Being at the circulation desk at Burke Library for the past two years has been a very valuable position. I think the best description of a circulation desk worker is a liaison. Those at the circulation desk are the first people that patrons see working the library, so we explain the library and all of its functions to guests, visitors, people from other colleges, alumni, and fellow students. While our primary tasks are checking in and out books, shelving, packaging books, and so on, we are also in some ways the customer service face of the library. Therefore, we tend to get many people to people interactions.
And those personal interactions can be fairly incredible. We meet people who are alumni, visiting after 30 years to look at a signed copy of a book from a famous professor who taught them (there are signed copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and Reinhold Niebuhr’s books at the Burke Library). I can remember helping patrons fill out archives forms for research projects that they explained to me with great interest. I recall helping many lost Columbia students navigate the stacks. I also remember the hellos, thank yous, and other warm greetings I received from fellow Union students struggling with their semester papers or racking their brains for that last reference for a thesis.
As liaisons, we familiarize the patrons with many things. The staff help connect visitors to the Columbia system, such as by introducing library staff and spaces, as well as the online catalog and other resources. As the first faces of the library, we tend to get many reference questions, so we also act as a direct link to the Burke Librarians and Archivists who answer the reference questions. I can remember the countless times I called Matthew Baker from the front desk with a patron’s question.
Most of all, and unexpectedly, I feel the circulation desk is a liaison for Union Theological Seminary. While not all of the circulation desk staff are Union students, we get to be the first face that connects patrons to the treasure troves of Union books, history, archives, and wealth of knowledge. For those who are Union students, we are sometimes the first seminarians that Columbia or other college students see. The host of religious questions and theological conversations that happen at this specific library in particular are some of the most unique. Without these conversations, this library would not have its character.
For the last two years I feel serving at the circulation desk has only helped my sense of ministry. Connecting others in a personal way to what they are searching for is in itself a practice of the ministry I hope to continue on in my future. Most of my learning experiences at the circulation desk did not come from the books I was putting away, but from the people who asked “Where do I find this?” Helping people find what they are researching or studying, is one step closer to us all knowing each other more deeply and helping each other find ourselves.