2022
10
Aug
and

Dispelling the Myth of Library Anxiety and Embracing Academic Discomfort

By Kelleen Maluski and Symphony Bruce

In Brief

Countless articles, essays, studies, and conference presentations have been devoted to library anxiety and defining, analyzing, and reviewing behaviors of our users that are seen as “abnormal” or “counterintuitive” to using our services. However, there is not much critique of library anxiety as a concept and it seems that much of the literature accepts library anxiety as not only a completely true “condition.” In this essay, the authors will problematize the concept of library anxiety by dispelling how library anxiety looks at the symptoms rather than the causes and systems that perpetuate a lack of confidence for users within library spaces. The authors will suggest that the way library anxiety is generally framed by the profession is faulty, as it often assumes that libraries are separate from the rest of the academic experience, neutral, and welcoming instead of regular sites of discrimination and stress. Concepts like anti-deficit thinking, vocational awe, and the recognition that libraries are not neutral will be explored while highlighting their connections to white niceness/politeness and systems of white supremacy within and throughout our profession The authors will show why we as a profession need to reconsider our use of this term and instead think holistically when finding solutions to assist our users and take care of ourselves within this service work. 

Introduction 

Since the introduction of the concept of library anxiety by Constance Mellon in 1986, the term has become ubiquitous within our profession. According to Mellon, library anxiety is a phenomena that impacts students once they enter into an academic library space, making it so “when confronted with the need to gather information in the library for their research paper many students become so anxious that they are unable to approach the problem logically or effectively,” and is constantly used to explain why our users are seemingly unable to accomplish specific tasks or ask for assistance (Mellon, 1986, p.163). This term was further solidified in our profession with the creation of a Library Anxiety Scale (LAS) in 1992 by Sharon Lee Bostick in order to allow academic library workers to “determine if library anxiety exists, and if so, which areas of the library are likely to cause anxiety.” Bostick went on to explain that the instrument could be used as a “diagnostic tool” to assist “administrators in determining which services to fund” (1992, p. 5–6).

However, large issues that have yet to be explored include who decides what is “logical” or “effective,” why we have as a profession deemed specific behaviors that seem to be so prevalent within students “abnormal,” and why we feel the need to phenominize, utilizing a structure that is greatly reliant on the dominant narrative of whiteness, ableism, heteronormativity, elitism, and misogyny (Ettarh, 2018; Leung & López-McKnight, 2020). There is an acknowledgement within academia that learning and engaging with new spaces can bring about discomfort for students in any capacity, which is why positions like academic counselors and student success liaisons in academic departments were created. We know that learning new things, no matter what they are, can be anxiety-inducing and that this is not just something that happens within libraries. This anxiety is a perfectly appropriate response to such an overwhelming amount of new information during one’s academic career. This is why we are concerned that the unexamined use of the term library anxiety as a negative condition and subsequent studies to prove its existence further perpetuate a deficit-thinking approach to identifying student needs without questioning the role of the library procedures and library worker beliefs, values, and actions in producing those feelings. 

History and Background of Library Anxiety and Scale

Mellon’s 1986 study utilized the journal entries and end-of-semester essay writings of first year students in an undergraduate writing course, where students were asked to respond to questions about their experiences using the library for their research, how they felt about those experiences, how their feelings changed, and how they felt about using the library upon the conclusion of the course (p.162). Student responses ranged from surprise about the resources and skills they didn’t know existed, to confusion, to what Mellon coded as anxiety or fear. These reflections led Mellon to wonder “Why didn’t students explain their lack of library skills to their professors?”(1986, p.163) – which she believed was illogical and led to ineffective use of library resources. The answer that Mellon gathered, based on analysis of this reflective student writing (though without having any direct conversations/interviews with the students), is that students felt their behavior was not in line with the abilities of other students, and therefore felt shame. The concerns with such a conclusion are that this creates a monolithic concept of students and how they conduct research and utilize our services and revolves around conclusions of a library researcher and not the students themselves. Mellon’s use of “logical and effective” are subjectively based upon a library professional’s interpretation of student behaviors. 

