The curse of reference anxiety

This week, I’ve been wrested from the safety of my office workspace, surrounded by trolleys and paperwork, and thrust into the bustling atmosphere of a law library reference desk. It’s the start of semester so there are new students everywhere, wanting to know where the loos are, how they can find short-loan textbooks, and why the printers aren’t working.

I’m no stranger to reference, but I am a stranger to law students. I have a rudimentary understanding of Australia’s legal system, but I couldn’t use LexisNexis properly if you paid me. And people are paying me. I borrowed an old copy of the first-year intro to law textbook and a legal research guide, hoping I might learn enough to be useful while on the desk, but I know it won’t be enough. I also don’t know anything about fixing printer problems, and we had a lot of those today.

Now, I know I wasn’t hired to be a law reference librarian. If asked, I wouldn’t describe myself as a law librarian at all. I’m a cataloguer working in a law library. My strengths and interests lie elsewhere. I’ve also only been in this position for less than three months—I can’t possibly be expected to know all this stuff.

But it doesn’t help when someone comes to the desk and asks a question I can’t answer.

I wondered today whether ‘reference anxiety’ was a thing. Whether I might add it to my burgeoning collection of anxieties. I have anxiety. I’ve had it for years. It’s been exacerbated recently by a succession of personal problems—I can’t help but bring it to work.

Turns out reference anxiety is very real. A 2010 article1 [non-OA] by Adam Bennington in Searcher examined the causes of reference anxiety and its effect on librarians, along with some tips on when to cut your losses and accept an incomplete or unsatisfactory answer.

It still hurts, though.

You are the information professional after all, the expert searcher, the experienced librarian, the ultimate information broker. People come to you because Google couldn’t cut it. Not only do you want to help, but you want to help legitimize the profession by showing the client you can find anything.

When the searcher can’t uncover the answer, feelings of guilt, shame, and doubt in his or her professional worth can grow acute, especially in newly minted information professionals.

Don’t I know it.

If someone comes to the desk with a circ query, or a catalogue query, or a ‘where are the loos’ query, I know I can handle those, and my confidence is obvious. On the flipside, if someone asks me about finding cases, or choosing the right book for their essay question, or even how to fix the damn printers, I freeze. Not only can I not help them, I don’t even know where to look. If all three reference librarians are unavailable, I’m out of luck. I could ask the reference seekers to send an email and ensure someone gets back to them, but people need their printing right now, and they don’t teach printer repair in library school.

My heart rate goes through the roof. I can’t breathe, suddenly. My brain is going in ever-tightening circles. I can’t help them. What the hell am I here for?

We speak often about people who become overwhelmed by libraries and librarians, and the resultant user anxiety that creates. We call it, reasonably enough, ‘library anxiety’. Librarians bend over backwards to alleviate the fears of users who aren’t used to asking questions of people, not the internet, and we strive to make the library a welcoming and productive place. But that necessitates a certain level of reference skill.

I don’t have that skill, and I know I’m not expected to, but I like working here, and I want to do right by our users, my colleagues and my boss. I want to make sure every patron leaves with something. Whether that’s a case citation, or an email address for further help, or the number for the IT helpdesk.

Managing my anxiety enough to get them that something remains a work in progress. But all I can do is try. Perhaps after I’m done with the first-year law textbook, I’ll pick up a printer manual as well.


  1. Bennington, A. (2010). A practical guide to coping with reference anxiety disorder. Searcher, 18(3), 22-25,54. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/221110022 

Why should I trust you? You’re a librarian!

‘Trust me, I’m a raaaaaat’

Librarians. We’ve got tickets on ourselves, haven’t we? Fancying ourselves as leaders of crusades against fake news and information illiteracy and all that. Styling ourselves as trustworthy gateways to all the balanced, unbiased information your heart could possibly desire. Go on. Ask us. Make us feel relevant again.

Modern reference librarianship has a certain smugness about it. People could just as easily Google their answers, we tell ourselves, but instead they come to us. To us! Never mind the fact we use Google half the time ourselves to find the answer, or that people tend to only ask for a librarian’s help out of sheer frustration (often with our resources), people still come to us for answers! They like us! They trust us!

Now, maybe my LIS degree program is deficient in this regard, but I don’t recall ever coming across the library version of the Hippocratic Oath. (Turns out someone invented one.) Thankfully, malpractice lawsuits against librarians aren’t really a thing. But what, really, is stopping a librarian from dispensing biased or unreliable information? How does a user know, really know, that a librarian is any more inherently trustworthy than a Google search?

The short answer is: they don’t.

We, as librarians, can’t appeal to academic authority, as much as we might like to. Plenty of people working in libraries don’t have degrees in the field. (I don’t yet have mine.) No, we didn’t all go to school for this stuff. I work with awesome people who have life experience in other areas. Doesn’t make them any less trustworthy, any less reliable or any less capable of answering patron questions.

Much as we might claim otherwise, each librarian will bring their own implicit biases to their work. Where, for example, do we draw the line between collection development and censorship? For many librarians, at least on ALA Think Tank, it turned out this line was the (now-cancelled) prospective book by professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Plenty of librarians refused to buy the book in an effort to support minority patrons and fight hate speech. Plenty of other librarians pledged to buy the book in an effort to support free speech and fight impressions of censorship. Each side has considerable merit, even if the point is now moot. But how can patrons trust librarians either way?

It’s no secret that librarianship in the Western world is dominated by white middle-aged cat ladies who like tea and cardigans. My only point of diversion from this stereotype is my hatred of cats. With such a homogenised workforce, there are few opportunities for minority patrons to see themselves reflected in their knowledge workers. Indigenous patrons, for example, may have good reasons not to trust white librarians. We cannot simply expect our patrons to trust us. We have to earn that trust.

Our chief competitor, Google, owes its success to a secret algorithm that ranks search results by various metrics. Librarians, particularly in academic and school environments, spend considerable time and resources on teaching students how to critically evaluate their Google results and their news(feed) consumption. I’ve yet to come across a libguide on the subject that implores students to evaluate librarians themselves. Sure, I can’t see how Google’s brain works for myself, but nor can I see a librarian’s brain. That IFLA infographic on fake news promotes librarians as unbiased sources of truth. This sends entirely the wrong message.

This infographic drives me bonkers

Some have argued that critically evaluating everything we see and hear is what got the world into this mess. I respectfully disagree. I firmly believe the key to information literacy is to evaluate what the librarian says with the same tools one ought to be using to evaluate everything else. Tools that librarians are falling over themselves to teach. There are no unbiased, impartial sources of information. Not encyclopedias. Not government websites. Not reputable news organisations. And definitely not librarians.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? No. I’m being honest with myself and I’m being honest with the patrons I serve. I recognise that a deeply-held, professional sense of duty is the only thing stopping me from telling my patrons porkies, and I want them to know that too. I want them to use those critical evaluation skills right back at me and hopefully recognise the merit in my answers. I want them to know better than to take me at face value.

I want them to know better than to trust me.