Myths Associated With Undergraduate Use of Academic Libraries

by Moya K. Mason

An Introduction

Hundreds of thousands of students enter undergraduate programs in North America each year. Their experiences will vary depending upon where they go to school, the size and stature of the institution, and the level of their interest and intellectuality. Most of the people entering academic institutions at the undergraduate level are quite young, with many being fresh out of high school. Observations of these young people bring the word sophistication to mind, and amazement at the level of their self-confidence. Many grew up with computers in the home and school, surfing the Internet, and playing computer games.

The high school seniors entering universities for the first time are very bright and worldly; many are well-traveled and quite able to handle themselves in many different situations. What happens when they enter the foreign atmosphere of an academic university will be dependent upon many things, including if they are living away from family, are without friends, how large their classes are, and if they have been used to interacting with their high school teachers. In university, there are many reasons why they are unlikely to have close relationships with their professors. The manner in which these realities are handled will often mean the difference between students staying in university or dropping out. How do those who stay in, cope with fulfilling their academic requirements?

Undergraduate students have interests that cover a multitude of subjects, as well as a wide spectrum of personal expectations and goals to be realized, but one thing they will all have in common is the need to use the university library for research papers, projects, presentations, and to access reserve readings. Do they have that in common or are many able to bypass such an important part of the learning institution? How often do undergraduates use the library? Do they know their way around it, or is going to the library an unsettling, stressful experience for some? Do faculty members tend to give assignments that presume in-depth knowledge and great experience with library research techniques? This paper will try to answer these questions and to uncover some other myths and realities about undergraduates and their use of the academic library.

An Overview of the Literature on Undergraduate Library Use

Studies have shown that using their university's library for research purposes overwhelms many of these seemingly sophisticated undergraduates. Often they will use the library as a meeting place, to talk to classmates about upcoming exams, or as a quiet place to take a mid-afternoon nap, but when it comes to actually using library resources to write a paper, anxiety is often the result. Nigel Ford says that the library can be a stimulating place for some students; "for others, however, this may not be the case" (Ford 1986,61). In Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and its Development, Constance A. Mellon writes that:

Many students become so anxious that they are unable to approach the problem logically or effectively ... Further examination of the data indicated 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 shameful and must be kept hidden, and that asking questions would lead to a revelation of their incompetence (Mellon 1986,163).

Librarians are quite aware of the problems experienced by students, and know their fear comes from the size of the library, unfamiliar surroundings, and not knowing how to start the research process without appearing ignorant to librarians and members of their peer group (Mellon 1986,162-163). Barbara Valentine found that students were very hesitant about asking librarians for help, and some even expressed being afraid of approaching particular librarians (Valentine 1993,304). Jane Keefer suggests that making reference librarians appear more caring, and by employing 'floating librarians' to spot trouble, would go a long way to encourage students to seek help, rather than to do poorly on their assignments (Keefer 1993,337). Kuhlthau and associates advise that reference librarians need to be sensitive to the feelings of doubt, anxiety, and confusion that are commonly seen in library novices, and should make students aware that they are not alone in the kinds of feelings they are experiencing (Kuhlthau 1990,28). Once people realize that what they are experiencing is normal, anxiety can be dealt with a lot easier.

In investigating undergraduate research behavior, Barbara Valentine found that unfamiliar library surroundings and resources were related to students' fear of undertaking a research project. She collected many comments from undergraduates, including many that were very similar to this one: "As a freshman I never came to the library except to study. It was kinda scary wondering how does this system work?" (Valentine 1993,303). Undergraduates are especially adverse to 'bothering' the librarians, consider themselves failures if they have to, and believe that other students will see them as failures as well (Valentine 1993,303). A major implication for students experiencing library anxiety is that they often exhibit low success levels when using academic libraries (Kuhlthau 1988,419). Since the majority of undergraduate students will not ask for help, library staff must find other ways to reach out to them.

