Unsolicited Advice! Get your unsolicited advice here!

It’s that time of year when Graduate Trainees start to appear in Libraries up and down the country*. I loved my trainee year, it was oodles of fun, partly because there were four of us and partly because I’d just moved down to the big smoke, but also because librarians are, on the whole, a lovely lot. I learned a lot that year and over the following years and there is some advice that I always like to share with aspiring librarians, whether they like it or not, because giving unsolicited advice is fun. So I present to you….

My Top Ten Tips for Trainees!

Number one: Do not believe a student who says to you that the printer is a. jammed, b. out of toner or c. out of paper. Because 9 times out of 10, by the time you have hauled a load of paper or toner over there, or found the keys and a colleague to show you how to unjam it, you will discover that the printer is actually fine and what they really mean is “I don’t know how to print.”

Number two**: See above, re photocopying.

Number three: Do not show up on your first day in a suit, there’s really no point. You will be in jeans by the end of the week.***

Number four: Librarianship, particularly in London, is a very incestuous profession. Never bitch about someone you work with to someone from another library as they may well be married to each other, or will at least have gone to Library school together / worked together before / know each other from Twitter. Ask me how I know!!!!

Number five: If you are in a hurry and the book you are looking for is just out of reach, do not be tempted to climb the shelves to get it instead of finding a kick stool, you will end up dropping six books on your head and that’s just embarrassing to explain to the first aider.

Number six: Libraries exist in an environment separate from that of the rest of the world which means they are unable to maintain a normal temperature and will always be hotter than the sun or colder than the arctic. Layer!

Number seven: Learn the value of ‘the pile.’ If something is a problem, poses a difficulty or quite frankly is just something you don’t want to do, add it to ‘the pile.’ Every month or so, go through ‘the pile’ and marvel at things that are no longer problems! Some things need longer in ‘the pile’ than others, which is why you will inevitably find a shelf full of stuff somewhere in the office that no one knows anything about; this is ‘the pile’ of someone long gone.**** You will probably inherit someone else’s pile, but don’t worry, because you will be able to bequeath your own to someone else eventually as well. (Please note; you can achieve the same effect with your inbox by letting emails sit in it so long that they are automatically archived.)

Number eight: When shelving, always aim for either the thickest books (heavier to carry but easier to shelve) or those with the shortest classmark. Also try grabbing the books that are in the section furthest from the trolley, as it will take you longer to walk there and back, which is time you’re not having to shelve (every little helps!) Everyone else will do this too, so just try not to let everyone else get ahead of you so you get stuck with the books with 10 numbers after the decimal point.

Number nine: Always, always, always go to the pub when invited, for that is where you will get all the good gossip.

Number ten: There are very, very few mistakes you can make that are completely unfixable and you will probably be forgiven for making one of those too.

So those are mine, now it’s crowd sourcing time; what advice would you give to a graduate trainee? I’m sure there’s some gems out there!

Update 17/08/2012

Here are some of my favourites from below the line:

Jenny: I would actually amend number one and two to cover anything a student/tutor claims is broken/not working.

Helen: I would expand number one to include any student who says “It’s not on the shelf”. At least 7 out of 10 times, it *is* on the shelf.

Sarah: All of the above, plus when you ask a student, when they complain the very important pictures of N’s party haven’t printed, “have you checked you have enough print credits?” and they say “yes”; don’t believe them, they lie!

Abby: Don’t leave your favourite cardigan on the shelving trolley, students WILL steal your clothing.

Samantha: Bring liberal amounts of cake and biscuits to work, especially if you’re going to be one of our trainees.

Nobodyjones: Tipping over a trolley full of books and making the biggest racket ever is only a matter of time!

Tina: Do not wear a skirt or heels if you work in a library where you need to climb much.

Ruth: You will get asked the same thing a bazillion times, but remember that even though you’ve heard that question all day, it’s probably the first time they’re asking it.

Samantha: This is for later: if you have a library school interview, and you are asked anything about your local public library, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES reply “Oh, I buy all my books from Amazon.”


* that’s if there’s any left, anyway, as the number of Graduate Trainee schemes sadly seems to be going down :(

** stop giggling!

*** unless of course you’re working in a private library, in which case the same is true of the temperature but you’re sadly stuck in the suit. Sorry!

