Monday, 13 October 2014

Library anxiety

This post is a translation from Thomas Chaimbault's post in French, "L'angoisse de la bibliothèque". His blog, Vagabondages, is an essential one in the French libraries' blogosphere. He writes about libraries and information sciences, mostly from an Higher Education point of view (he is in charge for information skills training in an Higher Education setting, in Lyon). If you can read enough French, I definitely recommend to add his blog to your reader and to follow him on Twitter!

In 1986, Constance A. Mellon formalized the concept of library anxiety.

This anxiety is supposed to be concerning quite an important number of readers, to various degrees, and would refer to both an anxiety of the library as a place (in its size, its fitting, its organisation and the classification of its documents) often considered as unclear, and of the library as a mean to find resources (services, resources, training...). It's a strong psychological barrier keeping students from using the library in an efficient manner, on site and online.

The Anxiety of Searching for a Book, UCLA

1. Theorizing Library Anxiety

In her grounding article (which at least, formalized the concept, since other studies had already showed some apprehension of the public), "Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development", published in College and Research Libraries in March 1986, Constance A. Mellon describes a study carried out over two years about the students' feelings when beginning a library search. The results are clear: 75% to 85% of students mention a feeling of fear when using the library for the first time and this feeling is even more present when the time comes to do a search. An analysis of personal writings of students allows her to also identify recurring themes of fear, confusion, of being of out of their depth, lost, without resource, still at that fateful moment of the information search. It's by connecting those anxiety feelings linked to maths or tests that she coins this notion of "library anxiety".

This anxiety can be translated in several ways:
  • Fear of the library as a place, often described by its impressive size;
  • Not knowing where to find information, nor how it's organised;
  • Lack of self-confidence concerning how to conduct a search;
  • Fear of the librarian him/herself with a refusal of asking for help;
  • Feeling like they're the only one not to understand how the library works;
  • Feeling of paralysis when starting an information search.

From there, students seem less focused on their work and can't do their searches correctly. Mellon specifies: "Students become so anxious about having to gather information in a library for their research papers that they are unable to approach the problem logically or effectively". It can even result, according to the research of our American colleagues on this topic, in the failure of obtaining a diploma (Onwuegbuzie and Jiao, 1998).

Without going that far, other researchers have shown since then the permanence of this negative feeling towards libraries (Bostick, 1993), while Jiao, Onwuegbuzie and Lichtenstein fleshed out the concept, explaining that those feelings could have cognitive, affective, physiological and behavioural consequences directly interfering with the carrying out of informational tasks (Jiao, Onwuegbuzie and Lichtenstein, 1996).
This anxiety is considered as a unique phenomenon, specific to the library environment and not in connection with the general anxiety linked to the first years of higher education. Even though it has been suggested that some of its dimensions, like asking for help, can be linked to character traits independent from libraries, no empirical proof has been provided to support this proposition.

2. A measurement scale

In 1992, Sharon Bostick proposes a measurement scale to detect and evaluate the potential anxiety caused by the library on students. This scale identifies several areas carrying anxiety:
  • Barriers with staff: staff members are perceived as intimidating, inaccessible and anyway too busy or having other more important tasks to do rather than helping readers;
  • Affective barriers (perceived informational skills): the student feels incapable of doing searches and of using the library as a place for resources, this feeling being reinforced by the idea of being the only one to be lost and confused;
  • Being comfortable within the library (as a physical space): a feeling of comfort, security, of being welcome in the library, also linked to the layout and furnitures favouring or not how students are welcomed in the library;
  • Knowledge of the library (internal organisation): the student doesn't understand how the library is organised, doesn't feel familiar with it, feels frustrated;
  • Mechanical barriers: feeling linked to the machines, equipments, computers... A student having a hard time using machines is susceptible of developing a deeper anxiety.
[download the Bostick scale]

In 1997, Owuegbuzie adds:

  • Resources anxiety: frustration related to the resources availability, especially linked to not finding full-text during an online search.
Several research studies have then focused on this anxiety's origin, trying to detect direct or indirect antecedents. If no direct antecedent was revealed, several indirect antecedents were then proposed, with situational, contextual or dispositional (that the student brings herself) origins.

Source: Library Anxiety: Theory, Research, and Application by Anthony J: Onzuegubzie, Qun G. Jiao, Sharon L. Bostick

Among those variables, Jiao and Onwuegbuzie mainly identified:
  • Low level of perceived social acceptance;
  • Social injonction for perfection;
  • Academic procrastination;
  • Bad study habits;
  • Low reading skills;
  • Learning style;
  • Low computer literacy;
  • Low hopes to overcome hurdles linked to goals' pursuit;
  • Social interdependence.
Some of those research studies identify a complex link between this library anxiety and other anxieties linked to higher education, research, public communication; a whole set affecting the student more or less directly.

Source : Library Anxiety: Theory, Research, and Applications by Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, Qun G. Jiao, Sharon L. Bostick

3. Fighting against library anxiety

Studies trying to reduce library anxiety focus on how to make the library more acceptable, comfortable for students by giving them either the skills to develop their knowledge of the space and self-confidence, or to reassure them concerning the normalcy of the phenomenon and explaining strategies to use so as to overcome its negative effects.

The idea is to work on the training provided, regarding its content as well as the librarian's attitude. Indeed, better trained students will feel more familiar with the space and will see their anxiety limited. More broadly, it means making it easier to meet professionals, getting students to understand and know that there will always be someone to welcome them, answer their questions without judging them and supporting them in their searches.

Simply recognizing such an anxiety helps reducing it. Thus, several proposals have been drawn up:
  • Recounting this feeling or similar experiences with more or less humour through videos or discussion sessions between students;
  • Telling students that bad experiences at various levels of information search are normal;
  • Talking about this kind of anxiety during training sessions.
But generally, the idea will be to get the library to become a friendly space, turned towards its users, to work on librarians behaviours, to provide a positive experience of the library as a space and to reinforce training sessions. So nothing extraordinary.

Several libraries actively work on the topic and don't hesitate to follow up on students who could be victims of this anxiety. For example, the Washington State University's library proposes a specific libguide giving leads on how to apprehend the library better or playing on the librarian's stereotypes.

Actually, we're doing the same and are also working through digital mediation to improve the user's experience, and thus to reduce this anxiety linked to the library. It goes without saying. But it's better to say it anyway.

To go further:

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