New students are not confident in their abilities and are not fully prepared to meet the challenges of going to university without learning some new techniques to get them through. One problem is that they leave high school with little or no library skills to transfer to a post-secondary institution. Mostly to blame is the high school curriculum that gets progressively easier in most boards of education. A large number of students have had trouble getting through tougher courses, and since many were failing, schools began an overview of their requirements. Sometimes they call it destreaming, which means that they phase out the honour's classes and put everyone together, despite differing intellectual strengths. Many public schools in the United States no longer offer an essay element on examinations because students have such low reading and writing scores that few would ever pass. And we have all heard of students not being able to read or write when they leave high school, haven't we?

What this approach has done is to move the standards down each year, fundamentally retarding the educational process. More important, it does not give able students the basics needed for a university education. They feel quite lost when they are expected to do exercises in research that are too advanced for them. Many have never used a good academic library before and find little to compare one to in their school media centers, or their local public libraries. It is a myth that undergrads can easily find their way around a large research library and take advantage of what is offered there. In What Do They Know? An Assessment of Undergraduate Library Skills, the authors state that a 1991 report shows that undergraduates had very few library skills and were not as prepared for college as students were in the 1960s and 70s (Kunkel 1996,430).

This lack of library skills, coupled with library and performance anxiety, is exacerbated when faculty members think their students will quickly overcome their problems with the library and the research process. They have no real idea of how deep the problems may go, nor do they understand that the reality is that their students cannot cope (Coupe 1993,189). Faculty members have a tendency to assume that the acquisition of research skills is an easy matter for most students, forgetting how much time and experience it takes to use libraries competently and how formidable librarians can seem to undergraduates. As Gloria J. Leckie points out, "[s]imply because of the passage of time, they have forgotten what their own undergraduate experience was like" (Leckie 1996,203). Kunkel and associates suggest that librarians need to make faculty members more aware of the problems associated with undergraduate research (Kunkel 1996,433), and help to modify the "one-track teaching routines" or ruts that faculty members become accustomed to (Hardy 1992,106). Student fear is elevated when they realize their professors foresee no problems with library research projects. This makes them feel that it must be an individual problem they are experiencing, rather than a group phenomenon, so they say nothing.

In reality, there is little evidence to prove the problem will go away on its own. In Undergraduate Library Skills: Two Surveys at John Hopkins University, Jill Coupe says there is no reason to believe undergraduates can learn adequate library skills independently (Coupe 1993,195). She writes:

It is discouraging to note that 40 percent of the juniors and seniors rate their library skills as being either "pretty bad" or "terrible" and that their scores on the questionnaire seem to confirm that they are right (Coupe 1993,196).

Sadly, this seems to indicate that the problem does not go away, but instead, students learn to cope better with their own deficiencies and hide their inadequacies. By doing so, they miss a greater quality of education which can only come from learning how to do independent research. What the implications are for graduate students will be the topic of another paper, but seemingly they also require better library instruction. It is a myth to believe that undergraduates can make the changes needed for educational success without faculty members and librarians assisting them. Asking librarians for help can lessen how much stress is involved in the research process, while librarians should include assurances that the student's feelings of confusion and anxiety are normal (Keefer 1993,337).

Some encouraging data was revealed by Carol Collier Kuhlthau in Perceptions of the Information Search Process in Libraries: A Study of Changes from High School Through College. Negative perceptions about libraries and their use can be dispelled over time. Kuhlthau found that students do begin to understand that the library can be quite helpful in completing their course work and in providing them with a deeper understanding of assignments (Kuhlthau 1988,425). Students wished they had written more research papers, learned to properly develop theses, and learned more skills they could use in an academic library while they were still in high school (Kuhlthau 1988,425).

