When did you first learn about the function of a library? What did you learn was the role of a library? These are the questions that I believe should follow “what is library anxiety?”
As mentioned in my previous post on the topic, Welcome...to Library Anxiety, I explained that library anxiety is a fear many students face when they encounter their academic library. This fear of using the library stems from feelings of inadequacy and a worry of appearing stupid. In my previous post, I unconsciously revealed my initial belief as to where this fear holds its roots: popular culture stereotypes.
We all know the stereotype of librarians and libraries on TV and in movies. The librarian is an older white woman with a low bun and crow’s feet around her eyes. She watches troublemakers with a judgemental eye and doles out the classic finger-on-lips “shush” as a comedic break. Her library has brown wooden tables, dusty bookshelves, and a strict “no talking” policy.
Due to the pervasiveness of this stereotype in media, I made the assumption that this is where everyone’s foundations of library anxiety began; people believe that the library is this untouchable and unfriendly space, so they don’t feel welcome there. The librarian character is at the forefront of their minds when they decide to forego asking for help. I unintentionally funneled all undergraduates’ experiences into this unfounded belief of mine — that library anxiety is rooted in the portrayals of libraries in popular culture. And while that may be true for some, it’s certainly not true for all.
So I asked myself, where do people learn about libraries? And is this related to the development of library anxiety?
I conducted a small survey to find out. According to the 83 respondents, a clear majority came from the 45.8% who said they learned about the function and purpose of a library in K-12 school. However, interestingly, 33.8% responded that this was “common/assumed knowledge.” I infer this to mean that these respondents were never formally informed about what a library is, but rather their exposure to libraries created their own personal belief about what a library is and does.
Correlating the answers of the 33.8% to a follow-up question of “what is the main purpose of a library?,” most of those respondents selected the answer “to provide space for people to read, learn, and collaborate.” Now, there is no one, exactly right answer when it comes to this question, but I do believe this finding is significant, primarily because this answer does not include the “asking for help” aspect of libraries. This fear of asking for help is something that perpetuates library anxiety.
In Constance Mellon’s article where she originally coined the phrase “library anxiety,” she quoted a student who wrote, “They never taught me how to use the library. I guess they thought I would already know.” The U-M Library makes no such assumption. There are a lot of easy, accessible ways to ask for help through the Ask A Librarian service, and the library screens a video at freshman orientation to give an overview of what your library can do.
If you need help, ask for it! Your library is here for you.
Meghan Brody is an LSA senior studying history and writing. She is the president of the gender equality organization HeForShe, a senior editor for the Michigan Journal in History, the library science intern for the Immigrant Justice Lab, and an intern in the U-M Library's office of Communication and Marketing.