Personalia:the meaning of things at the desks of routine office workers

Presented by: Lynn Chalmers

The significance of the personal objects that we accumulate at our desks will be explored in this presentation. Photo elicitation research, comprising interviews and photographic studies of the workspaces of 11 women performing routine work in a financial services office, uncovers the ways the women use personalia at their desks to reappropriate the everyday spaces of the office. Personalia take the form of birthday and thank you cards, poems, coffee mugs and office supplies, tchotchkes, photographs and travel momentos. Most often they are described in terms of the event and person they celebrate. The findings demonstrate the complex personal and co-worker relationships that are evident in the seemingly insignificant personalia that women workers collect and curate at their desks. Social networks with co-workers, past and present are honoured in the personalia at the desk; and tactics such as repurposing office supplies as gifts, along with numerous individual and heterogeneous behaviours demonstrate that routine work spaces are not neutral spaces but are open to the expressive practices which de Certeau calls operations. The close reading of the women’s desks established a loose order of zones of significance. Moving from the private zone for personally significant items located around the computer screen, through transition zones for less personal items and to a public zone that communicates with co-workers at the outer edge of the desk. Desk cleaning rituals provided closure and a termination point for the endlessly streaming on-line work environment. The ways that the women make space for themselves and push against the hegemony of the neoliberal organization are specific and instructive. They reflect women’s values and the identities crafted for public and private consumption. The research closely examines the practices of women in the financial services industry through the filter of Lefebvre’s trialectic (1991) for the analysis of space, De Certeau’s ways of operating and tactics of the everyday (1998), and Franck’s interpretation of Women’s Ways of Knowing (1989). Much of the research that addresses the workplace looks at the imposition of behaviours and subjectivities through organizational space. The research approach employed here is purposefully looking to give voice to women’s agency in claiming and occupying space in desk jobs with little power and status.


  • Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space, translator D.Nicholson-Smith. London: Blackwell.
  • Franck, Karen, A. 1989."A Feminist Approach to Architecture: Acknowledging Women’s Ways of Knowing." In Architecture: A Place for Women, edited by Ellen Perry Berkeley. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institute Press.
  • de Certeau, Michel. 1998. The Practice of Everyday Life, Volume 2: Living and Cooking. Minneapolis, MN.: University of Minnesota Press.
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