In this analysis, though, there is little reflection or discussion of the ways in which the librarian or the course professor may have contributed to feelings of inadequacy in their students. Additionally, we get no discussion of the students’ behaviors which are deemed ineffective or illogical. Students are described as “lacking,” with very little analysis on what that could actually mean and why that is the case. 

In 1992, Bostick developed the Library Anxiety Scale (LAS) to measure these “inadequacies” in students. In developing this scale, Bostick attempted to learn more about the demographics of the students studied, gathering data on grade levels, age, and sex in addition to developing questions to rate student’s experiences and feelings about using library resources. It is important to note that the scale does not consider possible discrimination as a source of anxiety as it doesn’t ask for identity markers such as race, ethnicity, dis/ability status, sexual orientation, mental health concerns, socioeconomic background, first generation students, or other historically marginalized communities. The omission of these identity markers suggest an inherent belief that library spaces are inclusive by default and validates the existence of library anxiety in students against that faulty inherent belief. 

The five factors impacting library anxiety have evolved through the years, but have been largely based on Bostick’s (1992) analysis. They are:

  • barriers with staff: students not feeling comfortable or able to approach library staff
  • affective barriers: users’ mental state/feelings impacting their interactions with the library; a lot of this revolves around students feeling they don’t know what the library has
  • comfort with the library: users feeling accepted within the spaces and therefore able to move about them with ease
  • knowledge of the library: users’ understanding of the library and knowing what resources are available
  • mechanical barriers: issues accessing materials due to problems such as internet access, computer availability, broken links, etc. 

According to Bostick, these five factors were decided upon after validation from a group of “experts” working from an original list that was “based on an extensive review of the literature, discussions with university faculty, students, and librarians, and the researcher’s professional experience” (p.47).  Students were then asked to respond to statements based upon these five components (For example, the Staff section included the statement “I don’t like to bother the reference librarian” p. 95). The implication in this study is that library workers know what is the correct behavior or feelings to have in these scenarios and therefore they are able to make judgments about what is creating anxiety in students. What is more, the identification of how the reflections of the students are correlated to concepts of anxiety are also completely subjective. Thus, the very foundation of library anxiety is steeped in perspectives that align with white supremacy, deficit thinking, and dominant narratives within academia as it “translate[s] into common language surrounding library ‘users,’ whose often-assumed homogeneity creates false impressions that individuals interact with and experience libraries in similar ways regardless of their identities” (Floegel & Jackson, 2019, p.413).

In 2004 two more works that expand on the LAS were published, an article by Doris J. Van Kampen and the publication of “Library Anxiety: Theory, Research, and Applications,” edited by Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, Qun G. Jiao, and Sharon L. Bostick. However, much like the previous works, these texts provide an emphasis on specific “symptoms” users might present rather than with the causes underlying the problems. These works offer “generalizable intervention procedures” (Onwuegbuzie et al., 2004, p.10) – like training library workers to be friendly and kind or library-based instruction – that are counterintuitive to holistic concepts of learning which work to understand that every learner is different. When combined with the 2018 article by Erin L. McAfee, which correlated feelings of shame with the concept of library anxiety, we have to ask, if as a profession we generally believe this shame is “inevitable,” what are we doing to change that? How can we as library workers dismantle the oppressive practices of the spaces that we are embedded within and very much a part of? 

These studies show why we focus more readily on behaviors, symptoms, and our preconceived ideas of what our learners should be doing as opposed to tearing down those walls. Our profession aligns itself with white supremacy (Leung & López-McKnight, 2020), therefore we view the anxiety associated with these constructs as being abnormal.

