MLA Forum
Vol. V, Issue 3, June 28, 2007

Library Anxiety and the Distance Learning Graduate Student: A Case Study of Eastern Michigan University

Judy Block, Eastern Michigan University


The phenomenal growth of distance learning programs at colleges and universities has tremendous implications for providing library services to distance students. This rapid proliferation of distance learning programs has rocked the status quo and forced the library community to re-examine all services to this population. Adult learners returning to college enrollment face an information explosion with major changes in technologies. Adult learners are particularly vulnerable to library anxiety because many of them matriculated through higher education in a largely pre-computer era. Library anxiety was first coined by Constance A. Mellon in 1986. One facet of this library anxiety is fear of searching via computer technology. Constance Mellon, when developing the Library Anxiety Scale, felt that, “the population was not limited to any geographic location because it was presupposed that the anxiety felt by students affects all areas, regardless of geographic setting” (as cited by Onwuegbuzie, Jiao,& Bostic, 2004, p. 2). In the book, Library Anxiety: Theory, Research, and Applications, Library Anxiety is further defined as” a negative stage-based phenomenon that lies on a continuum, with students experiencing the highest levels of being more at risk for exhibiting avoidance behaviors” (Onwuegbuzie et al., 2004). Academic reference librarians need to help adult learners become information literate using the new technology. This paper will demonstrate how academic libraries can provide better reference service to the adult distance learner and alleviate their feelings of discomfort and fear of computers.


Students who have returned to school after a long absence are unfamiliar with the technology used in today’s libraries. While adult learners are returning to school for a variety of reasons, each one must cope with the explosion of electronic information. As these adults increasingly engage in lifelong learning, they have different needs for training and assistance. In the midst of an ever-changing electronic environment, adult learners must learn new technology skills in order to survive.

Students need to learn how to communicate with instructors and other students via computer technology because of the rise of distance education courses in colleges and universities. “Since most students have little experience learning at a distance, they are unfamiliar with it and may be anxious about taking distance education courses” (Moore & Kearsley, 2005, p. 176). Going back to school, whether it is full-time, part-time or just for one course, can be very overwhelming for countless adults. When you have been out of school for many years, just the thought of returning can make you question your skills as a student. It is common for a person to have anxiety about starting something new. According to Moore and Kearsley (2005), “The most common reason for taking a distance education course is to develop or upgrade the skills and knowledge needed in employment” (p.162).

Most teacher and administration education positions require continuing education. An education certificate is a license to teach in the state of Michigan. Teacher certification in the State of Michigan affirms that you have met all the requirements as a teaching professional. Under Michigan Law, all teachers employed in the public schools must hold a teaching certificate. The initial provisional certificate is valid for up to six years during which time the teacher is expected to acquire at least three years of successful teaching experience and complete at least 18 semester hours in a concentrated area, towards a higher degree.  The professional education certificate is valid for up to five years and must be renewed. The state requires teachers to keep their skills current. Eastern Michigan University (EMU) has embraced this problem by creating eight regional centers to make taking classes geographically convenient. EMU has centers in Brighton, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Livonia, Monroe, and Traverse City.

The nursing profession is another group where continuing education classes are growing. There is a general consensus within the nursing profession that lifelong learning is crucial for all nurses. Nurses must maintain their certification. More responsibility is afforded a registered nurse that holds a bachelor’s degree than a registered nurse that holds an associate’s degree. The trend in the nursing profession is for registered nurses to go back to school to receive their bachelor’s degree. Distance education allows health care professionals to keep abreast of the latest developments in the field. EMU now has a specific RN to BSN curriculum to address this requirement.

The last group that EMU focuses their distance education attention is on the business student. The EMU College of Business uses the services of the Distance Education Librarian to assist business students with their research needs. Business students return to school to obtain upward mobility in their workplace. If businesses are to survive, they must keep pace with rapid technological changes and increasing global competition of the world economy. Many students enroll in distance education programs as a way to complete their degrees without leaving their jobs or relocating their families.

