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Mental Health Awareness Month: What Is Library Anxiety?
by
Posted On May 7, 2024
KEEP CALM AND RESEARCH LIBRARY ANXIETY

I am a librarian, a writer, and an English teacher: the nerdy trifecta. “Librarian” is first on the list for a reason. I have written for Information Today for a decade, and libraries have featured in my recent articles for Slate, The Washington Post, and Literary Hub. Being a librarian also informs my teaching. I set aside one class period for a library orientation and another during which we meet in the library and I am available to work one-on-one with students. Moreover, I encourage them to ask questions of the library staffers by offering extra credit on research papers for that purpose.

My motive for this approach is not just to get better papers. It is to help freshmen overcome what Shawn Hartman of Chadron State College called “one of the biggest barriers to academic success”: library anxiety. Given that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s take a closer look at this all-too-real phenomenon.

LIBRARY ANXIETY DEFINED

First things first: What is library anxiety? In a nutshell, it is the fear of being in and using a library. This fear can take several forms:

  • Uneasiness with the physical space of the library
  • Fear of approaching a librarian or library worker to ask for help
  • Worry that you are alone in not knowing how to use the library
  • Feeling paralyzed when trying to start library research

No doubt libraries have caused such fears for centuries. The first scholar to describe them, however, was East Carolina University professor Constance Mellon, whose 1986 study “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development” involved the research journals of 6,000 composition students over a 2-year period. According to Mellon, 75%–85% of the students reported feeling what she dubbed “library anxiety.” Students felt that their peers were excellent researchers, while they alone were incompetent. Nowadays, we might say this is similar to imposter syndrome.

The upshot of this anxiety? Shame—and, therefore, an avoidance of the library and of research in general.

Building on these qualitative descriptions, in 1992, Sharon Bostick of Wayne State University developed the Library Anxiety Scale (LAS), which was the first effort to quantify the phenomenon. Working with 2-year and 4-year college students, Bostick measured five components of students’ library experiences:

  • Barriers with staff (whether staff seemed unapproachable or intimidating);
  • Affective barriers (students’ feelings of inadequacy);
  • Comfort with the library;
  • Knowledge of the library; and
  • Mechanical barriers (students’ feelings about relying on library equipment).

A decade later, libraries had changed a lot. There were more databases and other off-site resources, as well as the internet. Plus, Bostick’s LAS had mostly captured students’ satisfaction with library services, not their perspective on the research process itself.

To measure these additional variables, in 2004, Doris Van Kampen of Saint Leo University developed the Multidimensional Library Anxiety Scale (MLAS), which has fueled further inquiries. For example, in 2010, Stacey Bowers of the University of Denver used the MLAS to study law school students. In 2021, a trio of Pakistani researchers looked at library anxiety among medical students. In my career as a state legislative librarian, I have seen a different form of anxiety: the need for legal information not for academic purposes, but because it’s life-or-death.

LIBRARY ANXIETY ADDRESSED

How can we as librarians help users overcome library anxiety?

One way, of course, is to teach them how to use the library. In 2019, Roslyn Grandy, a librarian at the College of New Rochelle, examined levels of library anxiety in 30 adult learners before and after completing a two-credit information literacy course. She found that the course was “moderately effective” in reducing their anxiety. Rodney Birch of Olivet Nazarene University had conducted a similar study of graduate students (and faculty!) in 2012. Joel Battle of the University of North Texas focused on international students in 2004.

In some cases, however, information literacy alone won’t solve the problem. Since the late 1990s, professors Qun Jiao and Anthony Onwuegbuzie have become two of the leading researchers on library anxiety, writing many papers and the first book on the subject (published in 2004). The main finding of Jiao and Onwuegbuzie is that unlike generalized anxiety disorder, which the National Institute of Mental Health defines as “a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread that interferes with how you live your life,” library anxiety is situation-specific. In other words, sufferers are not permanently afflicted with anxiety. The condition is not, according to retired librarian Erin McAfee, “inherent to their personality.”

What this means for librarians is that we have to provide these sufferers with more than information. We have to understand what is driving their behavior. For McAfee, that driver is shame, of which there are two types: overt (“silent, painful feelings of inadequacy and inferiority”) and bypassed (shame that becomes hostility “like a jab or a slap in the face”).

Once we understand students, our job becomes, again, not filling them with knowledge, but putting them at ease. After all, how will they learn if they feel overwhelmed?

A great resource is this research guide from St. Catherine University, which has excellent offerings for students and librarians. Students will benefit from the:

  • Tips for beating library anxiety
  • Cartoons and books that dispel librarian stereotypes
  • Links to on-campus mental health resources

There is even a Stress Relief Playlist courtesy of Spotify. Librarians will value the professional aids, such as:

In 2024, we are seeing the growth of two widespread social needs: 1) the need for accurate information, and 2) the need for more mental health resources. These needs converge in the phenomenon of library anxiety. Librarians will have to meet this anxiety head-on.


Anthony Aycock is the author of The Accidental Law Librarian (Information Today, Inc., 2013). He is a freelance writer (anthonyaycock.com) as well as the director of the North Carolina Legislative Library.



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