Library Anxiety or Indifference?

The term "library anxiety" has existed in the professional lexicon since 1986 when "Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development” by Constance A. Mellon was published in the March issue of College & Research Libraries.

Librarians have been discussing the general phenomenon since at least the mid-to-late 1970s, says Ann Campion Riley, president of the Association of College & Research Libraries, but it was Mellon who first gave it a name three decades ago. Her original study was based on analysis of journal entries college students had been required by their instructors to keep during the research process. After reading the student diaries, Mellon concluded, “Seventy-five to 85 percent of students in each class described their initial response to the library in terms of fear or anxiety.”

Essentially, the term describes the feeling that one’s research skills are inadequate and that those shortcomings should be hidden. In some students it’s manifested as an outright fear of libraries and the librarians who work there. To many librarians it’s a phenomenon as real as it is perplexing.

In Mellon's study, three general themes emerged: Students found their own library skills inadequate; they found their perceived shortcomings shameful; they feared seeking out help would only reveal their inadequacy.

Library anxiety is still alive and well today. But these days, a new threat to academic research may be students’ lack of understanding about the value of libraries, rather than anxiety about librarians.

“[A] new qualitative project has yielded another surprise: Students in this study weren’t intimidated by librarians or reluctant to lose face by approaching them; they simply had no idea why the librarians were there and what they were for,” Gremmels writes. “Are we labeling as library anxiety phenomena that would more accurately be described as library ignorance or library indifference?”

In law schools, it is a mixture of library anxiety and indifference. Many law students are afraid to ask for help because of how they will be perceived by their peers. Additionally, they are not entirely sure what law librarians do - that is until they start to have research sessions with us.

The best thing I have found to combat both library anxiety and indifference is to be accessible in the classroom teaching the students skills that they need to know to be successful in practice.


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