Library Anxiety and the Distant Learner

Distance education programs are designed and are heavily marketed to adult and returning students. Adult learners returning to formal education after some time away may experience lack of confidence in their ability to do research. Recent changes in libraries have brought about challenges for this student population. The information technology in libraries can be intimidating for many returning students.

“The user often does not know which electronic tool to use to search for a given topic, what kind of query to form, and which search command to use to produce the desired response in the seemingly quite different electronic information retrieval environment” (Onwuegbuzie et al., 2004).

The Distance Education Librarian provides assistance either in a group session through bibliographic instruction or by having a one-on-one session provided by appointment. Through these interactions the Distance Education Librarian provides each student with step-by-step instructions on databases that is useful for their specific field of study.  “Information literacy and library instruction programs are essential components of academic support for distance or distributed learning” (Jacobson & Williams, 2000). To address this need this author has developed a course entitled; “Distance Education Library Resources” for the students using the eCollege platform and another course for the students using WebCT. “Distance learning presents opportunities for library and information literacy instruction either as a separate course or integrated within other training courses. It allows for bridging geographical distances while potentially enabling independent learning” (Sarkodie-Mensah, 2000, p.28). To answer this dilemma, this author has developed an online tutorial entitled, “Distance Education Library Resources.” Instructors can assign this self-paced tutorial to students to complete on their own time. The tutorial includes information on how to search Web Voyager, the on-line catalog; how to search the databases for a journal article; how to do research for biographical, geographical, almanac, governmental, dictionary, and encyclopedia resources. Also included is a self test with an answer key. Carol Goodson in her book, Providing Library Services for the Distance Education Students states,

“bear in mind the factors which lead your clients to distance education in the first place—the most obvious one usually being time (the lack of it). This translates into the necessity of emphasizing point-of-need library instruction, rather than extensive mini-curricula covering all aspects of library research, some of which may not be either appropriate, needed, or appreciated” (Goodson, 2001).

The tutorials are divided into modules, so the students can refer to the module needed. Library anxiety is prevalent among EMU graduate students.

EMU’s Distance Education Program has many graduate students who are returning to school after being out of school for years. Because of technology, writing a research paper has drastically changed. The Halle Library’s catalog is now on the Web ( Finding articles for research papers has also changed. Instead of relying on the paper indexes, students now use electronic databases ( The electronic databases help the students retrieve journal, magazine, newspaper articles as well as eBooks. The graduate students find it very frustrating to have to learn a new way to search for articles on the computer. They have to learn library jargon, electronic indexes, and how to use Boolean logic to effectively search for articles. “Graduate students for whom a lack of knowledge of the library increases anxiety levels tend to be less persistent, to be peer oriented, to be non-authority-oriented learners, and require mobility in learning” (Qun & Onwuegbuzie, 1998). Graduate students at EMU have very busy lives and need to be able to learn and access the library whenever and wherever they happen to be at a given moment.  Onwuegbuzie found that graduate students were nearly 3.5 times more likely to procrastinate on keeping up with weekly reading assignments and nearly 2.5 times more likely to procrastinate when studying for tests (Onwuegbuzie & Qun, 2000). In the book, Library Anxiety: Theory, Research, and Applications, it states “Academic procrastination is another dispositional antecedent that has been linked to library anxiety” (Onwuegbuzie et al., 2004). Graduate students at EMU taking distance education classes have family responsibilities and work full time.

Distance education students need to learn how to prioritize their lives and educational endeavors. “Teaching critical thinking skills can also be extremely helpful to helping patrons anxious about using the computer” (Sarkodie-Mensah, 2000, p. 40). One of the goals of the Halle Library is to teach students critical thinking, information literacy, and technology fluency skills to promote academic success and lifelong learning. Critical thinking is essential when focusing on the question to be answered. Teaching students how to think critically is a major component of each library research instruction class. Critical thinking is taught by making the students think about the topic they are assigned and reasoning what the appropriate terms are for searching the databases.