Deficit Thinking as Central

Much has been written about deficit thinking in both the K-12 education and higher education literature, such as The Evolution of Deficit Thinking (1997), edited by Richard R. Valencia, where he describes how the deficit thinking model “posits that the student who fails in school does so because of internal deficits or deficiencies” (p.2). As Heinback, Mitola, and Rinto (2021) paraphrase, Valencia outlines that deficit thinking is characterized by “blaming the victim, oppression, pseudoscience, temporal changes, educability, and heterodoxy” (p.12). Furthermore, the history of institutionalized deficit thinking – like what is seen in discourse around Black students in Title I K-12 schools – has a basis in racism (Menchaca, 1997). For an excellent mapping of the six characteristics of deficit thinking to academic libraries, see Heinback, Mitola, and Rinto’s (2021) Dismantling Deficit Thinking in Academic Libraries

As described above, the very basis of the concept of library anxiety is the idea that students are in some way deficient – in skills, confidence, understanding of procedures – and that this deficiency is something to be treated, fixed, and attended to. This belief that library workers can fix or cure students of their library anxiety by teaching them to use the resources or to see librarians as inherently helpful and good is an example of a deficit thinking model. Using this framework as the basis of instruction, reference, or library services is harmful to students, as it ignores the many skills and life experiences that students bring with them. And as Heinbach, Paloma Fielder, Mitola, & Pattini (2019) concluded in their study of deficit thinking and transfer students, “Rather than encouraging students to inform the nature of the learning environment, educators attempt to fix them to fit a mold defined by a society rife with inequities such as sexism, racism, ableism, and classism.” Library anxiety, when viewed through the deficit thinking lens, assumes that students are unprepared and set up for failure; and quite frankly, it is offensive to the work of students, their life experiences, and the educators they’ve already learned from. 

Gillian Gremmels’ (2015) critique of Constance Mellon’s work helps to illuminate why the deficit thinking model seems so embedded in the library anxiety theory: 

Where most qualitative projects focus on small numbers of respondents, studied in depth, Mellon used several writing samples from each of hundreds of students, creating a dataset whose scope bears more resemblance to a quantitative study. She maintained great distance between herself and her informants: the English instructors assigned and collected the personal writing samples from students over two years. Mellon did not reveal whether she ever met the students or interacted with them in any way. By masking her own experience and interests and minimizing her interaction with the study participants, she showed how entrenched in the positivist paradigm she remained, even while employing qualitative techniques (Gremmels, p.271)

Gremmels’s critique here is one of research method, showing that Mellon worked from a positivist paradigm that believes reality is “single, tangible, and fragmentable” even though she claimed to work from a naturalist view, which understands realities to be “multiple, constructed and holistic” (Lincoln & Guba as cited in Gremmels, p.271). Mellon analyzed the journal entries of students in writing classes but very likely never talked to the students herself, observed their research processes, or inquired about their strengths. She seemed to believe that what students wrote in the moment, as part of an assignment, represented the totality of their feelings, experiences, and skills. This is quite opposite of the method that Heinbach, Paloma Fielder, Mitola, & Pattini (2019) developed to create a strengths-based review of the research skills of transfer students, which, through survey and interviews, inquired about students’ previous life experiences, their information seeking behaviors, and the transferable skills gained from previous work and schooling. Their study showed a group of students who not only had plenty of library and research skills but were also self-aware and self-sufficient. 

When library instruction is situated as a completely new experience for students with no connection to their prior knowledge, we set students up for feelings of anxiety or fear. We signal to students that their previous knowledge and experience are not enough or are invalid. Instead, we have the opportunity to acknowledge that we can build upon the skills, experiences, and talents they already possess. It is not that our students are deficient, but that our beliefs of students don’t account for their skills or acknowledge that they are learners in the process of learning. 

White Niceness/Supremacy 

One of the reasons why library workers cling to the idea of library anxiety, mostly without questioning the concept, is that this conceptualization places the onus of the problems on students instead of library workers. The possibility that students could be too anxious to use the library or work with a library worker means that there could be something wrong with us, challenging the vocational awe of libraries and library workers as irrefutable. Some library workers feel, “There could not possibly be anything wrong with us because we are so helpful, and the library is a good, comfortable, useful place for everyone.” In addition to this, we equate efforts in trying to assist with supposed library anxiety as going above and beyond, feeding into our profession’s white savior narratives by allowing us to point to our goodness and service mentality, instead of simply addressing the barriers and problems that exist in libraries. 

