Each time I begin a shift at the Learning Commons Library Services Desk, badge carefully affixed, staplers refilled, I can’t help but be reminded of how soul-baringly visible one is sitting at that desk. Every individual who passes by, whether with purpose or without, has a picture window view of whoever is seated behind that desk, however they are engaged, however they are presenting and, frankly, it can be unsettling to consider this visibility.
Do not misunderstand, this is far from my first foray into customer service. Years of lifeguarding and a whirlwind stint staffing the circulation desk at a public library have provided plenty of face to face interaction. What separates these experiences from the reference desk is that this is my first foray into customer service as an openly gender non-conforming individual.
Gone are the days when I could naively convince myself that my presence behind a library desk was sufficiently nondescript so as to avoid assumptions on the part of patrons. Inevitably patrons with whom we interact in the libraries are primed to make assumptions based on physical characteristics, perceived gender, dress, not to mention the position we occupy before we have an opportunity to so much as issue a greeting. The changes in gender presentation which I have undertaken in the past year are but one factor in the complex calculus informing the way in which patrons interact with me at the desk. Of course, it bears mentioning that we too are subject to these conscious and unconscious biases at the desk, which color our interactions with patrons.
Coming into this position I realized that it would be necessary to confront my discomfort with public scrutiny so as to present myself as an accessible guide to the library and its resources. From the start, the prospect of retreating to a job in which I could remain hidden from public view was tempting. A year of copy cataloging afforded me that luxury but, looking back, I have to question whether my personal growth during this period was as dramatic as the professional. Even though I firmly believed in cataloging with patrons’ needs in mind, I had no way of knowing whether I was succeeding in this endeavor without interacting with them firsthand. The lack of visibility came with a price, which proved to be an understanding of the patrons for whom the library operates.
For some planning on employment in libraries, myself included, mapping one’s professional path requires grappling with the question of how visible one wishes to be. It is important to keep in mind that positions within a library vary in the degree of visibility and public interaction they require and that various individuals’ tolerance for work of this nature will also vary. Working at the reference desk has proved a challenging exercise in pushing past my comfort levels and I still come away exhausted by a four hour shift, however; doing so has also proved an empowering experience cementing my belief in the value of the services libraries provide for their communities.
With each shift the trepidation I felt at the prospect of being so visible has subsided only to be replaced by a sense of purpose, a strong belief in my ability to help chip away at patrons’ library anxiety. I also realize that my visibility at the desk has the potential to empower other gender non-conforming library users, subtly assuring them that this is a space in which they are welcome. With time visibility may become a personal nonissue but, until then, knowing that a willingness to be visible may translate to increased comfort of library users keeps me returning to the reference desk each week.