The approachable reference desk: How Norwich University Kreitzberg Library’s desk got a new look

Deborah Ahlers; Heidi Steiner

Built in the early 1990s, the Kreitzberg Library at Norwich University is an impressive building designed with cozy corners, large windows, a grand staircase, and an imposing reference desk to match. The desk, like many in academic libraries, was monstrous and built for keeping ready reference materials.

As years passed, less and less of the 10-by-18-foot desk was used, all while occupying significant space on the first floor. Librarians staffing the desk felt minuscule in comparison, and nearly two feet of desktop separated the seated librarian from patrons looking down at them, anxious about asking for help. The reference desk, meant to establish a commanding presence, became a barrier in more ways than one.

For several years, our reference team discussed an overall reconfiguration of the first floor, including the desk. In summer 2010, the conversation reignited, and we began throwing around the idea of a taller, more approachable desk. This discussion became a crusade to create a more welcoming reference desk matching the aesthetics of our carefully designed and much loved building.

The reference area now features a significantly smaller, 4-by-8-foot, transaction height desk with seating for students. The desk was also relocated and is now positioned in a more visible location closer to the entrance and adjacent to the circulation desk. This project also initiated a significant repurposing of first floor space, including a new seating area for patrons.

Many lessons were learned during this process. Our chronicle features tips and considerations for other library’s pondering such an endeavor.

Why redesign and not remove

Norwich University is a small, private, military college in central Vermont. The on-campus student population of nearly 2,200 students is predominantly residential and comprises Corps of Cadets and civilian students. Even though virtual reference is increasing and in-person reference is declining, the desk remains an easily recognizable service point. There are many in the profession, however, who question the continued necessity of physical reference desks. So why did our library invest the time and effort to redesign our reference desk? Norwich has a very strong sense of history on campus; the university celebrates its bicentennial in 2019. Alumni are heartily loyal, and the library has an extremely active and financially supportive Friends group who would not take well to the desk disappearing entirely.

In a 2007 article, Steven Bell article noted that librarians “argue that owing to the unique nature of the institution and its culture, their students still want a desk where they can talk to librarians.”1 This is certainly an easy card to play, but Norwich truly is very unique. With two-thirds of our undergraduates in the Corps, these young soldiers are cultivated with the mentality that asking questions is a weakness. We are dedicated to providing as many varied service points as possible to encourage these students to ask for help, including a physical presence. Bell also argues what we “cannot deny, and what is becoming a significant commonality across all institutions, is the impact of mobile communication technology.”2 This is all well, good, and true, but our Rooks (Corps Freshmen) are not permitted to have any technology and only one cellular provider has a strong signal on our campus in the Green Mountains.

All things considered, we do work to maintain a balance in our reference services, especially considering we also support the completely online School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. Our reference schedule includes a combination of shifts done either on an on-call basis or by physically staffing the desk. We also provide both in-person and virtual research consultations, as well as the typical menu of virtual reference services: email and chat, with text messaging/SMS soon to come. The first step for us was recognizing that a physical presence needed to be maintained, but knowing it was time for a change.

Associate Director of General Library Services Greg Sauer seated at the Kreitzberg Library’s original reference desk. Used with permission of Jason Keinsley.

Lead by the head of reference, our team of reference librarians worked together on the redesign with collaboration occurring in meetings and casual conversations. All had something to contribute regarding why the existing desk simply did not work anymore, as well as what purpose it should truly serve. Any library considering a reference desk redesign needs to determine the real purpose of its desk to make educated decisions. We established a number of criteria:

  • Smaller and less intimidating desk footprint.
  • Minimal storage space.
  • Reduced depth for less distance between librarian and patron.
  • Taller desk to facilitate librarians being eye-level with patrons.
  • Patron seating for longer consultations.
  • Naturally accommodate both seated and standing interactions.

In search of the perfect desk

With our desires established, we began weighing possibilities. One of the reference librarians took to Flickr in search of images capturing the type of desk we wanted. Upon finding a number of examples, our first option was possibly repurposing the existing desk; the university architect worked on a plan for modification. As the blueprints were drawn, the head of reference also began contacting a number of furniture vendors recommended by the university. She shared images of the conceptualized desk and what we hoped to do.

When looking for a new reference desk, exploring outside library specific furniture offerings can be very beneficial, as is considering any furniture or office supply companies your institution may already work with. A local office furniture company possessing an established relationship with Norwich presented a number of choices that very much captured what we envisioned.

With two options on the table, repurposing the existing desk and purchasing a new desk, a number of issues came to light. There was concern that completely disposing of the original desk may upset alumni and donors. Other considerations included how the very large desk would be removed and possible effect on the carpeted flooring.

