Perhaps I should take the initiative.

In researching library anxiety in college students, I seem to have identified a gap in the flow of information. While the problem has been recognized, studied and written about for years, books and peer-reviewed articles on the subject can easily be accessed, studies have been conducted and recommendations made, most everything is directed at the information professional and not at the effected community of users. The abundance of research and writing has not translated into practical, usable, understandable applications for the anxious college students themselves. So, while clear efforts have been made for academic librarians and other information professionals to be made aware that this is a very real issue and that there are obvious ways to combat it, very little effort seems to have been made to give the same courtesy to the individuals it effects.

Look for a lofty academic article on the topic either online or through your library database and dozens will appear at your first search. Look for a magazine article, a blog, a discussion forum, or even a libguide on the topic and the search will yield few if any results. That really will depend on how savvy you are in your searching, how much effort and how many failed searches your willing to put into it. The students who are experiencing the feelings of embarrassment, fear, shame, ignorance, and apprehension are left with few if any information sources. They are left to believe that they really are alone in their anxiety.

The first step to making a change, should be to make the students themselves aware that this is a real thing and they are not alone. All of the information literacy classes and programs and activities in the world can be planned and implemented and studied and written about, but unless the students themselves are made aware and their feelings validated, it will continue to be like beating our heads against the same brick wall expecting it to fall.

Socially anxious – library anxious –  students, by the very definition of the issues they face, can be seen as information non-seekers. They are not the students delving deep into the databases and journal articles we provide. They are the students afraid to look, afraid to ask. They are the individuals who suffer in silence and think no one else is feeling the same way. They are not likely to find out on their own what library anxiety is and how to overcome it. They are not going to form their own groups, or start their own forums. But those things are exactly what they need.

The information professionals who have access to those studies and recommendations, who have been made aware of the problem, should be seeking ways to get the information to those students where they are. There should be magazine articles, blog posts, libguides, discussion forums aimed specifically at the individuals themselves, seeking to both inform and bring together. Libraries should be making efforts to let the students know they are not alone and the problem can be reduced and even eliminated.

Perhaps I should just take the initiative… write an article… start a blog… form a discussion board… propose some of my ice breaking ideas in my own academic library…

Yes, perhaps I should take the initiative. Perhaps I will take the initiative.

It really all comes down to ethics.

In considering my information community, socially anxious college students, I initially had a hard time thinking of a legal or ethical issue that I could research and write about for this post. Then my mind turned toward privacy issues. In order to better serve any group it becomes important to assess what you are accomplishing. But in assessing, where do you draw the line? What is okay and what is fringing on the privacy rights of the patron?

With these thoughts in mind I began to search on topics that included students, libraries, privacy, assessment, and ethics. The search results was varied and included things like library instruction and plagiarism awareness. I felt a little validated in the fact that even the literature attested to the fact that “it was difficult to define issues of ethics and integrity that are specific to what we do as instruction librarians… there is little about ethics and integrity in academic libraries” (Jacobs, 2008, pg. 212). But, ultimately what I found was that, though little may be written, in the end it really all comes down to ethics.

I find myself looking at this information community from two perspectives. First, obviously, from the point of view of the group of students who are actually experiencing library, or information, anxiety. But, secondly, from the point of view of the academic librarians and other information professionals whose job it is to work with and for this community. The issues are both the same and different.

From the perspective of the anxious, overwhelmed student it may be terrifying to ask for research help, or easier to quickly take the first information handed to them than to spend time with a “scary” librarian learning how to delve deeper and find their own answers. It may also be easier and less intimidating to “copy and paste” that information than to try to explain something in their own words that they were too embarrassed, confused, or intimidated to truly research and learn about. And it may be simpler to just not fill out that library survey or to give feedback you think the librarian wants to hear rather than to admit to feelings of inadequacy and ignorance.

