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The discussion thus far has centered on some of the barriers that contribute to library anxiety. What are librarians learning from the study of this pervasive problem? The literature suggests that library anxiety impacts academic success or failure through learning styles and behavior anomalies. In addition, studies are showing how library anxiety is teaching librarians that best practices exist for areas such as bibliographic instruction.
Graduate students and undergraduates alike experience library anxiety. Qun G. Jiao and Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie have conducted numerous studies on this subject and found that certain behavior anomalies are linked to library anxiety, such as perfectionism and academic procrastination. It has been concluded that for socially prescribed perfectionists, the library is a threat for them and there exists a relationship between perfectionism and library anxiety . This is also consistent with the results of Mellon’s study which reported that library anxious students feel that only they are inept at using the library while other students do not experience the same problems, and that this ineptness is a source of embarrassment and should be kept secret. These feelings result in a reluctance to seek help from librarians fearing that their ignorance will be exposed. In turn this anxiety, in all likelihood, leads to library avoidance.
Library avoidance behavior has also been found in the phenomena of academic procrastination. Fear of failure and task aversion resulting in procrastination has been found to be related to barriers with staff, affective barriers, comfort with the library, and knowledge of the library. Although it is unclear whether this is a causal relationship, it provides evidence that there are more than just time management and study skill issues involved, but includes cognitive-affective components.
These are only two examples of behavior anomalies shown to be linked to library anxiety. The broader perspective here is that library anxiety can lead to scholastic underachievement in students who are nervous about seeking help from a librarian and therefore tend to produce lower quality work. Constance Mellon’s groundbreaking work in 1986 was the first to not only identify library anxiety, but to discover how it affects the learning process. While designing an instruction program, she discovered that anxiety students felt about the research process was considerably lessened after contact with a librarian. She then developed exercises to be done in the library and added information into these sessions about the phenomena of library anxiety assuring students that is was a common occurrence.
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There are countless articles on best practices for how to allay this problem in patrons as well as considerable literature on outreach. It seems clear that outreach must be consciously practiced from the most simple and mundane interactions to broad library programs in order to help patrons overcome their fear. During bibliographic instruction sessions which generally last anywhere from fifty minutes to an hour, the first five minutes are crucial to set a positive tone of interaction between student and librarian. Presentations should be well organized, interesting and should not attempt to cover too much ground in too short a time. Most researchers agree that it is important to acknowledge the fear, confusion or sense of dread students experience, and to talk about it openly, assuring students they are not alone in their feelings. Recommendations are bountiful with regard to reference interview situations. Initially the reference librarian should make eye contact and smile. Put aside any work in order for the patron to see that you are ready and willing to help. The librarian should ask open-ended questions. Making assumptions indicates to the patron that you are rushing the interview and are not listening patiently. Always engage the patron in conversation by explaining what you are doing and why you are doing it during the search process. This establishes a rapport with the patron, helps them understand that you are concentrating your efforts on the question at hand, and also may help them learn more about how to conduct their own searches. It is also important to check back later with the patron, again indicating your willingness to help, and not leaving them in a potentially confused state.
The problem of library anxiety reaches into every aspect of the library, can affect individual learning styles, can exacerbate certain behavior anomalies, and is known to result in underachievement. It has been shown that contact with reference librarians can significantly decrease the levels of library anxiety in students. Library anxiety manifests itself through a variety of fears, feelings of overwhelm and avoidance. It is up to the reference librarian staff to address students’ anxiety in the library through multivariate outreach methods. The primary opportunity for this to happen is during the reference interview and through bibliographic instruction sessions.
Although Mellon, Kuhlthau and Bostick have provided benchmark studies from which to study library anxiety, probably no one has studied this topic as extensively or from so many perspectives as Qun G. Jiao and Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie. They have contributed no less than thirteen articles consisting of quantitative studies, and they have recently co-authored a book with Sharon Bostick on the subject .
The phenomenon of library anxiety often produces giggles in non-library circles, and bewilderment in our own profession. Yet it is an important topic and we, as librarians, should know what signs to look for and should be prepared to aggressively combat it. Library avoidance, academic underachievement and procrastination will undermine the work we do, and is in opposition to our ideals of information literacy, promoting library use, and producing life long learners.
Jiao, Q.G. and Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (Sept. 1998). Perfectionism and library anxiety among graduate students. The Journal of Academic Librarianship v. 24 no5 p. 365-71.
Jiao, Q. G. and Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (Jan. 2000). I'll go to the library later the relationship between academic procrastination and library anxiety. College & Research Libraries v. 61 no1 p. 45-54.
Jiao, Q. G. and Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (Apr. 1999). Identifying library anxiety through students' learning-modality preferences. The Library Quarterly v. 69 no2 p. 204.
Mellon, C.A. (Sept. 1988). Attitudes: the forgotten dimension in library instruction. Library Journal p. 139.
Oswald, T. A. and Turnage, M. (2000). First five minutes. Research Strategies v. 17. p. 347-351.
Bushing, M. (2003). Improving our reference skills, New Mexico State Library Workshop.
Jiao, Q. G. , Onwuegbuzie, A.J., Bostick, S. L. (2004). Library Anxiety: Theory, Research and Applications. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.