Humans of Libraryland: The Desk Set

Hello and welcome to Humans of Libraryland, the blog series where you can learn about the people who work in your public library!

This is a special edition of the series to celebrate the première of KCLS's new podcast, which will feature reading suggestions, author interviews, and much more. So let's spend some time getting to know the hosts of The Desk Set, Emily Calkins and Brittany Barrett.

HoL: Hello, Emily and Britta! Can you tell me about yourselves and your jobs?

Britta Barrett: I’m a librarian in online library services. I’ve been with KCLS for about two years and my position focuses on creating digital content for social media, blogs, and newsletters. I worked at my college library as a page and then as a library assistant at a public library. While serving in AmeriCorps, I worked in school libraries, early childhood literacy, and bookmobile outreach. 

Outside of libraries, I’ve worked in the curatorial department of the Museum of Popular Culture, at the small press graphic novel publisher Fantagraphics, and as a music journalist. My undergraduate major was communications, with a minor in art history and marketing. I have a master's degree in library and information science.

Emily Calkins: I’m the Readers’ Services Program Coordinator, a job I’ve been in for just over two years. I’ve been with KCLS for nearly five - before I started in this role, I worked in online library services and in a community library as a Teen Services Librarian. My typical workday involves a lot of sitting in front of a computer, but what I’m doing changes constantly - I might be writing a newsletter, answering a BookMatch request, planning a training for staff, or coordinating 10 to Try.

Before I came to KCLS, I worked in libraries in Massachusetts and Texas. My undergraduate degree is in Religious Studies, and I have a Masters in Information Studies.

HoL: Can you tell me about yourselves as readers?

BB: Lately, I can’t get enough memoirs and literary nonfiction essay collections. My favorites are written by smart, funny women and I especially love when a book is available as downloadable audio, read by the author. Some of the voices I adore are Lindy West, Ijeoma Oluo, and Samantha Irby. (See a list of Britta's favorite books. - The Editor)

I’m also excited that spooky season is upon us! Now I finally have an excuse to curl up with some speculative fiction reads in the science fiction and horror genres. Indie graphic novels also have a very special place in my heart. Eleanor Davis, Jillian Tamaki, Yumi Sakugawa, and Lisa Hanawalt are some of my favorite contemporary cartoonists.

EC: I do my best to read broadly and widely, but although I’ve warmed up to nonfiction in the last few years, I’m a fiction reader at heart. Actually, I’m really a fiction listener - I probably do more of my reading via audiobooks these days. I’m pretty open when it comes to genres. As long as a book has flawed but realistic characters, interesting relationships, and an immersive setting, I don’t care if its set on the moon or in post-apocalyptic Canada. I like stories that acknowledge life’s messiness and investigate the way that people try to navigate it. In the last couple of years, I’ve gotten pretty into romance - that’s definitely my go-to comfort genre. (See some of Emily's favorite books. - The Editor)

HoL: What are you reading right now?

BB: I’m on the very last chapter of a book I’ve been loving, called Text Me When You Get Home: The Revolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship. I’m a single and child-free gal in my thirties. My best friends are some of the most important people in my life. This book does such a good job of deconstructing the myths that women are inherently competitive or catty, and instead celebrates these other really beautiful models of support and platonic intimacy. I’m feeling inspired to get a copy to send to all of my far-away friends, along with a handwritten note about how special and inspiring I think they are.

EC: I’m listening to The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. It’s part Groundhog Day, part British country house mystery - the main character wakes up in a different body each morning, doomed to repeat the day until he solves the murder that happens at the end of it. I *think* I like it? The author throws you right in with no context, so it’s a slow start. That said, the mystery is really gripping - I’m three quarters of the way through and I have NO idea how he’s going to wrap it up!

HoL: What’s the worst reading experience you ever had? Do you stop reading a book if you’re not enjoying it?

BB: I’m an unrepentant book quitter. There are too many excellent books in this world to continue reading ones I’m not enjoying. That’s not to say I won’t pick up something challenging or written from a perspective I don’t share. I’m just not very stubborn about finishing books or interested in spending my time hate-reading. I often give up on titles that just don’t speak to me. I will close and toss a book in the return pile if it relies heavily on stereotype or has an objectifying or exploitative lens.

EC: Oh, ditto. I really try to stay on top of what’s new, and I don’t have time to stick with something that’s not working for me. I can usually tell within a couple of chapters whether I’m interested in what the author has to say. I also rely on the preview feature for OverDrive audiobooks, because for me, the narrator has as much to do with whether I’ll enjoy an audiobook as the story.

HoL: If I could read one book that would tell me the most about you as a person, what book would it be and why?

BB: Just one book? 

HoL: Just one.

BB: My love language is reading assignments! If I care about you, and want to know you, and want you to know all about me, I will send you home with a stack of books so high you might not be able to see over the top of them. I suppose, under complete duress, I might loan you my well-worn copy of Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. It’s filled with underlined prose and margin drawings that might say more about who I was when it was published than who I am today, but it draws a pretty clear line from one to the other.