Undergraduate Research Techniques

Not surprisingly, undergraduates attempt to do their research work very quickly, getting in and out of the library as fast as they can (Valentine 1993,302). Also unremarkable is their penchant for using the Internet in the research process, even though many excellent databases were beyond their comprehension and remained untouched (Valentine 1993,302). Ingrid Hsieh-Yee reports that 88 percent of the students she studied used OPACS, 28 percent used CD-ROMS, while only 19 percent took advantage of online databases and indexes (Hsieh-Yee 1996,164). Students are just not using information resources that have been proven to speed up the research process, and are very expensive to have in libraries. Many students don't even understand the difference between doing a keyword search and a subject search, nor are many knowledgeable about LCSH (Hsieh-Yee 1996,166). Also, the low numbers accessing the library catalogue and databases from home was unexpected, with only 28 percent of students attending American University and the University of the District of Columbia using remote access (Hsieh-Yee 1996,165). If they realized how much time it saves avoiding in-library lineups, and how less stressful and fulfilling it is to search for sources at their leisure, many more would be doing it. Faculty and library staff should encourage remote access to first year students since they can more comfortably teach themselves how to use the databases when there isn't a long lineup of students waiting to use the resources in the library.

One thing for certain is that students do not have the same research habits as their professors. But how can they? Primarily they run into problems in developing thesis statements and finding a focus (Fister 1992,168). Most disturbing is the data that supports the theory that undergraduates do not use the library very much. In Do Undergraduates Need their Libraries? Tony Mays indicates the reason is that students are not expected to supplement course work with library research (Mays 1986,51). This must mean that professors are relying on handouts and textbooks to teach the curriculum, and are not helping their students to learn independently. Certainly, this does not fit in with the reigning ideology that librarians are working with faculty to provide material that will support and supplement textbooks. In other words, teaching students how to find it themselves (Hardy 1992,106). A key concept is "that students should be active seekers rather than passive recipients of learning" (Hardy 1992,106). Whether students will use the library very much will also depend upon the teaching style of their professors, course requirements, and the educational mission of the university.

The reality is that undergraduates are not borrowing books in great numbers. Tony Mays revealed that 11.6% of undergraduates at Deakin University borrowed no books at all in their first year, and tend to view the university library as a meeting place and study hall (Mays 1986,53). This accounts in part for why academic libraries are often too noisy to read in. Kunkel reports that 49.4% of students in the Kent State University system are seldom given any work that requires library research, and 31.4% had few library assignments to do (Kunkel 1996,43 1). Consequently, "students who are not given library assignments fail to develop library skills" (Kunkel 1996,4333). Furthermore, with the existing teaching practices found at many universities, those who showed initiative and did extra library research on a topic, still did not receive any extra credit for their trouble. Researchers found that there is no correlation between an increase of library use and an increase in grades (Mays 1986,61). There is no incentive.

It is unlikely those students will bother the second time. Does this mean that undergraduates really do not need their university libraries? No, what it suggests is that if society is going to turn out free thinkers, who can develop independent thought processes, the importance of using the library as much as possible to open the universe of knowledge must be emphasized to first year students. Faculty members need to make it a mandatory requirement. Problems may arise from faculty perceptions of libraries in general. Some research suggests that libraries are one of the last places that faculty members will go to seek out the information they need (Hardy 1992,107). If so, "similar attitudes and perceptions will rapidly spread among their students" (Hardy 1992,107). If students know they will continue to receive assignments that need additional library research, it will force many to seek training from library staff or from their professors and interns. Undergraduates should already be getting advice from their professors on how to develop ideas, focus topics, and organize research papers.

In reality, students prefer to ask friends, classmates, and family members for help when they have problems with course work. Barbara Valentine found that "classmates and friends constitute an important source of information for undergraduates," while asking their professors and library staff were last resorts (Valentine 1993,303). Many students are intimidated by the intellectual stature of their professors, and would never consider going to them for individual instruction. Others have no idea they can go to see their teachers, perceiving themselves as intruders, taking up the valuable time of busy people. Of course, this can be made more difficult if professors are not seen to have an open door policy for their students or weekly office hours, and some do not. Regardless, there are some students who are just not outgoing enough to knock on faculty doors, especially if they are in very large classes, where the likelihood that the professor will recognize them is very much reduced.

Kuhlthau and associates found that 20 percent consulted with family and friends, and 13 percent with classmates (Kuhlthau 1990,2 1). Startlingly, of the students they collected data on, only 25 percent conferred with librarians, leaving 75 percent without the advice of their in-house information experts (Kuhlthau 1990,21). In another study done by Carol Kuhlthau, responses elicited from students on how often they asked librarians and teachers for help, were "sometimes, seldom, or almost never categories" (Kuhlthau 1988,426). What can faculty members do to facilitate the learning of library research techniques? Are they available to help their students with research questions, or is it impossible for many to understand that undergraduates are still novices when it comes to information retrieval?