From the perspective of the librarian it may be that though “we know that it is not ethical to do the research for a student…it is difficult to determine the appropriate balance between answering a reference question and answering a research question” (Jacobs, 2008, pg.224). When half the battle seems to be just getting that student to even interact and ask their question, it may be simpler to hand them their answer than to teach them to find it. The same holds true with making the students aware of plagiarism issues. While it is the role of the instruction librarian to educate students on properly citing and using information (Jacobs, 2008), it is also about instilling in students “the understanding that plagiarism is an ethical rather than merely an issue of proper form and function” (Strittmatter & Bratton, 2014, pg.746). That can be difficult for the librarian who is struggling to engage students in library instruction. It may end up seeming like an accomplishment just to address proper form. Academic librarians may also struggle with how to go about assessing their services. What is the best approach? What is too broad/ What questions breach privacy? “Assessment should include a sampling of undergraduates who use library services and those who do not” (“Guidelines”, 2014, pg. 95), but how do you reach those students who do not? General library knowledge surveys, evaluation checklists, student journal entries, information literacy diaries, and focus groups can all be useful and appropriate forms of assessment (“Guidelines”, 2014), but when and how often? How do you chose to apply the feedback? How much is shared and with whom? It can be fraught with ethical concerns.

Ultimately, no matter the perspective, no matter the issue, really even no matter the community you consider – it really all comes down to ethics.

References

Guidelines for university library services to undergraduate students. (2014). College & Research Libraries News, 75(2), 93-100.

Jacobs, M. L. (2008). Ethics and Ethical Challenges in Library Instruction. Journal Of Library Administration, 47(3/4), 211-232.

Strittmatter, C. , & Bratton, V. (2014). Plagiarism Awareness among Students: Assessing Integration of Ethics Theory into Library Instruction. College & Research Libraries, 75(5), 736-752.

It’s all about perception.

In researching the information seeking behavior and perceptions of information services of undergraduate college students with library anxiety, I found occasion to review many resources. In particular, I found the information and approaches of one peer reviewed article and one professional article of interest.

The peer reviewed article by Blundell and Lambert (2014) followed a pilot study of second-semester freshman. The purpose of the study was to build a foundation for further study into the specific triggers of information anxiety in undergrads. This is of particular importance as  researchers have discovered that anxiety can be detrimental to both information seeking and academic performance. Despite an awareness and previous research concerning information anxiety there is very little know about the specific triggers. The literature review included by the authors indicated that when anxiety and uncertainty are heightened information-seekers are more likely to claim satisfaction even with minimal or poor resources and identified anxiety as “the biggest impediment to successful completion of information tasks” (pg. 263). Such behavior can have short term negative effects on performance as well as negative long term effects on degree completion. Researchers seemed to agree that limiting anxiety during the information seeking process would be key.

The professional article by Siess (2006) took a very different approach and provided some very interesting information. This editorial reviewed a 202 article by Barbara Fister about why some students were reluctant to use the reference desk. Fister was quoted: “Surrounded by computers and books and journals chosen specifically to support their learning, students are embarrassed by those riches – or, rather, by the fact that what they need is somewhere in all that bounty and they don’t know how to find it.” Siess followed her review of Fister’s 2002 article with more recent comments by librarians. These librarians identified what they saw as specific issues and offered suggestions for alleviating the anxiety. Three facets of fear were identified by one librarian: not knowing who to ask, fear of asking a dumb question, and reluctance to bother a busy librarian. How you greet people, how you dress, and being free enough to be approachable were recognised by this librarian as important to reduce anxiety. Another librarian suggested that there is a public perception that anyone should be able to navigate a library and that librarians have encouraged the view that libraries are self-service resources. Another responding librarian hypothesised that the problem may be that patrons don’t know what reference librarians can do. Another offered the idea of high visibility, roving reference librarians, and buttons to be worn for identification of library staff so that patrons know if they are speaking with a librarian, support staff, or student employee.

It is clear that while these students do use the library and it’s resources, their seeking can be easily thwarted due to information anxiety. The very nature of their issue with fear, uncertainty, and embarrassment would seem to indicate quite obviously that these students are not creating their own information sources, but rather are likely to give up and isolate themselves.

While the peer reviewed article was of interest and provided a great overview of previous research, the nature of the pilot study left many questions unanswered. The professional article, on the other hand, though only a short editorial, provided many insights from the front lines and suggestions for how to reduce the anxiety.

In the end, it would seem, it really is all about perception.

References

Blundell, S., & Lambert, F. (2014). Information Anxiety from the Undergraduate Student Perspective: A Pilot Study of Second-semester Freshmen. Journal Of Education For Library & Information Science, 55(4), 261-273.

Siess, J. (2006). Fear Of Reference: Is It Because of Our Image?. One-Person Library, 23(2), 4-6.