Desk Telephones on Campus: Not Quite Dead Yet
Desk Telephones on Campus: Not Quite Dead Yet

Joshua Kim asked the question whether the COVID pandemic will finally render desk telephones, a venerable technology, obsolete and redundant.  As with Monty Python, ("I'm not dead"), any such declaration might be premature.  It might well depend on the particular desk.

Granted telephony was invented about 145 years ago, telephone systems and customs have changed numerous times since.   The year I was born, National Geographic ran an advertisement by Bell Telephone, "Good news travels faster when you call by number" —meant to get users to write down telephone numbers.  I grew up in a small town where the party phone line was the norm, not the exception.

In the 1980s I worked in a department at Butler Library, Columbia University, that had one shared telephone for 8 people—with no long-distance service, I had to find a coin-operated pay phone simply to call my home in Westchester County.   Do not even imagine the intricacies of placing an international call. 

My point: despite the age of phone technology, the application of that technology was extremely uneven, much like broadband access today.  The desk telephone, one per faculty office, became the norm only as prices came down, thanks in part to the deregulation of the telephone monopoly in the 1980s.

Today, many instructors probably don’t need a desk phone set, but could need a unique phone number to receive messages that roll over into e-mails with audio attachment. 

Whether the campus phone is really necessary depends on the desk.  Our library’s reference & research service users can reach us via e-mail, chat, and SMS (and in person in better times),  but many still like to call the librarian.  It’s a number where the identity of person who answers matters less than the work that person can do, such as provide research assistance.  We receive calls from users in locations without broadband service—imagine trying to call an instructor's Zoom phone via dial-up.

Campus network access is almost always controlled by personal logins.  This makes management of calls placed to a shared office "main address" via cloud-based video communications apps very challenging.  Who exactly has the power to do what in the system? Are the permissions granted to users sufficiently granular —can a student library assistant forward an incoming call, but only for a shift?  I can foresee numerous glitches, especially in a university that uses Teams, Zoom, WebEx, and something else.  The cognitive overload could be significant, especially given feature creep as each apps seeks to keep up with competitors.

Telephones are device- and vendor-neutral.  You can call any number from any kind of phone:  Android, iPhone, wired desk phone, or even old rotary-dial wall phone.  You don’t need an account with a specific vendor or platform, only a device usably connected to the shared phone system—whether or personal device, or a stationed device. Imagine trying to start a Teams call with someone in another organization that uses Zoom or Google Meet. 

Telephones limit your interaction to one respondent at a time (unless you learn power-user tricks).  Everyone else gets a busy signal or can leave a voice message.  You don't have to try to balance a Zoom call on your screen simultaneously with Slack, e-mail, and office Twitter. Sometimes the ability to interact with only one person at a time balances the downside of being unavailable to anyone else at that moment.  Such momentary exclusivity can be a refuge from the campus hive-mind.

Telephones have downsides and we all know them: the incredible amount of spam telephone calls, bad connections, insane loops, and intentionally infuriating answering systems.  (Try calling a student loan service vendor.)   Only slightly less bad: calls from vendors who would like to contact me, but I have little or no interest in their products.  All completely valid reasons for safeguarding the number of your personal mobile device.

In our incredibly fragmented, multi-platform world full of software suites that won’t play nicely with others, I’m wary about getting rid of a technology that works just because COVID 19 changed our work lives so quickly over the past 15 months.  Like earlier telephone technology, the distribution and configuration of cloud-based video communication apps is still very uneven, and their use is hardly transparent.

Old technologies that work reliably have a way of finding new uses.  When the internet is unreachable because wind, fire, or storm knocked out your local power system, telephones might still work.  Western Union money transfers still work. God love 'em, portions of the real estate, mortgage banking, and legal worlds still depend upon fax.  Don't get me started on the microfilms my library still has: some long-vanished ephemeral content and deep governmental or genealogical archives never made the transfer to any digital format.

Is the phone desk set dead?  It depends on the desk. Though you might not need your own desk phone, it's still a useful system.  Until software suites and the giant corporations that provide them can learn to cooperate with transparently simple apps for the collective benefit of their end users, the telephone desk set remains a useful tool for many offices.

Peter Gavin Ferriby, Ph.D. is University Librarian at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut.

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