Writing Across Berkeley

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Library Anxiety

Image of spiraling tunnel of books
March 30, 2017

The University Library is one of the most intimidating institutions on campus to undergraduates. It represents much that is both impressive and alienating about the University. They know it’s big, they intuit that it probably has lots of amazing resources, but they feel ashamed of their ignorance and don’t know where to start. Librarians call this “library anxiety.”

The Library (as an institution and as a group of educators) reaches out to undergraduates in many ways, but the reality is unless students are assigned research they rarely use library resources. While the process of researching and writing is fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, it rewards the writer in many ways. Doing library research can engage lower-division students with the academic endeavor in a way tamer and easier tasks cannot. It makes real the motto posted in the Doe Reference Hall that scholarship is a conversation across the ages. It teaches that ideas evolve over time. It teaches that context matters. These are essential ideas for our students to absorb in these days of national disinformation. Yet too many faculty don’t assign research, particularly at the lower-division level.

Back in 2003 the Library instituted the Library Prize for Undergraduate Research, for which many instructors from College Writing have served as jurors. Recognizing excellent undergraduate research is foremost, but a second, perhaps-too-well-hidden, goal is to encourage faculty, even in lower-division classes, to assign research. And we’ve seen some remarkable research from freshmen and sophomores based on well-designed assignments from History, College Writing, Classics and Near Eastern Studies, which show that lower-division students, if given challenging assignments and instruction in research, can achieve excellence. Take a look at the great prize-winning papers in eScholarship .

Writing a paper based on original research can be a life-changing experience for undergraduates: one of the few academic experiences to remain fresh in students’ memories years after graduation. But often it’s not until the senior thesis that undergrads are required to go beyond research strategies from high school-- Google, Google Scholar or JSTOR-- and really dig in to the vast collections of our library system. Students usually regret this delay. And students in majors that are not library-research intensive may never learn these things.

What’s wrong with the way we introduce academic research to lower-division students? Some faculty may rely solely on assigned readings and not require any library engagement at all. Others assign library research in the most traditional way, requiring students to use, for example, only print materials, “nothing online.” Still others approach research with timidity, asking students to find one or two articles, with no guidance on how these should relate to each other, or how to evaluate them. These approaches do not go far enough in helping lower-division student build research skills. So, what should faculty do to address library anxiety? Here are some ideas:

  1. An effective research assignment targets specific skills, for example, the ability to trace a scholarly argument through the literature or the ability to organize consulted resources into a bibliography.
  2. Assess the quality of the sources your students cite as part of their overall grades, and explain clearly in your rubric how that evaluation will be made.
  3. Have students trace the research on a topic over a specific time period. When, where and how did information about the topic begin and develop? Search in specialized encyclopedias, books and articles to determine how the topic has changed over time.
  4. Assign a seminal article in your field and have students follow the citations backward and forward to see how ideas are built upon each other.

For more ideas contact your librarian .


By Lynn Jones (Doe Library Reference Coordinator)