Looking for information when one does not know where to start can be awkward, even embarrassing. For the last twenty years, psychologists have been studying a condition called ‘library anxiety’. In the seminal two-year study of six thousand students at University of Tennessee twenty years ago, Constance Mellon found that a sizeable majority experienced anxiety while working in libraries, causing “interfering responses” in their researching. As one respondent confessed: “When I first entered the library, I was terrified. I didn’t know where anything was located or even who to ask to get some help. It was like being in a foreign country and unable to speak the language.”
Tony Onwuegbuzie, an associate professor at the University of South Florida whose Library Anxiety (2004) is now the benchmark text on the phobia ["The Impact of Information Technology on Library Anxiety"], began his researches as a statistical enquiry, but found the journals kept by respondents to his first survey remarkably compelling: “Even people who would have been only slightly anxious were far more likely simply to give up if they encountered a problem with research. Say if they could not get parking, they might go around once then turn around and go home, because they were looking for an excuse not to go in the first place. Another common experience was going to the library, finding that the resource they wanted to use had other people using it, then blaming the library, thinking it was a horrible place, and using that as a basis for avoiding it in future. People were amazingly honest. They’d report having gone home and had a fight with their spouse or partner because of the frustration the library had caused them, which suggested these feelings are really deeply felt.” Onwuegbuzie’s subsequent studies at five American campuses suggest that up to 45% of students experience some kind of panic, learned helplessness or mental disarray in libraries. “As instructors, we tend to assume they have library skills, and proper search skills,” he says. “That’s not a good assumption. If they haven’t been taught, where would they learn? In fact, Constance Mellon showed very early that it’s something people hide, tending to assume that everyone else is competent but them.”
So, when we hear students say they don't need to come to our library classes because "they have done research before" - we may want to consider that this resistance may be partly (unconsciously) due to library anxiety. And this is something to share with our new graduate teaching assistants as well.