EC: “My love language is reading assignments!” Perfect. You can tell why we have so much fun hosting together! I don’t know if I can answer this question, because who I am and the books I love are constantly changing. I guess I’ll go with The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman. This is a historical mystery featuring a smart, independent young woman. It’s a children’s book (although it would probably be published as young adult if it came out today), but is surprisingly mature. I re-read it many times in my adolescence, and I think it both shaped and is reflective of the kind of heroines I love and aspire to be like - flawed, compassionate, stubborn, and loyal.

HoL: What’s a non-library thing you’re really passionate about?

EC: I have a toddler at home, and I’m pretty into hanging out with her. Being a parent is challenging and fulfilling in a lot of ways I didn’t expect, and she surprises and delights me all the time.

BB: When I’m not reading, you can find me thrift store shopping for mid-century furniture and vintage dresses, watching 31 horror films every October, and listening to podcasts obsessively.

HoL: Where do you feel most at peace?

BB: I love long weekend afternoons spent slowly sipping coffee and spilling tea. The actual place changes. It could be at a bistro table on a patio, sprawled out on the farmer’s market steps, or sharing a picnic blanket by the lake. I just know I’m rarely happier than when I’m sharing snacks and secrets with a good friend.

EC:  If Britta’s love language is reading assignments, mine is baking and cooking, and if I get to hang out in the kitchen while my husband and kiddo play nearby, I’m as happy as I can be.

HoL: Oooh, Emily, what’s the last thing you made that turned out really well? Do you have any food Everests that you want to conquer?

EC: I made this peaches and cream cake for a baby shower recently and it was delicious (if not as pretty as pictured). I love Thai food, and Thai Basil Chicken recently made its way back into my repertoire after being temporarily retired as too spicy for babies. I’m sure you weren’t referring to literal mountains, but I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a croquembouche!

HoL: Okay, tell me about this podcast.

BB: The Desk Set features author interviews, reading recommendations, and other bookish content that we can’t wait to share with library patrons!

HoL: It’s called The Desk Set?

BB: Yes! It’s named after this charming 1957 film starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. Hepburn plays the fierce and clever Bunny Watson, a research librarian, who proves that the new supercomputers introduced at her workplace are no match for her wit and wisdom. We believe that even (or especially) in the age of Google, Wikipedia, and fake news, there are some things that a skilled and trusted human can still do better than an algorithm. Connecting readers with perfect book recommendations and interviewing authors on nuanced and complex topics are among them. At the same time, we’re embracing emerging technology and new tools to share what we do best.

HoL: Can you tell us a bit about the podcast theme song?

BB: The Pacific Northwest has such an incredible music scene, so when we were thinking about theme music we knew we wanted to feature a local band; ideally one that was upbeat and cheerful. Seattle indie pop group Math & Physics Club and their song “I Know What I Want” fit that criteria perfectly. If you’d like to hear more of their music, you can borrow it from the library.

HoL: The best reviewers always set out their criteria for what they think is good or not in a book/movie, etc. so readers and listeners have more context. What are your criteria for what makes a good book?

EC: I try to think about what the author set out to do and whether they accomplish their goal; I like to think that lets me at least somewhat fairly evaluate things that don’t speak to me personally. A big part of my job is suggesting books to other readers, and not everyone shares my taste!

BB: I think the idea that there are “good” or “bad” books is a false dichotomy. Certainly, there are varying levels of literary craft, but ultimately what matters to me is that the content and characters resonated. The authors who hit me directly in the feels are ones who aren’t afraid to be real, vulnerable, messy, and human. I appreciate a broad diversity of voices, united by intersectional feminism.

HoL: What podcasts do you listen to?

BB: I listen to Call Your Girlfriend every week for a fun, feminist take on politics and pop culture. I’m also a big fan of 99% Invisible, which focuses on design and the built environment. As a social media manager, I really appreciate Reply All, a show that describes itself as a “podcast about the internet.” There’s something very appealing about serialized fiction like Tanis and The Black Tapes too, especially as someone who grew up loving The X-Files and Eerie, Indiana.

EC: I’m devoted to Pop Culture Happy Hour’s roundtable discussions of the movies, TV, and more. Book Riot’s All the Books is one of my favorite tools for staying on top of new book releases.

HoL: What do you think makes a good podcast?

EC: For me, the best podcasts are the ones where interesting people are talking about something they love.

BB: My favorite shows tend to be sound-rich and highly produced or conversational. When I’m listening to podcasts, I’m eager to learn something new or encounter a fresh perspective.

HoL: What can we look forward to from The Desk Set?

BB: Our annual reading challenge, 10 to Try, was the starting point for each episode theme. In the first episode, we chat with author Marissa Meyer about her new series Renegades and the power of fairy tale retellings. Plus we take a look at why young adult fiction and comics so often end up on banned books lists. The rest of the season covers a range of topics from the art and science of taste to the #MeToo movement in the literary world. There’s something for everyone.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

BB: I think it’s super cool that this podcast was recorded at the new Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. If listeners feel inspired to make their own podcast, they can use that space and gear too! Also, we want to hear how we can make season two even better. You can leave comments on this blog, email us at, or take a survey to share your opinion and suggest future guests and episode topics. 

EC: We would also love for everyone to subscribe, rate, and review our show on Apple Podcasts.

Thank you for the chat, ladies! I can't wait to listen to the first episode.

You can download episodes of The Desk Set on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and Google.