Currently, university professors are under the dual pressures of designing and teaching courses, and producing important research that will bring money and prestige to their institutions. It is not an easy career, with demands coming from all directions. Nor can it be considered leisurely, as time management must always be a factor in the life of a professor. They live in the fast-paced world of academia and teach scores of students whose names most of them will never have the time to learn, so it is not surprising that students can be given research assignments that are too advanced for them at that point in time. Also a reality is that with the diversity of students in university, including those with many special needs, professors often have no idea of their students' skill levels (Leckie 1996,203). As Gloria J. Leckie points out in Desperately, Seeking Citations: Uncovering Faculty Assumptions about the Undergraduate Research Process:

They are used to sophisticated discussions with colleagues and graduate students, and in this environment, it is all too easy to make assumptions about the level of understanding possessed by undergraduates (Leckie 1996,202).

Since professors are fairly independent library users, are very experienced researchers, and are teaching classes that they may be considered experts in, it seems obvious they have little in common with undergraduates (Leckie 1996,202). Faculty members also believe that students will go to a librarian for help as they would themselves (Leckie 1996,205). This is part of the mythology surrounding undergraduates, with studies showing this to be the exception rather than the rule, particularly among foreign students (Leckie 1996,205). Students do not approach research in the same way, and "[t]hey do not think in terms of an information-seeking strategy, but rather in terms of a coping strategy" (Leckie 1996,202). They are not experts in the discipline, but they can be given research assignments that almost presume they are, due to "the expert research assumptions lurking behind the deceptively straightforward surface of the assignment" (Leckie 1996,203).

Other important realities of undergraduate research techniques exist, including a lack of understanding when it comes to sources of scholarly information, with students exhibiting confusion between popular and academic journals (Leckie 1996,204). In addition, they often miss important information because they tend to use sources that have worked for them in the past, not necessarily the best ones (Valentine 1993,303), and they have no conception of what a citation trail is, or that they can take advantage of one (Leckie 1996,205). There is a wide gap between faculty assumptions of their students' sophistication and the reality of their information-seeking abilities. Where does all this leave undergraduates? Is there any hope for them?


There are many myths associated with undergraduate use of academic libraries. The reality is that many come to university unprepared and unequipped to handle the demands of their course work, primarily because they have no experience with large research libraries, do not understand how libraries work, and have not acquired the skills needed to do meaningful research. This is not the fault of the students, but is indicative of the problems inherent in a public school system gone astray. We cannot all afford to put our children in excellent private schools to better prepare them for university, so how can parents help?

Introducing high school students to the local academic library can be very beneficial, especially if there is a liaison librarian willing to reach out to these young people. The other thing would be to demand that some of those tuition dollars go towards giving intensive bibliographic instruction in the form of a month-long orientation course into library research, with mandatory assignments built-in. This writer believes that for a group of smart entrepreneurs, made up of retired or out-of-work librarians, offering an instructional summer-long course to prospective undergraduates, would prove very lucrative, while providing a service that can in many ways make or break academic careers. If money is spent on dance, tennis, acting, swimming, art, and piano lessons, parents would be more than willing to elevate the chances their children have of succeeding in university, and many would incur the costs. This would be excellent preparatory work, which is better done when students are not being overwhelmed by an unfamiliar university atmosphere and an overwhelming course load.

And finally, librarians must be sympathetic and helpful to all students using academic libraries, and continue to work with faculty members to determine that the proper quantity and quality of research assignments are given to novices in library research. On the other hand, students must be aware that librarians and faculty members are there to guide and encourage their intellectual odyssey, and should be seen as facilitators, not enemies.

Related Papers

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Library Instruction Should Have Something for Everyone
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Reference Questions and Search Strategies
Academic Research, Scholarly Publishing, and the Serials Crisis


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