1 Aug 2018


This post was placed joint third in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2018. 
This post is by Maolsheachlann O'Ceailligh, UCD Library

Earlier this year, I helped facilitate a workshop in which students drew up “journey maps” of the way in which they went about researching their projects. It was a very interesting project for many reasons, but one aspect in particular stood out to me-- the frequency with which the students mentioned the anxiety and stress they felt when pursuing their research, especially at the beginning of the project.

 Reading up a little on this, I discovered the concept of “library anxiety”, which I’d never heard of in sixteen years as a library assistant. I mentioned this on Facebook, and one of my friends (based in America) told me that she suffered from this condition and avoided her university library where possible. She wrote: “The people who work there are generally unhelpful and I have no idea how the system for the books actually works. So I can't find the sources I need, the staff can't help me, and even if I find my sources through hours of looking, I don't know how to get them reshelved. And I'm an introvert, so that much talking to people and/or looking like an idiot is too much for me.” I was especially surprised by this as I know she is a high-achieving student. In fact, as I was to learn, high-achieving students are particularly prone to library anxiety. In fact, every element of her comment, aside from the remark about reshelving, reflects common themes in the literature on library anxiety.

An extreme example of library anxiety. Picture courtesy of Joey Bartlett,

The term was introduced in a 1986 article by Constance Mellon, and has been frequently discussed in various academic articles since then. The main features of library anxiety are that the student feels overwhelmed by the size of the library, doesn’t know how to begin to seek information, is reluctant to approach library staff, and believes that other students are more knowledgeable about the library than himself or herself. In Mellon’s initial study, a staggering seventy-five to eighty-five per cent of students reported feelings of anxiety in their initial responses to library research.

When I reflected on my own experience as a library assistant, I recalled much that tallied with this finding. Yes, students very often apologize for “bothering” library staff. They very often preface very ordinary questions with statements like: “This is probably a stupid question, but...” They very often comment on the sheer size of the library.

Though I had become used to such interactions, I had no idea that library anxiety was so widespread and so frequently studied. One phenomenon that I had frequently observed might have tipped me off, perhaps-- the fact that it is only ever a minority of the student body who become familiar faces at the service desk.

Students often complain that university libraries seem huge. Stock photo, creative commons

Furthermore, I realised how difficult it is to tackle library anxiety when I remembered some of the measures which my own library had taken to reach out to students. Some ten years ago, we instituted a “library rover” scheme whereby library staff walked the floors of the library and approached library users, rather than waiting for them to approach us. This was a frustrating exercise as very few users took up our offers of help. Eventually the scheme was discontinued. More recently, we have tried various ways to make library orientation more welcoming and informal, such as disseminating information in the form of quizzes and other games. This has had some success, but only a very small minority of students ever take it up. What else might we do?

Perhaps one approach that might be taken is to emphasise the informational role of library service desks. Indeed, the ambiguity of the terminology used for library service desks is quite telling. Are they “issue desks”? Are they “service desks”? Are they “information desks”? Branding them clearly as information desks, regardless of what other services they perform, might be a good way to make them approachable to students. As well as this, it might be helpful to explicitly convey the message, through signage and online, that any question can be asked at the information desk and that there is no such thing as a stupid question. (One library in Wisconsin has the words “Ask Here” hanging over the issue desk in large letters.)

Given the complexity of university life, many queries will inevitably have to be directed elsewhere. It’s important that students are not sent on a wild goose chase at these times. Academic libraries therefore have an interest in lobbying for a culture of greater openness and availability across the university. I doubt I am only the library staff member who experiences “inter-departmental anxiety” when it comes to helping students with non-library queries!


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