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Library Helpdesk turns 20!

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In January we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the formation of the official Library Helpdesk for students, staff and members of the public. In the early days the "Learner Support" team as it was known then, was managed by just four staff, three of whom still work in the Library today.

In the early days Helpdesk life was very different. A much greater proportion of our enquiries were from students who had never used the internet before and on one occasion a member of staff had to give guidance on how to click links.

For the first few years each individual student had to apply for their Athens passwords by posting a signed paper form and the Learner Support staff had to manually create a unique Athens password for them. Thankfully the process was soon automated, enabling staff today spend more time helping students with referencing enquiries, tracking down specific resources, and resolving issues with accessing and using resources.

Helpdesk staff today

Other time-consuming tasks included updating the lists of e-journals by hand and keeping the database ROUTES (Resources for Open University TEachers and Students) up-to-date - this resource gathered together free verified subject resources for students on a course-by-course basis, and again was largely manually maintained.

In the long-ago days before SCONUL Access, a scheme which allows students and staff to gain access to and borrow from permitted printed and audio-visual loan collections at other libraries, we had to contact every single UK university directly to find out whether their policy allowed OU students to use their libraries as guest members.

Although we had a phone-line and a dedicated email inbox from the outset, it wasn't until 2002 that we piloted our first online chat service (LiveChat).  Today you can use our webchat service 'Chat to a Librarian' to get help 24/7.  This is provided through a co-operative partnership where librarians in universities overseas (predominently the USA) answer OU enquiries throughout the night.

To find out more about the history of the Library Helpdesk, take a look at Meeting the information needs of distance learners ‐ the Open University’s response written by one of the original members of the Learner Support Team.

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