**** I firmly believe that some libraries, like the one I did my traineeship in, are actually  physically held up by piles. That or the floor will one day give way from the sheer weight of them.

“Loans Review” or “Why can’t everything just be simple?”

Around this time last year, we went live with our shiny new Library Management System. If you were following me on Twitter at the time you might remember that I was Slightly Stressed for the first few months, as we tried to get Aleph to behave the way we wanted it to, whilst also trying to train staff in how to use it and, you know, deliver a library service!* We had to make a lot of decisions on the spur of the moment (“okay, so shall we fine a penny a minute on desk loans? Half hour grace period? Right, let’s do that.”) and when some things we wanted to do didn’t work the way we expected them to, we just had to leave them as they were and agree to see what happened.** It was decided very early on that we would have a review after one year to see how everything was working, so a couple of weeks ago we held a Loans Review at the main campus. Two days of workshops, discussions and presentations when as many staff as possible got together to talk about the big questions; why do we do things the way we do? Do they work? Are they fair? Should we change things? What would be the effect of changing them? We had presentations from the Student Union about what students expected, staff from UEL and Kings came to talk about their circulation systems and we had lots of small workshops on key aspects of the system (i.e. reservations, loan periods, blocks) and the needs of particular groups of students (postgraduates, part time students, placement students) We got through a lot of flip charts and a lot of coffee!

It was a really enjoyable couple of days and it was nice to spend some time getting right back to the basics of circulation. What really surprised me was how many of us came to the same conclusions throughout the day of what we’d like to do in an ideal world. I had rather expected there to be lots of disagreement! Some of the main points most staff were agreed on were:

  • Ideally we’d prefer not to charge fines on overdue items that aren’t reserved.

A lot of us felt that with such high fees and so many students working alongside studying, it really didn’t seem fair anymore to fine people who has simply forgotten to renew an item which wasn’t actually needed by someone else.

  • Which means that we might as well have automated renewals.

There’s very little point in having a due date if there’s no penalty for going over that due date, so why bother? Why not just let students keep items as long as they need them if no one else wants them? But would this lead to more lost and invoiced items? Will we know unless we try?

  • We’d like to ramp up fines on overdue reserved books.

Currently the fine is the same whether a book is reserved or not, and fines are capped at £10 per item. There is a certain type of student that therefore sees this as an opportunity to keep the item as long as they like and still pay less when they return it than it would have cost to buy it. Ramping up fines and removing the cap would hopefully resolve this.

  • We wanted to explore other ways of encouraging students to return reserved or invoiced items.

We discussed the possibility of blocking their e-resources access or even blocking them from accessing the Library itself! The latter is probably too heavy handed (although it would be so much fun) but we were quite interested in the former.

I think the main thing that came out of the Review was how bloody complicated circulation is; everything impacts on something else, whether within the system itself or with our procedures in general. Everyone came away from the day with a healthy respect for the systems team! But the other realisation that I think we all had was that a lot of the rules we have are ones that we’ve had for a long time, but we put them in place in the beginning and there’s actually nothing stopping us from changing them if we want to! It’s our circulation system after all and it’s not carved in stone. It made me wonder what I would do if I were starting a library from scratch today, with today’s students, courses and methods of study and today’s system of Higher Ed. What rules would I come up with?

So what would you do if you were starting your library from scratch; if there anything you’d change or add? Would you charge fines? Would you keep the same loan periods? Would you get rid of rules all together or would you chain all the books to the shelves and not let anyone borrow anything? Would you run screaming in the opposite direction? Let me know in the comments!

*Yes, this doesn’t seem ideal and we’re well aware of that, but with the delays that seem to be inevitable in a massive procurement exercise like this, this was the reality we ended up with. We made it work and I didn’t go completely grey; I call that a Win.

*Holds. Bloody Holds. I spent the entire month of September trying to get to grips with Holds and then trying to explain the fundamental differences between Holds in Aleph and Holds in our previous system to everyone else. No one enjoyed September.

Wanted: Library Womble

I promised you in my last post that I was due a rant about this so here goes! First I have prepared for you a slideshow of evidence.* Feast your eyes on this:

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WHEN DID THIS BECOME OKAY?!?! When did people start to think this was acceptable behaviour?! It’s RUBBISH, it goes in a BIN!