Since Mellon’s coining of library anxiety, library workers have worked to make their spaces appear warm, inviting, and non-threatening. Library instruction sessions provide introductions to library resources and to students in an effort to say look how nice and helpful we are. But even this emotional labor is not consistently expected of all library workers; women and BIPOC library colleagues bear the brunt of needing to appear happy, accommodating, resourceful, and clear because they are often penalized when they don’t. 

Kawana Bright (2018) showed that women library workers of color often perform high levels of emotional and invisible labor during reference desk interactions. Due to the microaggressions library workers of color face when doing their job, Bright’s study participants reported over-performing niceness or politeness and supporting the needs of students of color at higher rates than their white counterparts. And as Emmelhainz, Pappas, and Seale (2017) found in their content analysis of reference guidelines, niceness is baked into expectations for library workers, usually at the cost of their autonomy and with disregard for their skill. Even with all this niceness, many would argue that library anxiety still seems to exist in our students. 

When embedded in teaching sessions, what Mellon might have called “warmth seminars,” this overt niceness can be contrary to what students experience once they are in the library and navigating it alone. For example, in a 2018 study of African Nova Scotian students’ library anxiety levels and experiences with library workers at a predominantly white institution, “students expressed that about half of their experiences were negative. They interacted with supportive librarians that assisted them with their information needs, but they also interacted with unfriendly and condescending library staff that made them avoid future interactions” (Fraser & Bartlett, p.12). For some students, especially those marginalized, they may be less inclined to ask for assistance not because they are anxious about using the library but because they don’t want to replicate a negative experience they’ve had working with our personnel. 

Furthermore, according to Patricia F. Kapotol’s piece on stereotype threat, Black students may be resistant to asking for help not because of the library anxiety per se, but because they don’t want to appear as if they do not belong. In reality, Kapotol suggests, Black students come to the library, use the resources, and navigate other information sources based upon their prior skills – they just simply wish to avoid the possibility of being judged by the library worker, which is a reasonable feeling considering the discrimination experienced in higher education environments (2014, p.2-3).

At some point, we have to ask how much the nice, helpful library worker cosplay is hurting our relationships with students, especially if they end up having negative interactions anyway. Perhaps our students have the right response to an environment that has convoluted policies and procedures and filled with personnel who commit microaggressions or outright discrimination against them. When we create environments that are so centralized around the idea of “niceness” we continue to perpetuate these cycles of harm because we can hide behind our “good intentions” as opposed to analyzing the true nature of these spaces. We can further use our concepts of professionalism to bolster our authority which in turn allows us to believe our ideas of “how to use a library” are correct and that our role is to fix student behaviors. Confronted with this, it makes perfect sense that some students might not feel comfortable approaching us, speaking up, or sharing their experiences and knowledge with us. 

Symptoms vs Systems 

We have outlined a plethora of components that we see as problematic for utilizing the concept of library anxiety and the LAS, such as not accounting for the fact that all students are different and have different intersecting identities, the fact that the concept phenomizes feelings that seem to be so common, a need to silo the library from the rest of the academic institution, and deficit thinking as central to the development of library anxiety. However, one of the key issues with library anxiety is its insistence on diagnosing and addressing “symptoms” instead of focusing on the systems or systemic problems at play. 

The studies and discussions of library anxiety based upon the LAS often use the more broad contributing key factors of staff, resources, technology, reference, and policies and procedures (Onwuegbuzie et al., 2004) which were largely chosen and identified by library “experts.” The LAS sections are categorized by how library workers interact with the library, instead of how library users might label their own use of our resources. While most LAS literature does include focus groups, surveys, and pre- and post-tests of students, these methodologies are used to further diagnose an expected anxiety instead of building mutually beneficial feedback loops that actually address student needs. This approach is problematic for two reasons. First, the emphasis is on assessing students as opposed to asking them what they need and already know means we “neglect the possibility of sharing experience outside of what we seek and expect to find” (Arellano Douglas, 2020, p.56). Secondly, we rarely see students’ input on the categories of the LAS and the very concept itself. 

