August 22, 2019

Library Design: Rethinking the Library Service Desk

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

Perhaps the most important space in any library is its service desk. It welcomes and orients people. It assists and advises people about information, technology, and services. It influences how a library’s staff will interact with its users. It embodies the library’s values and service philosophy. So, how you configure, operate, and continuously improve your service desk is a critical library design question.

Academic libraries are all striving for greater flexibility. They are seeking more meaningful interactions between library professionals and the students and faculty they advise and support. Despite these aspirations, the vast majority continue to build large service desks that are inflexible, quickly outdated, not welcoming, and put physical barriers between users and staff.

Hunt Library Service Point, NC State University

Many public libraries have shrunken “fortress” desks to podia and kiosks or have gotten rid of desks altogether. Desks in banks and hotels have long since been rethought to reduce employee/customer barriers. Yet academic libraries persist in building barriers. In this post, we’ll explore the factors changing service desks, the components to consider, how to best configure them, and how to move forward rethinking your library’s service desks.

A quick note on terminology: An astute observer will note that using the term “service desk” undermines the very direction we’re advocating – a more flexible, diverse, and interactive place. “Service point” would be better, but since the vast majority call it a desk, we’ll use that for now!

Rethinking the Service Desk Is a Crucial Part of Your Library Design

The library’s purpose is evolving, and its design must reflect these changes. Once a space for information storage, libraries are moving towards hubs that bring together inspiration, information, and academic support services. These changes allow users to connect, create, and collaborate, thus meriting the rethinking of library service desks’ design. A good way to think about this is why, what, who, how, when, and where:

  • Why: Libraries want to advise and support users as their partners in teaching, learning, and research – not just to check books in and out for them.
  • What: The services libraries offer have expanded to include functions like maker spaces, data labs, and writing centers while also circulating more than books – like laptops (and at public libraries, this includes tools and toys too!).
  • Who: Libraries are making student staff the frontline of help while bringing in academic support service partners – whether just visiting, as a satellite, or moving them in.
  • How: To avoid giving users the runaround, libraries are looking to co-locate or integrate service desks while making their services more visible and more proactive.
  • When: In growing recognition that most students are in the library when the least help is available, libraries are looking to expand service hours, often through online support.
  • Where: As online education continues to grow (6% a year at last count!), this means more students need to be supported through chat, email, and over a phone/video call.
Service Point Diagram, Hampshire College Learning Commons

What Are the Components of the Future Service Desk?

As you think about how to adapt to all of these changes, first identify the services to be offered and the activities taking place. Then determine the physical components – these are the library design building blocks. You need spaces for:

  • Users approaching the service desk and queuing in front of it
  • Accessibly storing things including requested books, devices, supplies, and equipment, and general information like maps and brochures
  • Securely storing devices, equipment, and supplies in an attached or adjacent back-of-house storage space
  • Displaying information (in digital and analog forms) to orient people, showcase events, and share general information like services, hours, and locations
  • Student staff and professional staff to work and interact with users – counters, podia, desks, etc. – and noting that those interactions can range from check-out/return transaction to in-depth consultations
Library Service Point, Liberty University

What Questions Should Guide Your Library Service Desk Design?

The two most important – and interdependent – drivers for a service point are where it is located within a building and what services you plan to provide there. For instance, service desks tend to get more specialized the farther you get from the entry. Once these library design drivers are determined, you can ask the following questions to guide the configuration of your service desk(s):

  • Who’s delivering the services? Services can be provided through self-service options like an app or a self-checkout kiosk, through peer-to-peer support such as student staff, through library staff, through library partners like a writing center, or some combination of these.
  • Among those staffing the service desk, what’s the mix of levels of expertise and specialization? For example, at Liberty University’s library, the three tiers of expertise translate directly into three layers of staff at the service point, moving from counter to desk to office.
  • Which services are mediated by staff? For instance, could someone grab the book they requested from an open hold shelf and then check it out themselves, or do staff have to be involved? (Hint: You probably have to mediate less than you think. Look for options to get out of the way on the simple stuff.)
  • How will people and items be accessed? Will users be able to go to a specialist directly or will you have a triage approach where frontline student staff or professional staff first quickly diagnose the problem and direct the user accordingly? How will referrals among these tiers work?
  • How will the service desk relate to its surrounding space and be approached by users? Will it be more of an island serving people in the round or will it be attached to a wall in some way? (Hint: An island can create traffic issues if staff are constantly running from it to adjacent storage, so be sure to include enough storage space.)
  • How will the service desk relate to other staff workspaces? Will associated back-of-house staff and storage spaces be adjacent or elsewhere? (Hint: Make sure you are ok putting all that back-of-house space, such as your whole access services department, in prime real estate near your entry.)
  • How much flexibility will you need? What might you have to reconfigure based on traffic, flow, and lessons learned? (Hint: A lot! We generally assume that everything should be on wheels if at all possible.)

How Can You Move Forward Rethinking Your Service Desk(s)?

Making progress on your library design project can be tricky when it comes to service desks because they are the confluence of so many decisions about space, services, and staffing (which is also why we love them here at brightspot!). Here are the steps we suggest:

  1. Assess your needs through user research activities like observations, interviews, workshops, and surveys. Bear in mind it might not be as simple as you think and there are important nuances; for instance, a big “fortress” desk does have security and storage advantages.
  2. Consider the trends and look for inspiration to libraries and beyond. The benefit of being at the tail end of sectors rethinking their physical service points is that you can learn from banks, hotels, and retail. Inspiration can come from unexpected places too! You can look at many conference booths and squint to see the service desk of the future because they have a variety of spaces for different kinds of interaction, integrated signage and screens, storage, and a coherent brand.
  3. Decide on your goals based on the needs assessment, inspiration, and trends. Your space, services, and staffing should advance your strategy in lockstep. So if, for example, as an organization your aspiration is to be seen as a partner in teaching, learning, and research rather than a utility, then let that guide your library design when it comes to the most important space you’ve got.
  4. Determine the components and how to configure them. Using the lists above as a starting point and adapting them to your campus context, identify what needs to happen at the service desk, what the components are, and how to best configure them to respond to the drivers above and achieve your goals. For instance, being strategic partners probably means you need to free up the time of your most expert staff by using self-service, peer-to-peer, and triaged tiers of staff at your service desk.
  5. Orchestrate the implementation. There are a few details that make a big difference. Will the location of the desk change or just its configuration? If it moves, what happens in the old location? When is the best time to change a service point – summer? Will you work with in-house design and construction people or external contractors? How will the flows (and the actual flooring!) change with a new service desk?
  6. Find ways to test things out to refine your ideas, reduce the risk, communicate your strategy, and build momentum. This prototyping could range from a mock-up that you test with role play or it could be a live prototype with movable furniture, temporary signage, flexible staff, and real users.
Swirbul Library Service Point Pilot, Adelphi University

Good luck as you think about the forces changing your service desks, the components, and how to configure them. The service desk really is the most valuable real estate in your library, as it sits at the intersection of space, services, and staffing. That also makes it among the most complicated and the most in flux. So, put in the time to rethink it. It will send a powerful message and facilitate the kinds of interactions between your users and staff that will make both happy!


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