When I worked for the University of California we moved our offices a number of times, and sometimes into space that was being newly renovated. During each of these moves we were given diagrams and asked to choose a configuration for our cubicles or offices. One of the configurations, at least for offices, was the option to be sitting behind a desk rather than having the desk against a wall. In executive offices, the "behind the desk" configuration is de riguer. Its purpose is to put a solid barrier between the occupant and the visitor, and it symbolizes the power of the person who sits behind the desk.
At my public library, all of the available staff (except the shelvers) are located behind desks. There is the information desk, the reference desk, and the circulation desk. In this case, the desks do not make the person look powerful; in fact, they make the person look unavailable and powerless. The people behind a desk cannot (easily) leave the desk, they are stuck there. If a person asks for help the staff member can point but can't go with the person and help. Admittedly, some of the seated staff give the impression that just being asked to stand up is a burden.
The desk creates a physical space between the library user and the staff. Think about how it feels to be talking to a person who is behind such a barrier compared to being "corpo a corpo" next to them with no barrier. The social distance created by the desk is huge.
The desk sets up an inequality between the user and the staff member because the user has to go to the staff member, the staff member cannot go to the user. If you ask a reference question, head off to the stacks, then discover that you aren't finding what you need or have thought of another question, you have to go back to the reference desk. In a large library, that can be quite a trek. Do that a couple of times and you are likely to quit asking since it's too much trouble.
I want my library to be more like the Apple store. I want there to be staff visible in the library space but not sitting at desks. I want them to be, for example, near the catalog or at key entrances to the stacks. I want to be able to identify them as staff so I can approach them if I have a question -- it just takes a colorful T-shirt to accomplish this. I want them to be mobile, not glued to one spot. I want them to be in the same space as I am, not separated out to staff-only spaces. I want them to have their tools with them, perhaps a tablet where we can access the catalog and various resources together, right where we are. Even the shelvers could be equiped with the ability to send an SMS to the reference staff and either queue the person up for help or get an answer directly.
Some staff need to stay put, for example the circulation desk staff
(note how we call it a desk, almost always?) Even having staff at open
"pods" rather than behind desks would give a different impression.
So this is my wish: a library that feels like it is staffed by real live people, who walk and talk and mingle with the users. Wow. What a concept.