The fall of the Library Fortress

The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder
– Ralph W. Sockman

Some months back I attended Nordic Library Meeting in Stockholm. It’s a forum for directors at the university libraries in Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki. During a presentation of the new humanities and social sciences library in Oslo the discussion stumbled upon the function and shape of the library information desk.

It’s an interesting topic. We often discuss the staffing of the front desk and the level of service the users should get at the front desk but not so much how the actually desk is designed.

The library fortress
The Oslo people clearly had a classical library fortress in mind for there new library: A big massive wall of a desk that divided the users from the librarians. I don’t fancy that kind of front desk. First of all it signals ‘them’ and ‘us’ – they, the library users, are on one side of the fortress while we are in safe in here. God forbid they came to close. It’s not a sound way to meet the very purpose of our existence – the users. Second of all it’s not very practical: many of the queries that comes to academic libraries involves some sought of looking at a computer, demonstrate a search in the catalog, check the Zotero settings etc. That stuff is hard to do when you stand on each side of the fortress. Sure you can flip the screen and stretch you neck but it’s not the same as standing next to each other looking at the same screen.

After the discussion we went out to check out the front desk at The Stockholm University Library and we were faced with a classic yellow library fortress:
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I’m sure I will never be the king of a library fortress. So what are the alternatives?

The library island
We used to have a library fortress at The Faculty Library of Social Science but we rolled in the wrecking ball two years ago and from the dust of the fortress arise a library island.

The concept is simple: It’s an open, more or less round, front desk that gives library personal the possibility to invite users on to the island (so to speak) and give them the opportunity to look equally at the same screen. It gives a much better service in practice and it sends the signal that this is not a ‘them and us library’.

19860005344_296ae74556_o  The Library Island at The Faculty Library of Social Sciences 

The desk-less library
Do the modern academic library even need a front desk? Many of the traditional direct user services is moved over to different platforms: instructions, teaching, book a librarian, chat, e-learning etc. and the lendomats handles 95 % of the physical loans. If we believe the users needs to meet a library worker in the open library room couldn’t the desk just be replaced with roaming floor-walking library workers in orange shirts caring a laptop?

I think the idea is interesting but I don’t believe in totally erasing the front desk from libraries. Not yet at least. I believe that many that visits a physical service space still find comfort in that physical spot were you can ask any question. When you can’t find that librarian on the floor there is always the desk to turn to.

Anyhow I do believe the roaming floor-walking librarian concept is interesting though. Look at a supermarket; you don’t go to the counter and ask were the sugar is – you ask one of the people in green shirts that is putting up groceries on the shelves near you. The point you at the sugar and sometimes they even through in some valuable information on a specific great type of sugar that is on sale at the moment. It works.

In the danish public libraries there has been done some projects on this kind of concept showing that library users experienced that there were more staff in the libraries and better service in the periods were there was librarians on the floor. To be continued…

projekt_4_midt
Floor-walking librarian from The Aalborg Libraries in Denmark

The everywhere-is-a-desk library
Ever been to an Apple Store? I find it a very cool experience and there are three factors that make it so:
1) It always seems that there are more Apple employees on the floor than customers
2) The employees really now what they are talking about when you ask them about something
3) There is no real central desk but desk’s everywhere, hidden in the product demonstration tables

All together this gives a very seamless and professional user experience and liberates the whole customer-employee relation from the tyranny of the desk. It’s a brilliant set-up and if I were to build a library from the ground and had a few more staffs than these days I would definitely get inspired by Apple.

HK_CWB_Hysan_Place_mall_shop_Apple_Store_interior_Mar-2013   Apple store – hidden desk’s everywhere

From the three alternatives I prefer the library island to be the front desk touch point of the academic library anno 2015. But both the desk-free and everywhere-is-a-desk library got potential. Until then I say: Destroy the library fortress, build a library island.

And a final note: no matter how you design your front desk the most important thing is the people who is staffing it