The language and categorization of services that were offered to students when assessing their expected anxiety matters because they were created by those in the profession and the language of our profession is centered in whiteness. As Anastasia Collins states, “Because white people hold hegemonic power within libraries, the language they use to frame institutional concepts (e.g., professional ethics, classification systems, service standards, performance expectations, etc.) reaffirms the dominance of their racial privilege, and because ‘the dominant cultural groups [are] generating the discourse [it] represent[s] [their dominance] as ‘natural’” (2018, p.43). Accordingly, our profession focuses on creating the concept of library anxiety, detailing how our students feel and why, attaching them to “symptoms” without trusting them to tell us if they actually agree that these feelings are related to their library experiences or why these feelings might exist. 

Further complicating these issues is that when discussing library anxiety, we ignore the larger picture of how our systems have been built with a false narrative of neutrality. We structure these reviews around behaviors and how to “change” or “fix” them without asking why these feelings and possible moments of confusion have become so universal. This issue is of course not specific to library anxiety, but it nonetheless directly impacts the work and concepts of library anxiety. This has been discussed in great detail by many before us, but nina de jesus hits on this issue perfectly: 

Regardless of many people’s feelings about the coherence of individual neutrality, many have taken it as axiomatic that libraries are neutral institutions and that any failure of libraries to be neutral is largely the fault of individuals failing to live up to the ideals or ethics of the profession, rather than understanding the library as institution as fundamentally non-neutral. Libraries as institutions were created not only for a specific ideological purpose but for an ideology that is fundamentally oppressive in nature. As such, the failings of libraries can be re-interpreted not as libraries failing to live up to their ideals and values, but rather as symptoms and evidence of this foundational and oppressive ideology (de jesus, 2014).

We focus attention on deficits within our students and refuse to consider in the equation that these spaces were not made to be comfortable for everyone, indeed for most people, and our students’ reactions to the library are reasonable. Most discussions of library anxiety even discuss how ineffective or incompetent students are repeatedly. For instance, Marisa A. McPherson says of library anxiety, “This fear can prevent students from approaching a research assignment rationally and effectively and can influence a student’s ability to complete assignments and be successful,” but she doesn’t consider who is making the decision about what is “rational,” “effective” or even useful (2015, p.318). 

The systems that have dictated what is appropriate for academic research are not intended for inclusion but rather to continue to uphold power for a select few and further hegemony. It’s as Nicola Andrews says when discussing issues within the profession as a whole, though we can easily see where this translates to our users as well: “When are we going to stop signaling that fear and anxiety is normal within our profession, and instead examine how these narratives are the result of institutions deflecting the need for change” (Andrews, 2020)?

Disrupting the Systems of Oppression

We have shown through many examples in this article why the discussion of library anxiety has become less interested in student success and making our users comfortable with the research process and more interested in blaming the learner for not fitting a prescribed idea of behaviors. The behaviors displayed in library anxiety are described as being “faulty” and our adherence to insisting they are necessary are built on white supremacy and hegemony. In that case, how do we disrupt the narrative of library anxiety to build services that address student needs in a realistic way? We posit that instead of focusing on services and symptoms, we should instead focus on our users holistically. The time spent researching if students feel anxiety about libraries without actually connecting this anxiety to being specific to libraries might be better used to understand the inequities that are fraught throughout academia and how to help make structural change. We need to think holistically about our users, yes, but also about our institutions and our profession. 

We know that “in many circumstances, individuals with marginalized identities experience discrimination during interpersonal encounters in libraries” (Floegel & Jackson, 2019, p. 414). We also know “studies have shown that students who are first-generation college students, nonwhite, or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds make less use of university library resources overall, and students who speak English as a second language are more likely to have higher levels of library anxiety” (as summarized by Blecher-Cohen, 2019, p. 360). What is more, “research shows us that students often face mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression, either as acute episodes or as part of a lifelong mental health journey. We also see increasing evidence that not only do campuses hold a sizeable neurodiverse population, but those individuals are often not provided with the services that best speak to the ways in which we engage with the world” (Skinner & Gross, 2021, p. xvi). We can note in these numbers, which were assessed before the extreme and general trauma that COVID-19 has inflicted on the majority of our learners, how prevalent the damaging practices of hegemony were, so we need to look at the entire picture and not focus on a micro-level revolving solely around library services.