Generally I quite like our students, they’re fairly pleasant if annoyingly loud on occasion. But this behaviour drives me absolutely batty. It’s just so incredibly ignorant. The photos are the tip of the iceberg really, I’ve had much worse. Half eaten paninis stuffed behind computers or left on radiators. 20 half empty cans of Red Bull. Orange peel all over the floor. And on one memorable occasion I found half a pint of milk and a half empty bag of grated cheese in a seminar room, in which the occupants had had the wall mounted heater on full blast…

It’s the sheer ignorance of it that gets to me, the complete rudeness. The oblivious assumption that someone else is going to pick it all up. They are at most 10 metres away from a bin, wherever they are sat, but it might as well be 100 metres for all they use them. In fact, we could probably have an individual bin at each desk and they still wouldn’t bother.

Now ok, we’re not making things easy on ourselves by allowing them to bring food into the LRC but in general, the issue of food in libraries does not bother me, certainly not in our library. We don’t have a research collection, our books are easily replaceable and most are loanable, so are going to be used while students are eating at home anyway. So I don’t really care if they bring food in, I just really, really wish they’d throw their rubbish away after them!

We’ve tried; if we see people walking away from rubbish laden tables we ask them to clear it up. We have some fearsome cleaners who identify frequent offenders and embarrass them into better behaviour. But it doesn’t make a huge difference as we usually only find it after they’ve left.

I’ve suggested having a week where we don’t clear tables, just to show them what sort of pig sty they make for themselves, but of course we can’t do that because of the “student experience.” Most people seem resigned to the problem, maybe I’ll end up that way too, but for the moment it still sends me into a blinding rage whenever I walk around the LRC. And because it’s Friday, I thought I would share the rage with you, dear Reader. I hope you feel my pain.

Any suggestions for teaching ADULTS to use BINS gratefully received in comments. If you don’t have a suggestion, at least tell me I’m not alone in my anger?


*taking photos of rubbish; that didn’t make me look weird AT ALL!

In which I rant about 24 Hour Opening…

Yesterday morning I had to deal with a student who was very unhappy that his 1 litre carton of fruit juice had been thrown away by one of the cleaners. He was upset because it was expensive and untouched and he’d “only left it for a minute” while he went to clean his teeth in the toilets.  Now, the cleaner was not in the wrong here because she had no idea how long the juice had been there when she found it and our library is routinely awash with litter in the mornings during exam season*, so she did the right thing. The reason this incident stuck with me is a. the teeth cleaning part and b. the fact that the reason he was so annoyed was obviously that he was knackered. Welcome to exam season and 24 hour opening, the silly season starts here!

Although, to be fair, our 24 hour opening runs from October to June and breaks only at Christmas and Easter but it’s still generally quite quiet outside of exam periods. We’re open 24 hours from Sunday to Thursday, so we’re not open Friday and Saturday nights, thank goodness. And if I had my way we wouldn’t do it at all, because I really don’t think it encourages a healthy lifestyle, good revision, or sensible studying.

Take my guy yesterday morning, I know him quite well and it’s entirely likely that he hasn’t really left the Library since Sunday, unless he’s had to take an exam. He’s got his toothbrush in his bag, for goodness sake, this is a man who is not planning on going home anytime soon. And there’s lots more like him. Last year at our other library that has 24 hour opening, caretakers found toiletries bags hidden behind the ceiling panels in the toilets. I firmly believe that if we were to open over Friday and Saturday nights, as students pressure us to do every year, we would have a small minority of students who would try to get by without renting student accommodation and would simply split their time between the Library and their friends sofas. It sounds ridiculous, but these were among the concerns that SOAS had when they abandoned 24 hour opening after trialling it for a few years (with the full support of their Student Union, I might add). I’ve also heard rumours of such shenanigans in one of the UEL libraries.

