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?
14 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like the One-Desk Model in Public Libraries”
I didn’t realize there was a difference but I’m going to pay more attention next time I’m at the library!
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It took me awhile to figure it out because often I would just walk to the desk that was closest to the front door! And that’s not bad, really. I’m not upset if their answer is to give me directions to someone different who can help, as long as they are polite about it.
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I never knew there was a difference, thank you for this interesting post! Thinking back, it seems that my library has functionally moved to a one-desk model. There are technically two desks but the person working the second (which I assume is the reference desk) is often not at the desk, meaning that you have to approach the first if you want help.
Yeah, in the past it seemed to me that smaller branches typically had one desk and larger ones would have both circulation and reference desks. Now it seems the one-desk model is a trend even larger libraries are moving towards. I don’t know if it’s to save money or because they think it’s better for patrons or what.
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I see your point and this method makes librarians’ job busier. How exactly one person can handle so many things at once. I can’t imagine the displeasure of patrons who has to wait for their questions because the librarian was busy with other patron looking up info or something else.
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I do think that the pandemic particularly has made people more impatient. I was at the library the other day and there was one staff member on the desk (as is usual these days). They were clearly helping a woman and looking something up for her. Another lady came and screamed, “I need to print! I need to print!” at the librarian and wouldn’t wait even when they said they were helping someone else! She just kept yelling, “I need to print!” So the librarian went in the back to find another staff member to show the woman how to print. I was aghast. She would have had to wait like five minutes at the very most.
I also find all the printing demands amusing because how to print is clearly posted on top of all the printers, but no one seems to read the instructions?
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people can be wierd. I can’t imagine how librarian must have felt. I would have exploded if I was treated like that (might be one of the reasons I prefer to be stay-at-home parent).
Yeah, I think it’s sad that most workplaces seem to expect customer service workers to just…put up with this. As a fellow customer, I would not mind at all if a staff member firmly and politely told angry people they had to be wait and be respectful. I think caving in to the demands just teaches people that yelling and being rude is the way to get what they want.
I know the difference only because I’ve worked in public libraries since 2004. At my old branch we had 3 desks: circulation, reference, children’s. My current library only has one desk but only because we’re so small and there’s only 6 employees—it’s be pointless to have more than one desk and no other room to do it even if we wanted to
Yeah, I’ve seen smaller branches have only one desk, and that makes sense to me since there is less space and usually fewer staff members. I have to admit, though, that I do like having multiple desks available, if possible. If I want a children’s book, for example, I like knowing that I am talking to someone on the children’s staff since they usually have more background knowledge on what I’m asking…
The last two libraries I’ve belonged to seem to have one desk, but with one computer with a sign over it that says, “Reference.” I’m not sure the distinction means anything to a lot of people, but at least if the circulation clerk tells you to go to the reference librarian, they can just wave you three feet over instead of instructing you to walk to another desk halfway across the building.
My previous library also had all librarians take shifts on the circulation desk, which was a good idea, but I can imagine this also might be a bit baffling to patrons who didn’t see any distinction between the workers. So one day you’re asking someone for help who is actually a circulation clerk who is only trained on circulation duties, and the next day you’re asking the literal director of the library. It’s possible people were wondering why the workers at the desk seemed to have wide discrepancies in how much training/knowledge/power they had. The circulation clerk position was definitely a part-time thing that paid a couple dollars over minimum wage and had things like “customer service skills” as the job requirements, as opposed to the actual librarians who would have had been required to have master’s degrees.
Yeah, that is why I like having the departments differentiated…. I do find that I often get more efficient and knowledgeable service from individuals who work in the appropriate department and, really, that just makes sense. If I ask a children’s librarian for an adult book, they might have to ask lots of questions and Google it and so on, because they’re not working with that collection every day. And vice versa–the adult staff often look panicked when asked about children’s books and will actually often go find someone from the children’s department to answer the question instead. It’s not that they’re not great at their jobs. It’s that they are filling in for a job that is really adjacent to their job.
At my local library, I don’t think we quite have a one-desk model, as there’s both the front desk counter and a tech desk. I’ve only recently begun to learn more about the library services because of your posts, and so I’ve started to realize that both desks help library visitors for different purposes. So far, I’ve had a great experience and no trouble.
That’s wonderful! I do think most librarians are really adept at filling in for all sorts of roles. I just…wish they didn’t have to. I don’t mind being sent somewhere else for more knowledgeable service! It’s like, if I go to the home improvement store and I ask the plant person about paint, they send me over to the paint department because the paint person knows more about paint. It makes sense.
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