Constance Mellon Demonstrated That College Freshmen Are Afraid of Academic Libraries

Edgar Bailey

Abstract


A review of:
Mellon, Constance A. “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development.” College & Research Libraries 47 (1986): 160-65.

Objective – To better understand the feelings of college freshmen engaged in their first research project using an academic library.

Design – Interpretive study involving analysis of personal writing describing the students’ research process and their reactions to it.

Setting – A medium-sized public university in the southeastern United States.

Subjects – Students in freshman English courses.

Methods – English instructors assigned students to maintain search journals in which the students recorded a detailed description of their research process and the feelings they experienced while conducting research. In addition, students had to write an end-of- semester, in-class essay in which they discussed their initial reactions to the research project and how their feelings evolved over the semester. The journals and essays were analyzed using the “constant comparative” method developed by Glaser and Strauss to identify “recurrent ‘themes’” (161).

Main Results – 75 to 85 per cent of the students reported feelings of “fear or anxiety” when confronted with the research assignment. More specifically, they expressed a sense of being “lost”. This feeling derived from four causes: “(1) the size of the library; (2) a lack of knowledge about where things were located; (3) how to begin, and (4) what to do” (162). Spurred by the question of why students did not seek help from their professors or a librarian, Mellon re-examined the data and uncovered two additional prevalent feelings. Most students tended to believe that their fellow students did not share their lack of library skills. They were ashamed of what they considered their own inadequacy and were, therefore, unwilling to reveal it by asking for assistance (162).

Conclusions – The original objective of Mellon’s study was to gain information that would be useful in improving bibliographic instruction in her library. The discovery of the extent of students’ apprehension when confronted with a library research assignment came as something of a surprise. Mellon later noted that, at the time she was conducting her research, she first became aware of the symptoms of math anxiety and realized that they closely resembled those she had identified in students confronting a library research assignment. At that point she coined the now widely used term “library anxiety” (Mellon, “Library Anxiety and the Non-Traditional Student” 79). She further realised that the research on math anxiety suggested the syndrome could be at least partially alleviated by simply acknowledging its existence to students. As a result, instruction librarians began openly discussing the affective aspects of library research in their classes, assuring students that their feelings of apprehension were both “common and reasonable” (164). They also devoted more conscious effort to presenting themselves as caring and approachable people who genuinely understood students’ feelings and wanted to help them. In addition, English faculty began devoting more class time to teaching the research process, even spending some out-of-class time in the library working with reference librarians to assist students.

Keywords


library anxiety; academic librarianship; Library Anxiety Scale

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