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Controlling axis labels in IDL plots?

I wonder if anyone can help me with a graphics problem?

I'm getting very finicky about my IDL plots. (I use direct graphics
only, no objects --
conceptually I'm still in the v3.6 era).
I've learned to use the !p, !x and !y system variables, their associated
and the axis command, to override most of the defaults, but one thing
eludes me.
Does anyone know how the distance of the axis label from the axis is
determined in a single-panel 2d plot?
There doesn't seem to be any way to control it directly, but it must be 
some arcane function of the plot area, position/margin settings, and 
character size. If anyone knows an algorithm, I'd be delighted to hear
Or would it be easier to give up and just use 
XYOUTS to put the annotations where I want them?

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Rachel Howe
National Solar Observatory, Tucson AZ