Shifting our thinking from “what we know our students need” to gathering an understanding of what they feel they need and/or want would be a good start to disrupting the status quo that has existed within our profession for so long. One way in which to address this would be to engage with trauma-informed care as a way to understand the individual experiences of our students and the implications of how their different experiences have shaped their engagement with the library (SAMHSA, 2014). As Symphony Bruce pointed out in a previous article, students “should never feel as though their presence or needs are a burden. Students should be able to ask questions and request assistance and still be recognized for the knowledge they possess. In this way, librarians can and should play a vital role in creating a sense of belonging for our students” (2020).

Libraries were not created for everyone. In order to alter our approach to service we must truly understand that libraries were created for a small part of our general population. The concept of library anxiety hinges on the idea of an easily navigable space that was built for every type of user. However, as Fobazi Ettarh tells us, “Libraries were created with the same architectural design as churches in order to elicit religious awe. Awe is not a comforting feeling, but a fearful and overwhelming one….awe is used as a method of eliciting obedience from people in the presence of something bigger than themselves” (2018). 

It is not only the physical spaces themselves that can impact our learners’ use of our services and spaces, it is also the virtual spaces, the ways in which library employees interact with our users, and the policies we enact (or have enacted and not committed to reviewing regularly). The structures in place that allow this behavior to continue, that refuse to acknowledge and own up to the harm caused, and the continuation of racism and other forms of discrimination based around dis/ability status, neurodiversity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more will only continue to cause anxiety, depression, and unmitigated harm. Too often our institutions are willing to confront issues of discrimination only in the abstract (like mission or values statements), which only furthers our profession’s insistence that any anxiety our users feel is a phenomena we must research. It’s as Charlice Hurst aptly points out: 

We can talk about it [racism] at conferences but not in our organizations’ conference rooms. White colleagues who have never given serious thought to racism believe themselves more fit to identify it; more capable of being “objective” or “reasonable.” They almost seem to pity us for our sensitivity to signals of racism. They believe that what they cannot see must not exist, overlooking the possibility that they do not see racism because it does not happen to them (2021). 

If our profession does not actively work to give up power and break down the structures that we so desperately cling to, then we can only expect our learners’ discomfort to continue to grow as our refusal to accept reality makes us even more distanced from their needs. 

Conclusion

The concept of library anxiety has its roots in deficit thinking and the oppressive, hegemonic values that undergird it. A belief that library anxiety – as a special phenomenon separate from any other sort of academic anxiety – bolsters the belief that libraries are at least neutral and at most consistently helpful, comfortable, and safe. None of this is inherently true. Instead, the academic library functions as part of a larger neoliberal project that situates students and other users in a deficient state benefiting from and fixed by the institution. 

To more fully engage with our learners, “We must not only apply an intersectional theoretical approach to creating community but center these narratives in the decision-making process in order to have a truly student-centric approach” (Moreno & Jackson, 2020, p. 11) We can move away from monolithic ideas of what a student should be and instead focus on how we can best address the actual needs of our student body through holistic measures. Making decisions that are informed by students’ stated needs and gathering this information through focus groups, ethnographic studies, and other methodologies, instead of based on our needs or our perceived ideas of student needs, will shift our institutions to being more inclusive and less discomforting for all our users. We need to be aware that the reality is that academic libraries are, generally, the actual monolith, not our students: our systems and procedures work very similarly across institutions despite the differences in our populations and specific user needs.  Although as library workers we can never truly divorce ourselves from the work of our institutions, we can rethink how we evaluate student needs, understand their strengths, and make a better learning environment for them and work environment for us. 


Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the editorial board of In the Library with the Lead Pipe for their dedication in allowing us to share our work and for their assistance through the process. In particular we would like to thank our peer editors, Jesus Espinoza and Lorin Jackson for their time, labor, and thoughtful feedback. We would also like to thank our editors, Ian Beilin and Ikumi Crocoll, for walking us through this process and particularly Ikumi’s considerable and generous commentary. 


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