It isn’t healthy for students to spend half of their week living in the library, but that is the unavoidable consequence of providing 24 hour opening. Today’s students are under a vast amount of pressure, most have to work while they study, all of them want to get a good degree and most are well aware that they’re going to be flung into the midst of a recession once they graduate. I can completely understand why students are therefore demanding that library facilities be available 24/7 as they have to find ways of making study fit into their lives. We’re under a great deal of pressure to provide students with what they want, especially in this era of rising fees and the sodding NSS. But we can’t be all things to all people and there are serious practicalities involved here. We can’t provide showers, I doubt there are many libraries that can. We can’t provide comfortable places to sleep and in fact, our regulations state that students can’t sleep in the Library and staff will wake up any students they find sleeping in case they have fallen ill**. I know this isn’t true of all libraries and I’ve even heard of some that will give out blankets to students studying overnight (Exeter, anyone?) but still, having a two-hour kip with your head resting on your keyboard is not exactly good exam preparation, is it? We can’t provide a decent breakfast, unless your idea of a decent breakfast is a day old sandwich from the vending machine (and even then, we’re in the minority of libraries that allow students to bring food in or buy it in the library, there’s plenty of libraries that don’t) and there’s no guarantee that there’s anywhere else on campus that can either, or that students can afford it.***

I remember when I was doing my A levels that there was a lot of emphasis placed on sensible preparation for exams; not cramming, taking breaks, having a good night’s sleep the night before. We don’t seem to talk about this anymore once students reach University level, but I would argue that they need it just as much if not more as many are now away from the support of their families. Surely we should be saying somehow, somewhere that spending the 48 hours prior to your exam cramming in the Library, leaving only briefly to have a smoke, is not necessarily going to do you any good in the actual exam?

That’s if they’re even cramming at all anyway; reports from the Night Team suggest that these some of these students spend quite a lot of time streaming films on the PCs or hanging out in the café with their mates. It’s as if they’re under the impression that merely being in the Library will help them absorb knowledge, presumably by some sort of osmosis. Allowing them to remain in the Library for days at a time lets this type of student develop a false sense of study; it’s alright for them to catch up with Eastenders now because they’re already in the Library and they’ll do some revision afterwards, right? Then; it’s alright for them to spend an hour chatting to their mates because they’re in the Library and they’ll do their group presentation afterwards, yeah? Before they know it, 24 hours as gone by and they’ve not managed to do much at all. These are also the students that we see descending on the Library the night before their coursework deadline en masse; they’ve put everything off till the last-minute but it’s alright, the Library’s open and they can just spend the entire night hammering out 2500 words before morning. Oddly enough, they always seem surprised when the rest of their classmates have the same idea and the printers crash under the strain…

So what would I prefer? I don’t really know, I haven’t been in the sector long enough to really know the best way to proceed. It seems to me that having opening hours of 8am to midnight (and running a staffed service, not using Security, during those opening hours it at all possible) would provide a service that catered to as many students as possible, but would also encourage them to plan their work and revision better. I know that closing at midnight wouldn’t necessarily make students go home and go to bed before their exams, but at least it wouldn’t feel quite so much like our responsibility if they didn’t.

If anyone knows of a University that’s doing something different or interesting with their opening hours, please let me know in the comments. Also feel free to have a rant about how annoying exam season is at your institution; I’ll be sure to commiserate with you!


*rant to come, believe me!


** This has led to some “entertaining” incidents of students barricading themselves in rooms to have a nap, bless.


***don’t get me started on the ridiculous prices charged for food on university campuses.

Libraries are for learning?

A fortnight ago I attended a CPD25* event called Libraries are for learning? – Managing Student Behaviour in the 21st Century which was marketed with the following question:

It’s not like it was in our day…while students are twittering and drinking coffee and chatting to friends in the Library or on the phone they are learning and multi-tasking and studying at the same time. Or are they? Do Libraries still need to set boundaries for student behaviour in order to keep the library an appropriate place for learning without looking out of date?

These are exactly the sort of conversations I enjoy having, so I had to go along! The full day event was hosted by the very lovely LSE Library and there were about 20 delegates mostly from Greater London, but some from further afield. In the morning we shared horror stories, found common ground and talked about how we could better understand our students and accept the pressures they are under. We then explored techniques and approaches to deal with disruptive students and difficult situations. In the afternoon, we heard some Case Studies of good practice from the University of East London and the LSE and rounded the day off with a tour of the LSE Library.

