Contextual Inquiry at the Library


In October – November 2016, I completed a contextual inquiry research project, studying work life at a university library’s information desk.


The goal of the project was to identify work processes and cultural norms in a work area, early-stage research that precedes design in a user-centered design project.


I conducted three one-hour observation sessions at the Information Desk. I also conducted three hour-long, semi-structured interviews with librarian and non-librarian staff who represent a range of staff perspectives.


The information/reference desk is located in the Information Commons, a computer lab. The Commons seeks to optimize student learning by bridging technical and reference resources, but my findings suggest that many librarians do not relish bridging those services in their own work portfolios. Individually, they draw a clear distinction and hierarchy between traditional research questions and technical/computer questions at the desk. The Reference and Instructional Services Department that manages the desk reinforces this distinction through its space design and formal workflow, both of which position students in the triage role and theoretically protect librarians from having to serve as Information Commons custodians while at the desk. The Commons’ integrated services are central to the library’s mission, but many librarians do not feel they are fulfilling their individual professional missions while staffing the desk.

Complete final report is available by request.