Does your reference desk promote bad posture?

Effective January 1, I inherited a new department under my area here at the library called the Virtual Village. This change energizes me and while I'm not actually be managing the department --That tasks falls into the capable hands of our new Emerging Technology Manager, Matt Gullett -- the thought of our library actually having a “laboratory space” (so to speak) for trying out new and emerging technologies excites me.

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself in the VV talking with staff a lot and as I’ve stood by the “help desk” I’ve found myself oddly a little bit bothered by the arrangement of the desk design. This funny feeling isn’t really new to me, for we have many desks (reference, informational & otherwise) in our system that share the same attributes. But as I’ve thought about this uneasiness more and more and compared the desk setup to those of other retail & service-oriented businesses, I keep wondering … why are most of our information and reference desks designed to have the staff sitting down and the patron standing up? Why aren’t they designed so that both individuals can freely converse and have an information exchange on the same level?

In looking at the pool of reference desk photos found on Flickr, I’m happy to see that our library system isn’t the only one to adopt this type comfiguration. (BTW: There's also seems to be a lot of good examples that show desks that are designed put staff eye level with patrons). But when I compare it the service desks of other business related organizations that I’ve worked in (hotels and retail outlets) I’ve realize that most service point desks are designed to place the customer and service provider at the same visual level. Furthermore, it seems it’s only when the service asked for dictates a consultation (example: setting up a new account in a bank, seeking assistance from a hotel concierge with travel plans) that there’s a need to have information delivered from a sit down desk. And even so, when this does happen, the customer is usually offered a chair to place them at the same eye level with the service provider. I saw a few examples of this in Flickr, which is great! But these seemed to be out weighed by photos of low desks without chairs).

Anyway, I know that this is not anything new and in the great scheme of things it really isn’t anything to quibble over. But it does perplex me… why are so many of our service desks designed to place both our customers and employees at a disadvantage? Our customers have to constantly stoop and slump over our desks to get information (example here & here & here) and have conversations. And our staffs’ have to constantly crane their heads and turn screens at odd angles to converse and provide service.

In closing you can file this away as a mid January rant for really these are just my thoughts … :) But I have sneaking suspicion that this arrangement isn’t blessed by the American Chiropractic Association.

Flickr Pool: Reference Desk


Anonymous said...

I'd always assumed that the desks were set up this way so that both children and adults (not to mention those patrons confined to wheelchairs or not rising to what one of us might consider to be 'eye level' for some other reason) could be served.

I think it'd be great if our desks were set up more like bars: several stools in front of the desk with a library staff member bouncing back and forth from one patron to another. I guess that doesn't really solve the problem of serving of different heights though.

Chris said...

I've been grappling with a better scenario for years. I've worked in libraries that use "barstools" for staff at service points so that they can sit and still greet customers eye to eye. Even with a footrest these can be uncomfortable.

Why is it that most service industries expect staff to stand unless involved in a consultation or detailed transaction, but many libraries still use the seated staff, standing customer model? Historically some staff have felt more comfortable with a barrier between them and some customers, but I am frequently more uncomfortable with someone peering down at the top of my head!

Taller counters, no counters, open sided service kiosks. This is a discussion that needs to be had at many libraries struggling to remain relevant.