The morning session was really interesting and very enjoyable. It was led by Ash Charlton from Acenterprise who was an excellent trainer; he kept us all laughing while also sharing some really good ideas. My favourite part was when he split us into groups and gave us each a scenario of student bad behaviour (e.g. trying to leave the Library without borrowing books) then asked us to come up with the worst possible sentence to use in that situation, the thing you’ve always wanted to say but never dared**. We then used those sentences to look at the sort of language we should use in these situations, which was a good exercise but I think we all enjoyed the first part best…

A lot of what we discussed reinforced the ideas that I talked about in my earlier posts on dealing with difficult people and reassured me that I’m already doing the right thing, but I did come across a couple of new strategies that I will share with you as I thought they were interesting.

The first was an approach that Ash called “gears” and is based on the fact that as Librarians in our own Library, we are actually the ones in control and the ones with the ability to use the “final sanction” whether that is taking a students ID number and reporting them to their Faculty, or calling Security to have them removed. This fact alone was a good reminder for us all as I think Librarians tend to forget it, but the idea was not to dive straight in with all guns blazing and go straight for our biggest weapon without first giving the student chance to modify their behaviour on their own. Hence gears; with our ‘final sanction’ being our 4th and highest gear and lower gears leading up to it:

  • Explain to the student what the situation is (1st gear) “Excuse me, this is a silent area.”
  • Explain what you are asking them to do (2nd gear) “As I said before, this is a silent area and I am asking you to stop talking”
  • Explain what you will do if they don’t do what you ask (3rd gear) “If you don’t stop talking then I will ask you to leave.”
  • Explain that as they have ignored your previous warnings, you will now act upon your warning (4th gear) “As you’re still talking, I’m asking you to leave. If you won’t I will call security.

I liked this approach as it lays out an easy to remember strategy for dealing with difficult students. It reminds us that we have the power, but also empowers the student and makes them responsible for their own behaviour and choices and for the ultimate outcome of the encounter.

The other discussion that I found very useful was about dealing with groups. We all talked about how we found approaching groups of disruptive students the most difficult aspect of managing our Libraries, but Ash responded that dealing with groups is easy because they are weak; while one person on their own can decide what sort of approach they’re going to take to a situation, a group can’t reach a consensus and is therefore easy to split. He gave us the following advice:

  • Address the whole group, with your language and your gestures. Don’t focus on one person as the group will come to that individual’s defence.
  • If one person responds aggressively, continue addressing the whole group
  • Ask “is that what you all think?” to divide the group; one person will usually cave and the rest will follow.

I’ll be sure to give this a try the next time I have to deal with a group of noisy students on the second floor; exam period is coming up so it’s bound to happen sooner rather than later!

LSE Library staircase The afternoon was interesting as well; staff from UEL and LSE shared some really good ideas about managing the Library environment and I look forward to seeing if we can implement any here. I also enjoyed the tour of LSE Library which I’ve never visited before despite knowing lots of people who work there. That staircase is pretty impressive, but I would be too terrified of falling down it in front of everyone to use it… It’s also a much larger library than the one I work in and while I envy the amount of space they have for students to use, I am still grateful for having a much easier building to manage.

All in all it was a really good day; a great chance to share ideas and learn some new skills.  One of the best aspects of attending external training sessions is the chance to meet colleagues from other institutions and share horror stories and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to have a really good whinge!***

*CPD25 runs brilliant training sessions, I highly recommend attending one.

**We had the “not borrowing books” scenario and our response was something along the lines of “Oi, you thieving toerag! Get back here right now! If those books aren’t issued to you then your arse is mine…” We won but lost points due to lack of swearing :(

***Don’t pretend that you don’t do the same!!!

“Thank You Jesus!”

It’s semester two and deadlines are looming. The building is full of stressed students and things are going wrong, things which it is my job to fix. Printers jamming or print queues freezing, confusing binding machines, corrupted USB sticks and lost essays. It’s not so long ago that I was trying to hand in coursework or prepare for exams, so I have lots of empathy for our student body and always go out of my way to help. I have sat with my head inside a printer for 15 minutes, pulling out paper jams* until the blasted things starts printing again. I have stood by the binding machine and helped student after student bind their work**. I have printed off work on my own PC when a usb stick won’t open on a student PC. I have sat with countless mature students and helped them re-organise their slides in Powerpoint, or taught them how to insert page numbers in Word.