EMU Distance Education Program

EMU provides reference assistance to distant learners through:

The Halle Library is committed to quality “user friendly” support for distance learning students. The Distance Education Librarian’s job at EMU is to provide library research support to students enrolled in at least one distance education class. EMU defines a distance education student as anyone who is taking an online class, an independent study class, or a class located at a regional site. Halle Library provides access to more than 120 databases that help our students identify articles in journals, magazines and newspapers. Therefore, most students’ research can be done from home, work, or at a regional center. EMU provides computer-based bibliographic and information services. The Distance Education Librarian provides a frequently updated web page (, an online newsletter (, and online tutorials including Writing the Research Paper ( and Web Voyager online tutorial (

Through the EMU Distance Education Librarian’s Web Page, the student has access to live links to, Michigan Electronic Library, and the Internet Public Library. In addition, there are live links to “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Doing Library Research on the World Wide Web.”

The Distance Learning Newsletter is produced and edited by the Distance Education Librarian. This source keeps the distant learner up-to-date with library services and resources. It is on the Web for anyone to access at any time and published frequently. It includes new acquisitions, new databases, news, and a book review that is of interest to the distant learner. Each issue has web sites of interest geared to a specific discipline.

EMU through their Virtual Reference Librarian Plus (VRLplus) provides one on one interaction between patron and librarian through chat rooms. EMU also conducts a program of Library User Instruction.

The EMU Distance Education Librarian provides on-site bibliographic instruction to its regional centers in Brighton, Detroit, Flint, Livonia, Monroe, Jackson, and Traverse City. In 2005, 15 class instruction sessions were conducted at the regional sites.  Each presentation includes individual student packets which contain a letter from the Distance Education Librarian explaining the availability of library services, the Distance Education Policy, and individual user guides to the databases appropriate to the class discipline. The Distance Education Librarian’s teaching is cross disciplinary. These disciplines include women’s studies, industrial technology, business education, nursing, and computer technology. The goals for this instruction are to:

  • provide quality instruction developed in the student discipline;
  • provide training to students on how to access information in multi databases;
  • enhance students’ self-reliance in using online databases and the Internet for research;  
  • accommodate the informational needs of the learning community;  
  • foster independent library literacy skills with availability of database user guides;
  • provide an environment for students to be challenged to be problem solvers and seek their own solutions; and
  • encourage lifelong learning.

Each presentation is prepared in concert with the faculty member who is teaching the course. This interaction is necessary to identify what is expected of the students so the librarian can provide appropriate research assistance for the successful completion of the course. Our experience at EMU has been that students want succinct, easy to read instructional materials. All user guides to the databases have been developed to meet these criteria. The student feedback has been very positive for this endeavor.


Distance Education students at EMU receive personalized assistance. Because many technological advancements are new to them, step-by step and easy to understand instructions are provided. The students are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills to assist them toward successful search strategies, thereby reducing library anxiety. The field of distance education continues to evolve and grow rapidly. Due to the unprecedented demand for distance education, it is vital that we in the library profession respond to this exciting challenge and opportunity in this new learning environment. The librarian needs to be a valued resource for student support by explaining library resources to meeting the ongoing research needs of the students in a broad informational environment.  This educational phenomenon of distance education is most demanding, ever changing and exhilarating to plan for library services of the future.


Goodson, C (2001). Providing library services for the distance education students. New York: Neal-Schuman.

Jacobson, T. & Williams, H. C. (Eds.). (2000). Teaching the new library to today’s users: Reaching international, minority, senior citizens, gay/lesbian, first-generation, at-risk, graduate and returning students and distance learners. The Library Series (Vol. 4).New York: Neal-Schuman.    

Moore, M. & Kearsley, G. (2005). Distance education: A systems view (2nd ed.). Australia: Thomson.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Jiao, Q. G., & Bostick, S. L. (2004).  Library anxiety: Theory, research, and applications. Landham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J. & Qun, G. J. (2000).   “I’ll go to the library later: The relationship between academic procrastination and library anxiety.” College & Research Libraries, 61(1), 45-54.

Qun, G.J. & Onwuegbuzie, A. J.  (1998). “Perfectionism and library anxiety among graduate students.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, 24(5), 365-71. 

Sarkodie-Mensah, K., ed. (2000). Reference services for the adult learner: Challenging issues for the traditional and technological era. New York: Haworth Information Press.