How universities get students through their 'library anxiety'

On-campus libraries need to be revamped to be more welcoming and accommodating to students

Colleges and universities are taking steps to reduce students' anxieties about on-campus libraries, Alex Nunes reports for JSTOR Daily

Library anxiety is far from a new concept. Thirty years ago, Constance Mellon gave a name to the stress that many students experience when walking into their campus libraries. They may feel like they lack adequate research skills and fear asking for help. They are overwhelmed by all that the library has to offer, not knowing where to begin. Some students may avoid the library altogether.

Mellon determined from her study that between 75% and 85% of students described their first response to the library in terms of fear and anxiety.

"Terms like scary, overpowering, lost, helpless, confused, and fear of the unknown appeared over and over again," Mellon wrote. "One student admitted to feeling like a 'lost child'; another said she was 'lost in there and actually scared to death.'"

Mellon recognized three general themes among students in her research:

  • A belief in the inadequacy of their research skills;
  • Fear of seeking help, which would reveal their inadequacy; and
  • Shame surrounding their perceived shortcomings.

Sharon Bostick, dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology, developed the statistically validated Library Anxiety Scale, which researchers use to examine library anxiety and analyze how the phenomenon affects different demographics. She says library anxiety is connected to the human interactions that take place within a library.

"If [students] were anticipating a positive interaction with a human being, their levels of anxiety statistically were much lower than if they anticipated a bad interaction with a human," she says.

It's one reason why over the past 30 years, libraries have sought to make students' experience in libraries more "customer-service focused," says Ann Campion Riley, president of the Association of College & Research Libraries

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She and other librarians believe that making libraries more welcoming will better serve students.

"Inspirational spaces can also be intimidating spaces, so you want to make them as warm and fuzzy as you can," Riley says.

Bostick notes that considering a library's layout is an important component of reducing anxiety. That includes having someone ready to help as soon as students walk into the library. 

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Libraries are taking approaches to being more open and friendly, such as:

  • Ask-a-librarian tools;
  • Informal student sessions;
  • Library tours;
  • Placing younger, approachable graduate students at the reference desk; and
  • Working with instructors to better incorporate the library into courses.

Making the library experience more personal for students, says Sarah Naomi Campbell, a reference librarian at Johnson & Wales University. Campbell notes LGBT, first-generation, and other minority students may have unique anxieties about their library experience.

"They may not be out, or there may be reasons why it's not safe, or they're not comfortable," Campbell says. "Little anxieties can really prevent you from engaging in the process."

Besides making libraries more welcoming to students of all backgrounds, librarians must take into account the wealth of information readily available online, which may deter students from seeking out a physical library. However, students don't always know what information is accurate.  

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"Part of the problem that this presents for instruction librarians is the reluctance [of] students to participate in library instruction sessions or to come to librarians for help because they feel that they know all of this," says Lauren Consolatore, an instruction librarian at Mitchell College.

Reducing students' library anxiety is not only important for boosting their confidence, but also improving academic outcomes.

"We have research that shows (students) do benefit significantly by using the library," Riley says. "Plus, we love to just generate that love of learning. So, obviously, I think it's better if they come to the library" (Nunes, JSTOR Daily, 4/13). 

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