And I don’t mind doing any of this; I enjoy helping, it’s what I’m here to do. But I do get annoyed when after running around like a maniac and solving a problem for someone, I am met with nothing but a “THANK YOU JESUS!” Erm, excuse me, it wasn’t Jesus that unjammed that printer, it was me! It wasn’t Jesus that rescued your presentation from the recycle bin, it was me! And it certainly wasn’t Jesus who has sat with you for 15 minutes trying to work out why your printing wasn’t showing up at the print release station, only to then discover that you’d just sat down at an already logged on but abandoned PC and were merrily using someone else’s account, because I sincerely doubt he’d have the patience! I am standing in front of you having saved your arse and what do I get? “THANK YOU JESUS!” And in my experience, that exclamation is rarely followed up by a personal thank you to me as well. I don’t really mind when it’s the Library that’s messed up, or when it’s Library equipment that has gone wrong, but when I’ve gone out of my way to help solve a problem that was the student’s fault in the first place and Jesus is thanked instead of me, then I do get a bit hacked off, to be honest.

Plus, it may have been a while since I’ve been to church but I was raised methodist and I rather understood that the whole point of being a Christian was that you lived a good and moral life on earth in order to ensure that you went to heaven. I’m not sure that any part of the deal was that Jesus would personally intervene in every Christians life any time they were having a bad day and would happily use his power to unjam printers and rescue corrupted files. I’m reasonably sure there would have been some mention of that in the Bible at some point.***

I’d like to conclude this post with some sort of constructive point or suggestion, but I don’t actually have one. So I shall file this in the ‘Rant’ category and leave you with the knowledge that should you ever see me tweeting in ALL CAPS with too many exclamation points in April or May, it is likely to be for this reason and you should probably send me cake.

*And usually burning my fingers on the fuser as well, because it’s quicker for me to burn myself than it is to remove the whole fuser unit and carry it over to IT and ask them for their tweezers; SEE HOW I CARE?!?!?!
**It can be difficult to maintain the distinction between ‘showing them’ and ‘doing it for them’, if you get distracted you can find yourself with a pile of dissertations and no students…

***”And lo, the clouds parted and a light shone down and a voice was heard to say “Look, have you tried turning it off and on again?””

In Honour of Cleaners

Retirement Do

Librarians; always seeking an excuse to extend our lunch hour

Today’s post is in honour of Rachel, one of our cleaning staff who retired today after twenty-one years working at the University (and sixteen of those in the Library) Rachel is a tiny but fiery Italian lady, and once told me a story about when she first started working in the Library. She’d been warned by the other cleaners that the Library staff were very unfriendly and it wasn’t a nice place to work and once she started, she agreed. So one day she door stepped the then-Library Manager (who’s still here, in another role) and asked her “do you have a degree?” to which the Manager replied “well, umm, yes.” Rachel then said “well if you are so smart, so educated, then why do you not say Hello to me in the mornings, hmm? Why do none of you speak to me, hmm?” And after that, every member of Library staff always said hello to her and her fellow cleaners. Since that day, sixteen years ago, a great friendship has built up between staff and cleaners and today we threw a retirement celebration for Rachel at lunchtime complete with flowers, gifts and cake* because we’re all going to miss her very much.

I tell this story to illustrate a point that I think is very important in libraries (and indeed, in all places of work!) – always be nice to the cleaners, caretakers, postal workers, security and anyone else who works in your building. Don’t ignore them when they walk by. Find out their names and say hello. Ask how things are going for them. These are the people do the really hard work and if they didn’t do it, our library users would notice it straight off. Who do you call when someone has done something awful in the toilets? The cleaners. Who comes to help when the ceiling over the music collection starts leaking? The caretakers. Who hunts down that box of missing books? The postman. And who comes to help when you’re cornered by an angry user? Security. I can’t count the number of times that our cleaners and caretakers have helped me out when the building has been full and something has gone wrong and although I don’t doubt they would have done it anyway because they’re all good people, it was certainly made easier and happened much quicker as a result of having a good relationship with them.

Obviously you should be nice to everyone unless they’re actively trying to cause you harm, and I’m sure most of us are because Librarians do tend to be a pleasant lot, on the whole. But if you need more persuading, remember that being nice to cleaners and caretakers and postmen and security and anyone else who works in your building can actively save your bad day from getting even worse. It’s basic karma, really; if you are nice to people, they will be nice to you in return and don’t we all want to work in an environment like that?

*and wine, there may have been a few tipsy librarians trying to hide at their desks this afternoon…