UX & Information Systems

Who’s asking (and why)?

Who’s asking (and why)?

As a profession, librarians want to be approachable and accessible, and we look for all sorts of ways to do this: “Ask Us!” signs, Library chat boxes, evening/weekend reference hours.

We spend lots of time and effort thinking about help-seeking in operational terms (making sure we’re visible, available, etc.), but we may not think as much about who is asking…or not.

This is important because dimensions of who you are and how you engage with academics actually have a huge impact on how, why, and whether you ever ask for help.

Plenty of studies have shown help-seeking differences by race, gender, and social class — and, of course, these intersect at various levels.

While the research on race differences for academic help-seeking is limited, other studies have found, in the context of mental health, differences in norms, stigma, and perceptions around help-seeking. 1, 2 Students of racial minority backgrounds also contend with implicit and explicit messages of non-belonging, as well as stereotype threat. 3

In terms of gender, a higher conformity to masculine norms and gender stereotypes was related to greater help-avoidance, as well as an executive orientation towards help (focus on immediate solutions) rather than an instrumental one (focus on self-development and mastery).4

Social class may have compounding effects on both help-seeking attitudes as well as strategies — Calarco’s study of a public elementary school showed that middle-class students employed a form of social capital in proactive, frequent, and diverse requests for help. Working-class students were more likely to struggle with problems on their own and less likely to assert themselves in help requests, which led to middle-class students getting more prompt, regular, and tailored assistance from teachers.5

So when we say, “Just Ask!,” it’s not quite as simple as all that.

Additionally, we’re often struggling against students’ dominant help seeking practices. Multiple studies have shown that students will consult peers, faculty members, family members….pretty much anyone else before they’ll ask an academic librarian for help.6, see their citations, too

When they do ask, they tend to have an executive focus (finding the thing), rather than an instrumental one (crafting a research question, developing a search strategy).

This is partly a perception problem — students have no idea what librarians do, and do not think of us for those higher-level processes.

They don’t think of use as subject experts. They tend to consult faculty for topic-crafting and sussing out the discussions in the field, and may check with peers to compare search strategies (“what databases are you looking in?”). Librarians are often just the human equivalent of a delivery function.

God, that’s depressing.

There are glimmers of hope — if a faculty member recommends a librarian, and (sometimes) if a librarian appears in a class for instruction, students may be more likely to get in contact with them, and (perhaps) learn what else we can do.

But, of course, a lot of faculty also have no idea what librarians do.

So, it’s often the situation where a student comes to the desk with:
a) a vague directive that “librarians can help you” from a faculty member
b) a friend’s recommendation
c) nothing but desperation

In this situation, students often don’t know how to ask — or what to ask for. 

Keep in mind, they’re also likely juggling these psychological challenges in various forms7:

  • ability concerns — the concern that asking for help will make them seem incompetent
  • expedient concerns — the concern that asking for help will take more time than it’s worth
  • autonomy concerns — the concern that asking for help will undermine their ability to be independent

You’ve probably seen this in action, if you’ve worked at a Reference Desk.

The student who sighs, after a minute of scanning search results, and asks, “Is this going to take much longer?”

The student who nods energetically when you ask if they’ve used X database, but when you take them to it, they say, “Um….maybe not?”

The student who is eager to say, “yeah, got it,” and goes off to search (and doesn’t use a single strategy that you’ve just shown).

Depending on someone’s background, disposition, and ease and familiarity with asking for help, approaching the Reference Desk can be a highly stressful experience. Keep in mind that the reference interview (“tell me about your project”), can be experienced as a performance or presentation (“do I actually have a good project?”), even more so when you’re not familiar with the person you’re talking to.

It can also be experienced as burdensome — students have mentioned that they go to peers for assistance because they don’t have to do the whole explaining-what-I’m-working-on part.8 Building context takes time, and that can be seen as a waste of time, especially when students are unsure that any of this librarian interaction will actually be worth it.

Also, keep in mind that students often don’t get help6 until the drafting/revising stage, which has implications for their time (and sense of panic). In fact, students largely don’t seem to recognize help-seeking as part of the research process,6 which means that when it happens, it’s often unplanned and crammed in.

Where does this leave us?

Well, I think we should be focusing our efforts on faculty and peer networks — which, of course, many of us are already doing. We need to make our value explicit in terms that resonate with the challenges students encounter: topic crafting, sifting through results, getting a sense of the disciplinary conversation, integrating sources, even scheduling time re: the research process.

Scaffolding assignments has a role here, too. Crafting research experiences that explicitly outline stages and build in time for exploration and revision can help reduce time-management and scope problems. 

Also, actually scaffolding in help — so that help is provided as part of the process (and expected to happen for all students), rather than waiting for students to self-select.

We should also think more about the lived experience of coming up to ask someone for help, through the eyes of who’s asking. Is there a big desk there? Do people stand or sit? Do you feel on display? Do you know the person behind the desk? Do you know what to expect/what you can ask? (Is that signaled anywhere)? Do you know how to ask?

Knowing more about the expectations and anxieties that people hold can help us to craft a better experience — one that supports people for who they are as well as what they need.


1Cheng, Hsiu-Lan, et al. “Racial and Ethnic Minority College Students’ Stigma Associated with Seeking Psychological Help: Examining Psychocultural Correlates.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol. 60, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 98-111.

2Magaard, Julia Luise, et al. “Factors Associated with Help-Seeking Behaviour among Individuals with Major Depression: A Systematic Review.” Plos ONE, vol. 12, no. 5, 11 May 2017, pp. 1-17.

Nadal, Kevin L, et al. “The Adverse Impact of Racial Microaggressions on College Students’ Self-Esteem.” Journal of College Student Development, no. 5, 2014, p. 461.

4Wimer, David J. and Ronald F. Levant. “The Relation of Masculinity and Help-Seeking Style with the Academic Help-Seeking Behavior of College Men.” Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall2011, pp. 256-274.

5Calarco, Jessica McCrory. “I Need Help!” Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School.” American Sociological Review, no. 6, 2011, p. 862.

6Beisler, Molly and Ann Medaille. “How Do Students Get Help with Research Assignments? Using Drawings to Understand Students’ Help Seeking Behavior.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 42, no. 4, July 2016, pp. 390-400.

7Amemiya, Jamie and Ming-Te Wang. “Transactional Relations between Motivational Beliefs and Help Seeking from Teachers and Peers across Adolescence.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 46, no. 8, n.d., pp. 1743-1757.

8Thomas, Susan, et al. “Where Students Start and What They Do When They Get Stuck: A Qualitative Inquiry into Academic Information-Seeking and Help-Seeking Practices.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 43, no. 3, May 2017, pp. 224-231.

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