Ultimately, the modification to the existing desk did not meet many of our criteria: raising the level of the desk or reducing the desk’s depth was not possible, and the seating option for the patron was positioned on the side of the desk (not natural or practical). Further, the cost to repurpose the desk was comparable to the price to purchase a new one. After careful thought, we decided to purchase a new desk, which leads to another lesson: do it right the first time. All of the librarians knew the modified desk was not what we really wanted. Even though the combined costs of removing the original desk and buying the new desk would be slightly more, we decided facing the cost in the immediacy was better than eventually completing the project twice.

There were still many decisions to make after jumping the major hurdle; the biggest being height. Our old desk was the standard 28 inches, which we already knew didn’t work for us. Wanting a taller desk, the choices were heights of either 36 inches or 42 inches. In her traditional analysis of reference desk design, Joyce M. Crooks shed some light on the height factor, specifically: “[a] medium height counter of 35 inches is an easier height for reading and writing while standing, and a medium stool for staff allows an eye level approach for patrons. It is also suitable for both light and heavy patterns of use.”3 We therefore chose transaction height, also known as sit-to-stand, which is 36 inches and easily facilitates natural eye contact, whether the patron chooses to sit down or not. The desk we picked is a half moon: a welcoming shape. It is not only a smaller, non-threatening size, but simplistic, with just enough storage for essentials and no wasted space.

The seating arrangements

In choosing seating, we had to think about the needs of both librarians staffing the desk and patrons asking questions. Our furniture representative provided sample seating to test, and all reference librarians had the opportunity to provide input. For the patron side, a number of options were presented, but we ultimately wanted comfortable stools with backs, but no arms, so they were easy to get in-and-out of and could be pushed in when not in use.

After much persistence, we found the perfect stools with padded backs and seats. Of course, there was also the fun part of choosing the finishes and fabrics, which we matched to other wood in the building and accent colors on the walls.

Once the reference team had the entire plan in place, intentions were communicated with the other librarians and staff, who had no objections. With the change scheduled during the break between fall and spring semesters (a lengthy four weeks at Norwich), the desk, chair, and stools were ordered in November. Upon return from the holiday break, the existing desk was in pieces and our new desk soon arrived. Taking into account the amount of time it may take to deliver a custom desk is key, as are patience and flexibility. Our new desk ended up being more than two weeks late. To start the semester, a makeshift desk was improvised using a table.

Now in place, the desk and seating choices, combined with a more visible location, present an air of collaboration, while still blending with the overall design of the building.

After our redesign was complete, we were very happy to see Aaron Schmidt state “[r]eference desks don’t have to be antagonistic. Boomerang-shaped desks with a computer monitor and an easily shared keyboard between two chairs set the stage for a collaborative interaction...[and] can ameliorate library anxiety and foster an engaging experience.”4

All said, avoid creating a setup that screams “throne of shame,” and, if you are moving the desk to a new location, be sure to tape down the dimensions of the new desk on the floor to make sure it will fit.

At Norwich, redesigning the reference desk became an opportunity to truly re-envision much of the first floor space. With the desk in a more prominent location, the space formerly occupied by the larger desk was opened up for seating. Since the old desk and electric ports virtually destroyed the carpet underneath, that square of carpet was replaced with an accent color, further accentuating the seating area. Also, since our New Books shelf had to be moved to accommodate the desk’s new location, the first floor’s front alcove quickly became a reading area featuring new and popular books, as well as preexisting seating. If relocation is a factor, be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to repurpose space.

John Holm, electronic resources librarian, talking with a student at the library’s redesigned reference desk. Picture taken by author Deborah Ahlers.

One final, very important consideration to note is to make sure administrative support is in place and financial resources are available to complete the project, including a cushion for unanticipated expenses. Redesigning a reference desk, especially if changing the location, can have many hidden costs. Before getting started consider if any electrical outlets, phone, or Internet ports will need to be moved or filled; think about the plethora of cords associated with the reference desk and where they will go; note if the flooring underneath the desk will need to be cleaned or replaced; and be sure to consult with necessary parties about costs for removing an existing desk if it’s being entirely replaced.

Although impact of the new reference desk has yet to be reflected through reference statistics, we receive a great deal of positive feedback from faculty, administrators, alumni, and students. Our patrons are curious and ask us about the redesign. A faculty member used the new seating area to collaborate with her students on their research projects. The objective for the redesign was to make the patrons’ experience better, and we will continue to observe how the redesign is working and make further adjustments and improvements. We will examine in more detail reference statistics once the desk has been in place a full year. We hope the impact on reference questions will be better fleshed out then, but all agree that overall it is a welcome and worthwhile change.

1. Bell, SJ.. , “Who Needs a Reference Desk,”. Library Issues 27, no. 6 ( 2007 ), 4 .
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Crooks, JM.. , “Designing the ‘Perfect’ Reference Desk,”. Library Journal 8, no. 10 ( 1983 ), 971 .
4. Schmidt, A. , “Revamping Reference: The User Experience,”. Library Journal 136, no 8. ( 2011 ), 18 .
Copyright © 2012 Deborah Ahlers and Heidi Steiner

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