I’d like to start this discussion by explaining that no librarian is perfect.

I know, I know.  This might come as something of a shock.

I spent over a decade working at information desks at different libraries, and even though each of my colleagues who shared the desk with me had earned a bachelor’s degree at the very least, they definitely had a wide range of abilities.  By which I mean that many of them were far from perfect.

I’ve worked with information assistants and librarians of all different seniority levels.  While many of them were excellent workers who were superbly skilled in finding information and connecting the right patrons with the right books, some of them … weren’t.  I’ve worked with people at the information desk who told patrons that we didn’t have information on their topics without even bothering to look at the catalog.  With people who made such atrocious spelling errors that they repeatedly told patrons that we didn’t have the book/movie/etc. that they were looking for because they kept seeing “no results” on their computer screens.  With people who put in the bare minimum of effort, telling patrons “we don’t have any information about that subject” when either searching the catalog using different keywords or searching an electronic database would have ensured that the patron didn’t leave the library empty-handed.

In short, I’ve worked with a few bad librarians in my time.

When I was getting my master’s degree in library science, one of the surprising things we learned was that a sizeable portion of library patrons who asked questions at the information desk did NOT get their questions answered to their satisfaction.

And that’s when librarians and information assistants were the only ones who worked at the information desk.  What about now, when everyone works at the same desk and nobody knows who’s a librarian and who isn’t?

In my opinion, now that many libraries have switched over to the joint “public service desk” model, all bets are off.

If you see staff members at the library’s service desk, they might still be in high school or they might have one or more master’s degrees.  They might have been English majors.  They might read several books a week, or they might not read at all.  They might be quick learners.  They might be technophobes.  Library staff members have all been told that we should try to answer each patron’s question to the best of our abilities, but frankly, the person you speak to at the service desk is not always the best person to answer your question or help you with your problem.  This has led to numerous complaints and points of confusion since we moved to the “public service desk” model in our new building …

  • There was that incident where the woman asked one of our clerks if we had a copy of Jane Eyre and left in a VERY loud huff because the clerk didn’t know how to spell it.
  • We keep getting complaints from patrons that they ask staff members to look up items in the catalog and are told that the items aren’t listed and thus can’t be reserved, even though the items actually ARE in the catalog.  Which means that the first staff member did the search incorrectly.
  • I was helping someone at the desk the other day, and while I was talking to him he asked me, “Wouldn’t it make more sense if the woman to your right stopped what she was doing and helped the people on line?  I looked to my right and saw one of our pages standing there talking to a clerk.  I told the man that she was just stopping at the desk for a minute, but that she wasn’t actually authorized to work at the desk and use the terminal to check materials in and out.
  • I’ve watched more than one mother tell her child to hand his or her books over to the person at the desk by saying, “Honey, give your books to the nice librarian” when the person in question was not, in fact, a librarian.  This might seem like a small thing … unless you spent several years and burned many brain cells going to graduate school and earning the RIGHT to be called a librarian.
  • I’ve been checking materials in and out for a patron who asked whom he should see about an information question.  When I identified myself as a librarian who could help with his question, the response I got was, “Well, why are you doing THIS, then?”

Basically, blurring the lines between staff members undermines the years of training that many of us endured to become better qualified for our jobs.  Most of the patrons who ask us a question don’t know who’s who, and don’t know if the person giving them an answer has years of experience or is just hazarding a guess.

Although if it makes you feel any better, sometimes we don’t always know, either.

I recently found out that someone who worked in my system as a librarian for over a decade was not a librarian at all.  I have it on good authority that this person went to library school, so I’m assuming that this person never finished the coursework and failed to finish the degree.  And then this person committed a lie on his or her resume, which apparently wasn’t double-checked for accuracy.  Now on the one hand, I’m not surprised, because this person definitely fell into the “I can’t believe this person graduated from high school!” category.  But on the other hand, I’m surprised that the library’s fact-checking was so sloppy.  And I am SO FRIGGING IRRITATED that I had to spend more than five minutes of my life dealing with someone who never should have been hired in the first place.

So the answer to the question, “Who’s sitting behind the service desk at the library?” is …

You don’t know.  But maybe I don’t know, either.