Guest Post by Linda Barnickel
There’s a name for it. “Library anxiety.” We learned about this in library school.
Symptoms: anxiety, uncertainty, sudden shyness, fear, worry that one might seem woefully ignorant, embarrassment, bewilderment, lack of confidence, and perhaps even shame that one should “know better” or already know the answers before the questions are even posed. If not treated, additional more-severe symptoms may develop, including: frustration, despair, a spirit of defeat, giving up, bitterness, and a vow to never do this again (whatever “this” is).
Most often, onset occurs when new genealogists enter a library for the first time in many years. Sure, they may have taken their children to storytime, or gone in to grab a beach read for summer, but it may have been since high school or college, years ago, since they last visited the library to conduct research.
“Library anxiety” can be prompted by several things:
1) Feeling ignorant, fearful of asking what the researcher believes are “stupid questions.”
2) Lack of familiarity with the individual library, or libraries in general.
3) Not wanting to “interrupt” a library worker’s other activities.
4) Uncertainty about how to begin one’s research, and thus, being unsure about what questions should be asked of the librarian.
Let’s take these one by one.
Fear of appearing ignorant
This should never be a concern, at least from a librarian’s point of view. The cure for ignorance is to ask questions, and seek the answers. The entire purpose of having libraries and librarians is to “aid information-seekers.” This implies that people have information needs (or questions) and the librarians are there to help. If everyone “knew the answer” before they walked in the library’s doors, most librarians would be out of a job. We love people who ask questions!
Lack of familiarity with libraries
Libraries have changed a lot over the years. If it has been just five years since you last visited a library, you may find a completely different environment from what was there at the time of your last visit. If it has been longer, like a decade or more, the changes will be even greater. The physical layout may have changed, technology is omnipresent – it may be unclear how to even go about locating or checking out a book. This can prompt feelings of fear and intimidation.
Again, however, the solution is to ask! Librarians are used to giving basic orientations to their collections and library catalogs. You may even be surprised to find that many genealogical libraries still rely heavily on microfilm – something you might vaguely remember from high school or college. A surprising quantity of material is not digitized, and must be used in person at a library facility. If you are used to doing an internet search or relying exclusively on the vast digital holdings of Ancestry, you are still missing out, despite the wealth of these resources.
Most libraries long ago got rid of their old catalog cards – literal paper index cards – housed in small oblong drawers. They replaced these card catalogs with computers, enabling keyword or free-text searching, and long-distance searching via the internet. This vastly improved access to their collections. However, even today, some institutions may still use a card file system for accessing some of their materials. If you haven’t used a card catalog in some years, you might be surprised at how spoiled we have gotten by being able to use keyword searching. Using a physical card catalog may take some patience, at first. Furthermore, some headings in these old catalogs might be odd or use obsolete terminology. For instance, one institution still had the term “European War” in their old catalog — because these cards were created after 1918 and before 1941 – when America had only experienced one war in Europe. Although they had a cross reference directing researchers from the heading “World War I” to the cards headed “European War,” some less-careful researchers could have assumed that no World War I materials existed at all. If you can’t seem to find what you are looking for – again, the solution is to ask!
Not wanting to interrupt a busy librarian
No librarian will tell you that he or she is not busy. After the economic downturn, coupled with the misguided assumption by some politicians that libraries are becoming obsolete due to the internet, many libraries have fallen on particularly difficult times. Staffing and hours have been slashed. Many librarians have found their work doubling or tripling. Yes, we are busy. But the heart of our job is to serve the public. All of our tasks revolve around this one ultimate responsibility. And the public includes genealogists. No matter what activity a librarian might be doing while they are seated at a reference desk, they are there to serve you, and to answer your questions. Sure, it may be a busy day, and the librarian may be fielding questions from three other patrons while taking a phone call – but we are good multi-taskers. If we are unable to give you our immediate attention, we will acknowledge you, and ask you to wait patiently while we assist others.
Genealogists can help by asking focused, specific questions. Unless your family was notable for some reason (founder of a town, prominent government official, etc.) librarians seldom require knowing your full family history in order to assist you. Typically, we simply need to know when and where (not whom), and perhaps the type of information you are seeking (such as a marriage record, or deeds). Then it is often a simple matter of us directing you to the appropriate materials in our collections.
To be sure, sometimes research questions are more complicated, and we’re happy to help with these types of inquiries as well. Once you ask us a question, we will probably ask you a series of further questions in order to aid us in directing you to the proper materials. Don’t be intimidated by this questioning on the part of the librarian; it is not a judgment of you or your inquiry, and you should not feel self-conscious about it. It is simply a routine process performed at countless reference desks across the country every day. And the ultimate goal is to help you find the information you need.
Uncertainty about what to research or ask
Beginners can be especially prone to feeling overwhelmed by the resources available. There may be a sense of “not knowing where to start”. Sometimes the best way to overcome these feelings of anxiety is to simply ask the librarian to give you an orientation to their collections. Genealogy collections vary widely from institution to institution, and even basic procedures, such as making photocopies, use of scanners or cameras, and general access to materials are governed by different policies at each facility. A typical orientation from a librarian will give you an overview of the various formats and subjects of materials that they have, and will also inform you about the most important policies and procedures for use of the collection. Often, after this initial overview, you will be able to identify a general area of interest – such as wanting to look at their newspapers on microfilm, for example. From there, it is simply a matter of asking to learn about how to use the microfilm readers and identifying the specific newspaper of interest. And you’ll be on your way!
Sometimes, you may have plenty of research experience at a particular institution, and the issue is not how to use their collections, but more “where do I go from here in my research?” Maybe you’ve checked for a marriage record, and come up empty-handed. Ask the librarian on duty if they have other ideas for your particular research problem. They might be able to suggest other records to consult, or they may be well enough informed that they may refer you to another institution.
All staff can be assumed to have basic knowledge about most of their holdings, and this is usually sufficient for most researchers’ needs. But if you find that your first inquiry with a staff member doesn’t lead you to productive sources – try asking another individual, later. Some libraries have a rotating staff attending the reference desk throughout the day, and chances are good that they will all have different perspectives on your research question. One staff member might specialize in 20th century immigrant research, for example, while another is especially good on the Revolutionary War. Clearly, if you are doing detailed research on these subjects, one individual will probably be of greater assistance than the other.
The Cure for Library Anxiety
There’s a saying that we must face our fears in order to overcome them. Therein lies the cure for the affliction known as “library anxiety.” Most librarians I know are genuinely friendly, and we want to help our customers. We can’t read minds, and we can’t answer questions that are not asked. If you say you don’t need help or just want to browse, we’ll respect that. But don’t feel like you should know it all, just by walking through the front doors. Always ask. That’s what we’re here for.
Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at www.lindabarnickel.com.