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.


  1. There’s a breakdown in formal process between librarian and student support staff. The Information Desk serves two functions – tech support and research support. All formal work processes put the librarian on duty in the “research support” role, and the student worker as the “tech support.” But in the lived reality of the job, students have to field research questions and librarians have to fix printers, and a set of informal processes have emerged to address the way people actually work. The lack of clear expectations and formally supported processes lead to frustrated librarians who do not have ability to address tech problems, and students offering misguided research advice to other students.
    Work Flow Model at a Library Information Desk. Shows multiple stakeholders at the library
  2. The tension between “tech support” and “research support” roles at the desk exposes an existential question about the value and role of libraries and the librarian profession. In interviews, librarians shared that they feel a mission to be educators, to teach students how to research, and they admitted that few students seek out their research help at the desk. Doing tech help while on desk duty does not align with librarians’ mission as educators, but it does support the library’s mission to help patrons find what they need.
    Cultural Model diagram centering on the librarian on desk duty
  3. The space design reinforces the likelihood that librarians will be tasked with tech support. The information desk is embedded in the “Information Commons,” a computer lab with various kinds of speciality software and a set of printers. Though the reference librarian is embedded there to be a resource for research, the user needs in that space center on the computers, software and printers. The space design aligns with the library’s strategic vision to “integrate current and emerging information technologies with information resources and services.”
    diagram of the library first floor, showing foot traffic patterns to the information desk.

Conclusion and Recommended Actions

The Information Commons serves the library’s vision to bridge technical and reference resources, a key strategy to maintain relevance of the library and librarianship. But the unintended consequence is that librarians are being asked to do technical support work that they are not prepared to do and that does not align with their professional identities – a net negative for librarians and patrons alike.

To address this issue, I recommend removing the librarian from the desk and replacing that person with an IT professional or IT-trained student. An on-call or drop-in reference librarian could be located elsewhere in the library. This would change something about the spirit of the Information Commons, but would improve the patron experience.