier for them to walk up to a single desk, rather than guess which desk or staff they need–and then be told that they have to walk to some other desk instead. Such an experience would presumably be off-putting to patrons wondering why someone official-looking sitting behind a desk apparently cannot be bothered to help them, and must make them go ask the same question elsewhere. However, even though the one-desk model seems easier for the public, I do not altogether like it–especially they way it seems to have been implemented in some libraries.
To be fair, it did take me awhile to distinguish between the functions of the circulation desk and the reference desk at my public library. I would sometimes be told I was at the wrong desk and had to walk to the other one. Over time, however, I realized that the circulation desk does largely what the name suggests and so does the reference desk.
For those wondering, the circulation desk handles the circulation of items. Check-ins and check-outs happen at the circulation desk. The circulation staff also handle library account inquiries (such as obtaining or updating a card, or paying money on an account) and do circulation stuff that does not necessarily impact the public’s interactions with them–handling the delivery of items, pulling holds, shelving books, shelf-reading, etc.
The reference desk typically handles…reference questions. That could be something as simple as asking for the location of a book, or asking for assistance with in-depth research for an academic project, a genealogy search, and more, or asking for help with the computers or printers. The reference staff are also often the ones in charge of planning programs for adults. The reason why someone at the reference desk might not help a patron with a circulation question (or vice versa) is simple–the staff there might not have been trained on how to answer that question. It is not their job function.
The one-desk model seems like it could be an easy solution to all the walking back and forth of confused patrons. (I had a memorable experience where the circulation desk and the reference desk kept sending me back and forth, both swearing that they had no idea how to help me and that it was the other department’s job. I think I finally just answered my question myself and left.) Just train staff in both departments on how to do both jobs! Or, maybe, staff the one desk with someone from each department at the same time. The reference staff member could sit on the right of the desk and the circulation staff member could sit on the left. However, in practice, I have seen this model fail to work for a key reason: only one person is assigned to staff the desk.
Again, in theory, libraries might just train the reference and circulation departments on how to do each other’s jobs. Problem solved! However, one must really question if this is being done. If you peruse library job listings, reference librarians are often asked to have more qualifications than circulation staff–they might be required to have, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree, but sometimes an MLIS. Circulation staff might only be required to have a high school diploma. Reference librarians thus presumably in many cases already have more background than circulation staff, if indeed they have a Master’s in Library Science.
Are the circulation staff being asked to do training that is equivalent to the reference librarians’ education? Are they being asked to get any kind of certifications that reference staff without an MLIS might be asked to get? Are they taking the same kind of training–webinars or otherwise? What if someone asks a kind of obscure question about the law or needs help with something like unemployment? Are circulation staff really as knowledgeable as reference staff in answering reference questions when that is neither their background nor their primary job function?
The obvious answer might seem to be that any individual in the circulation department might conceivably be as good as or even better than someone in the reference department. After all, a degree is not everything. Years of experience could factor in, as well as any innate intelligence and general desire to learn. But then the question is–even if someone in the circulation department can do an equal job to the reference department, should circulation staff actually be asked to do the job of reference librarians? Because, since reference librarians often are required to have more experience or education for their roles, their job listings often indicate that they are being paid more than the circulation staff. Consequently, if the circulation staff sitting at the one desk in the one-desk model are doing the work of the reference librarians…shouldn’t they be getting paid at the same rate as the reference librarians?
To me, the one-desk model seems like another instance of job creep; librarians are being asked to take on additional duties without additional pay. In the past, the reference department would have focused on reference questions and the circulation on circulation duties, but now their job functions are being blended. Maybe the public does not know the difference. Maybe anyone official-looking sitting behind a desk is the same as another to them. But library staff in different departments do have different backgrounds, different training, and different job functions. That may or may not come across in how effectively any one individual is able to answer a question that is not technically part of their job description. And maybe patrons and administrators are willing to let little bits of customer service slip in order to get the bigger gain of a one-stop shopping experience. But I think we should seriously consider if asking staff to take on more job functions should result in a pay increase–especially if staff who are lower on the pay scale are now effectively functioning the same way as staff who are higher up on that scale.
What do you think? Do you like the one-desk model at the public library?