Where Originality Meets Productivity: What Every Library Employee Needs to Keep In and On Their Desk

If one thing defines us as library employees it is our workspaces. And though our institutions may differ, our workspaces may vary in size (think a tiny shared cubicle vs. a coveted individual office) and our office equipment may be unique to our positions, there is one common item that can be found in every workspace: a desk. In most office environments, an employee’s desk can be viewed as a sanctuary. It is your very own space; an area you can do with what you like. The desk is especially appreciated in a shared office area where an employee has limited wall space to assert their preferences and personality. Although the very nature of the office desk is one of individuality, patterns tend to emerge in every library.

In my short employment history, I have worked in a number of libraries and in each one, the employees’ desks fell into one of the following four categories (and sometimes a combination thereof):

1. The Minimalist

This is the desk that nearly everyone wants and hardly anyone has. The desktop is clean and free of figurines and other knick-knacks. Any pens, staplers or other office supplies are either displayed in an orderly fashion or tucked away in a drawer. The file drawers have enough room to spare for any personal items to be placed discretely inside.

2. The Achiever

These desks are the picture of perfection. They have a touch of Minimalist-cleanliness, but the main focus is organization at any cost. Inside the drawers are stacks of folders and files. The top of the desk contains compartments for in-coming mail, articles to be read and any other items that the employee has decided must be categorized.

3. The Closet Pack Rat

While this desk appears to be orderly, opening a drawer would result in an avalanche of papers, folders, books and more. Hidden in various places around the desk are old conference badges, calendars from years gone by and lapsed magazine subscriptions. This desk is often a carry-over from the employee’s style of organization in their home.

4. The Chaos Queen (or King)

Consider what everyone’s favorite officemate-to-hate, Dwight Schrute of NBC’s The Office, has to say to co-worker Jim Halpert about his desk: “Your pencils are creating a health hazard. I could fall and pierce an organ.” This desk is beyond the point of functional. Papers are strewn around in no discernable order; and random paper clips and pen caps are left to menace the organs, as Dwight would have it, of passers-by.

Looking around the (shared) office in my library at this very moment, I see each desk “type” represented. Into which category do I fall? I’m the first to admit that I’m an Achiever and my desk fully represents that. While I have many more papers and printed out articles than I could possibly read, they are at the very least filed meticulously.

In my experience, the best library environments encourage demonstrations of diversity and individuality among their employees. Certainly this should be the case with employee desks. However, there can come a point where idiosyncrasies hinder productivity. To help prevent this problem, I have compiled a list of “must haves” that every library employee should keep in his or her desk. The list is meant to be somewhat flexible; of course one should take into account his or her own personality when choosing the following items.

A Computer

This may seem obvious as computers are generally standard on most library desks. However, while many library employees may have a computer, it might not be living up to its full technological potential. There is really no better way to stay organized and communicate with others than with a computer. Additionally, by keeping files and documents on your hard drive or an external disk, you will eliminate the need for copious paper copies. This will save your organization money and has the added benefit of showing everyone how “green” you are.

Writing Utensils

You know what I’m talking about: pencils, sharpies, highlighters, anything that you write memos or take notes with. The possibilities for individuality in this category are limitless. While one of my co-workers is never seen without his traditional No. 2 pencil, I personally prefer brightly colored ink pens. Library workers are lucky in that library conferences tend to give away fancy promotional pens and pencils like candy at a parade. Whether you are selecting from a supply of conference freebies, the office supply cabinet or even your own personal stash, choose writing utensils that reflect your personality and (most importantly) you will actually use!

An Emergency Kit

This item is one of the most customizable on the list. A top-notch emergency kit may include: a small mirror to check your hair/teeth; a lint roller (indispensable for anyone with pets); safety pins (for those troublesome rips or sudden button losses); a packet of aspirin and/or Tums; chapstick or lip gloss (depending on your proclivity); band-aids and other first aid items; and, of course, the always-appreciated after lunch breath mints.

File Folders

Ahh, file folders: the Achiever’s staple and a very important addition in any library desk. File folders are necessary for housing the many policies, memos and other papers that find their way to your keeping. However, an organizational system does not just apply to the most orderly of library employees. Even someone who thrives on disorder and free-thinking should have a “system” for quick and easy access of materials. Technically, this shouldn’t be too difficult; we are all library employees and therefore must naturally crave some sort of organization in our lives. Whether your filing system is extremely detailed with sub-categories and sub-sub-categories (can I be the only librarian with sub-sub-categories in her file cabinet?) or ingeniously vague (“Papers from Boss;” “My Work;” “Stuff to Do”), if it helps keep you organized, go with it.

Something Living

Most libraries probably have a policy against pets in the workplace, so I would suggest against bringing in a fish bowl or hamster cage. Instead, consider investing in a plant or two. Plants are especially beneficial for employees stuck in a basement or other similarly dreary windowless rooms. I have several plants on my desk, and every time I look at them I am reminded that I will, at some point, be surrounded by fresh air again. One caveat to this suggestion is that not all library employees may necessarily have green thumbs. Luckily, that’s why plants like bamboo exist. You can also look for lists of appropriate office plants to help guide your decision; wikiHow offers an excellent guide.

A Directory/Phone Book

If someone had told me how many times a day I would use my library’s staff directory, I would not have believed them. An up-to-date directory will prevent countless headaches and scrambling to find out the business department’s email address or the custodian’s phone extension. Many of these directories are also online, but I highly suggest having a print copy on hand as well. Also recommended are faculty directories (if you work at an academic or school library) and local/regional phonebooks.


To me, this is obvious. I’m sure there are plenty of studies out there that link snacking with productivity. It only makes sense that if your mind is focused on your growling stomach, you probably won’t have much concentration left over to catalog the stack of books on top of your desk. If lunch is a few hours away (or a few hours behind you), a snack is sometimes the only way to stay on track. Options abound for snack food. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when wandering down the grocery aisles: stick with prepackaged or easily portioned foods (dried fruits, candies, nuts, nothing that requires a fork); try to limit the sugar content (fresh fruits offer a healthy, sustainable sugar buzz); and always make sure you have a beverage (water or juice boxes will help balance out the chocolate if you just have to have some in your drawer).

A Calendar

In my opinion, this is the single most important item to keep at your desk. It doesn’t matter what kind of calendar you choose; a desktop blotter, a wall calendar with cute kittens or an electronic calendar will all work. The only requirements are that it includes the current year and allows you to record items on its tangible or virtual pages. A calendar is crucial to keeping yourself organized and ensuring you don’t miss out on important library meetings and deadlines (and vacation days!). While I admit it may be excessive, I have two calendars. One is in a notebook that I can easily take with me to meetings or over to a colleague’s desk and the other is online. I highly recommend Google Calendar (www.google.com/calendar) as an easy-to-use, easy-to-access organizational tool.

As indicated by this list, you have many options when it comes to choosing items for your desk.

Thankfully, each of these desk essentials allows for the personality and preferences of an employee to shine through. For example, a Minimalist may wish to stick with a solitary yellow highlighter hidden away in their front drawer, while a Chaos Queen or King may opt for a rainbow selection of highlighters stuffed in a decorative mug on top of their desk. I tend to prefer a few top-of-the-line highlighters arranged by shade in my multi-tiered pen organizer. Regardless of your personal style and inclinations, as long as you stock your desk with some version of the aforementioned items, you will indeed have a productive and original workspace you can call your own.

Works Cited

The Office. “Pilot.” First broadcast 24 March 2005 by NBC. Directed by Ken Kwapis and written by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Greg Daniels.