Library anxiety: It’s real and students can beat it

By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries 

Erica-Nicol-80PULLMAN, Wash. – As Washington State University classes resume this week, Erica Nicol has just the remedy for new and returning students who get the heebie-jeebies just opening the doors to campus libraries.

Her online guide explores the origins of library anxiety and offers tips for beating it (

Clueless and ashamed

Before you pooh-pooh the idea that someone could actually break out in a cold sweat at the sight of a library or librarian, Nicol offers an impressive case for this common phenomenon. Her guide includes everything from links to articles, a video and books on the subject to film clips of stereotypical – read scary – librarians and even a quick quiz.

Erica Nicol

“Studies show that incoming students experience this anxiety a lot,” said Nicol, a humanities/social sciences reference librarian at WSU Libraries. “Our reference desk gets a lot of these students. The first thing they do is apologize for not knowing how to use the library or even for asking a question. And those are the brave ones.

“The worst part of library anxiety is that people feel like they’re the only ones who don’t know how to use the library,” she said. “It’s isolating and makes them feel that it’s a problem with them. It also keeps them from asking for help because they feel ashamed.”

Putting a name to the fear

Constance Mellon coined the term “library anxiety” in a 1986 article, “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development.” Mellon, then an assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., wrote about a study of 6,000 students to explore their perceptions of the library research process.

“It was found that 75 to 85 percent of students in each class described their initial response to the library in terms of fear or anxiety,” Mellon wrote. “Terms like scary, overpowering, lost, helpless, confused and fear of the unknown appeared over and over again.”

Furthermore, Mellon theorized that “students’ fears were due to a feeling that other students were competent at library use while they alone were incompetent, that this lack of competence was somehow shameful and must be kept hidden, and that asking questions would lead to a revelation of their incompetence.”

Resources intimidating

That anxiety has worsened 30 years later with today’s glut of digital resources at a student’s fingertips.

“I think that it is probably getting more pronounced as more sources are available,” Nicol said. “Librarians love to talk about our huge collections and the vast numbers of sources we provide, but to a lot of our beginning users, perhaps especially at research institutions like WSU, the sheer size of our collections is more intimidating than helpful.

“It’s kind of amazing that when online resources are included in the mix, even small public libraries now have collections bigger than those of the fabled library of Alexandria (in ancient Egypt),” she said.

The scary librarian

Remember the purple apparition of the librarian in the movie “Ghostbusters?” The one with her hair pulled back in a bun, shushing the parapsychologists portrayed by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis and erupting in demonic rage when the three disturb her?

Popular culture hasn’t done librarians any favors, which can feed into library anxiety overall.

“If you look at the stereotypes, it’s not very positive,” Nicol said. “Gatekeepers. Rule enforcers. (Rupert) Giles from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ is a great example of a good character, but not necessarily of a good librarian.

“Real librarians are invested in helping students succeed,” she said. “We want to help them find the sources they need and understand how to use the library most effectively. We want to do whatever we can to facilitate their research. You don’t often see this representation of librarians.”

How to help students

Nicol offers the following tips for professors, instructors and others working with new and returning students about to brave the stacks and reference desk:

• Let students know they’re not alone in feeling the way they do. “It’s very understandable to feel anxiety when encountering a big research library for the first time,” she said.

• Advise students to seek help from the experts. Librarians and library employees can usually make it a lot easier to find sources and navigate the libraries. Establishing a relationship from the start “can be a real doorway for students,” Nicol said. For students who would rather ask for help anonymously, WSU Libraries offers a 24/7 online service for answering questions at

• Encourage students to tackle fear sooner rather than later. “Students who are feeling anxious about libraries tend to procrastinate,” she said. “The longer they wait, though, the worse the situation gets as a deadline gets closer.”



Erica Nicol, WSU Libraries humanities/social sciences reference librarian, 509-335-8614,

Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries public relations/communication coordinator, 509-335-6744,