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Why are the desks so low in Fisher Library?

Studying at Fisher necessitates agony-inducing stooping to the subterranean level of your laptop screen.

Art by Jun Kwoun.

Anyone who has spent more than 15 seconds sitting at any desk in Fisher or the Law Library should have noticed how obscenely low they are. 

Studying at these libraries necessitates agony-inducing stooping to the subterranean level of your laptop screen, forcing students to arch their spines in a hunched contortion over unreasonably tiny desks. At this point, Fisher should be serving up complimentary painkillers upon arrival to pre-empt the inevitable soreness that will develop from simply existing there. 

Worryingly, Honi has received reports of students having to stack three to four thick books under their laptops to elevate their screens to a reasonable height. Students not prepared to go to such lengths have reported opting to instead study at UTS’ library, where the fear of being ejected by grumpy seccies is outweighed by the fear of developing chronic back problems. 

In all seriousness, the dimensions of one’s workspace are incredibly important for performance and health – so much so that an entire scientific field known as ‘ergonomics’ has developed in an attempt to understand how work environments influence productivity, efficiency, and comfort. 

A 2019 study of office workers in Japan during COVID-19 measured the correlation between increased working from home and musculoskeletal disorders. Researchers found a significantly higher risk of back pain and stiff shoulders due to poor posture in unergonomic work environments.

Low desks encourage slumping and a ‘forward head posture’, which stresses the muscles and disks in your neck and back. Such ‘non-neutral’ positions place unneeded strain on your body and are linked to long-term musculoskeletal issues. 

But poor posture can also be damaging to immediate short term mental health and performance. A 2012 study at the San Francisco State University found that sitting in a slumped position prompted negative thoughts and the resurfacing of unpleasant memories. Slumping also impairs the respiratory system and reduces lung capacity, which can exacerbate fatigue when sitting for long periods of time. 

How do Fisher’s desks stack up?

Ideally, your eyes should be in line with the top third of the screen you are working at, with your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students work at laptops, which makes this perfect balance impossible without an external keyboard or monitor to increase the distance between one’s hands and eyeline. 

At Fisher and the Lawbry, widespread laptop use on low desks results in a particularly egregious mismatch between eyeline and screen height. 

Desks in Fisher Library are 70 centimetres tall, meaning the top of the average laptop sits roughly 91cm from the ground. Unfortunately, the eyeline of most students is much higher.

The seats of Fisher’s chairs are 45 centimetres off the ground. Thus, when sitting upright, the average eyeline height for an adult is 121.5 centimetres from the ground — a whopping 41.5 centimetres higher than the top of their laptop.

A University spokesperson said: “Most of the desks in Fisher Library were installed in 2011. In the Law Library, most were installed in 2009. Desks and chairs are refreshed on an ongoing basis, with new desks and chairs installed in some spaces in Fisher as recently as 2019, and in Law as recently as 2020.

“We make furniture purchases in line with recommendations for workstation ergonomics, so most chairs in PC spaces are height-adjustable, wheeled, have a five-star base, and no armrests.”

Herein lies the likely flaw in the University’s furnishing plans: their desks and chairs seem to be designed for desktop usage, despite only a small percentage in Fisher actually being equipped with them. Laptop usage – which accounts for the vast majority of all activity  in our libraries – is simply incompatible with the current height of these desks.

The University spokesperson also noted the existence of four “standing desks”, one on each of levels two, four, six and height. Pathetically, these are the only desks of appropriate height to sit at in the entirety of Fisher Library.

The current state of Fisher’s desks is unacceptable. If the University is serious at all about creating a comfortable study space for student productivity, it must fork out the requisite cash to refurnish our ill-equipped libraries. With $3.41 billion in USyd’s investment portfolio and a $1.05 billion surplus last year, a few hundred thousand for appropriate study facilities seems more than reasonable.

In their communications, the University spokesperson was quick to point out that they were “not aware of any complaints about desk and chair height in Fisher or the Law Library.”

Well, consider this your first.