Imposter Syndrome as a Barrier to Library Use

Library school isn’t my first graduate school experience, nor is it my first experience at the University of Illinois. From 2010 – 2014, I was a student in Illinois’ Philosophy PhD program and during this time, my interaction with the University Library was pretty minimal. I would occasionally borrow books, but for most of my research I relied on journal articles that were available electronically. So insofar as I thought about the library at all, it was simply as the means by which I was able to access journal articles from the comfort of my home, office, or a coffee shop.

Since I began working at the Illinois Library’s Scholarly Commons in the Fall of 2015, I’ve become aware of all sorts of things that the library offers, many of which I was completely ignorant as a PhD student. My initial reaction was that the library should have done a better job of communicating the availability of these resources. But as I thought about it more, it occurred to me that this probably wouldn’t have made a difference. While I was unaware of many of the library’s offerings, the bigger issue was that I never seriously considered the idea that the library could be a useful resource, aside from being a means by which I could access articles and books.

Looking back, I never really considered using the library because there was sense in which I thought I wasn’t supposed to. Now at first glance, this probably sounds crazy (and it kind of is), but it made sense to me at the time. You see, like many graduate students, I suffered from a form of imposter syndrome, which is, roughly speaking, the belief that one’s accomplishments are somehow illegitimate, the result of a mistake (e.g. on the part of an admissions committee), or otherwise fraudulent. These beliefs are often accompanied by a fear of being “found out,” that is, of being exposed as an imposter.

It seemed that turning to the library for help would have amounted to admitting that I really didn’t belong in a PhD program. Surely I should already know how to find sources, take good notes, manage my time, keep track of my citations, use whatever software I might need, or any other number of things that I believed to be expected of me. I never heard anyone else talk about struggling with these sorts of things, much less turning to the library for help with them. And so as distorted as my thinking was, I adopted the mindset that I was just supposed to know it all, and if I didn’t know something, I’d better teach myself quickly (and in secret!).

Having worked at an academic library for well over a year now, I’ve seen countless graduate students take advantage of all of the opportunities that I had been too frightened to use. These observations have taught me a very valuable lesson: It’s okay to use the library!

But I still wonder about the graduate students that we don’t see. While I won’t totally discount the possibility that some people don’t have an especially pressing need for the services that libraries offer, I would bet that they make up a minority. So this raises the question, how can we make graduate students, as well as other members of the campus community, more aware of and willing to use the resources of academic libraries?

While traditional library promotion and outreach are great ways to spread the word about services, I have to admit that many of the products of these efforts got lost in the constant flow of mass email that was constantly flooding my inbox. Moreover, even if I had taken more time to educate myself about the library’s offerings, I’m still not sure that it would have been enough to get me over my imposter syndrome-driven idea that these resources weren’t really for me.

So what would have worked for me, and what could work for others? I think a good start would have been to hear other students in my department, both members of my own cohort and those further along in the program, talking about using the library. Such a discussion would have served to both make me more aware of all that the library offered, and instilled the idea that these offerings were really there to be taken advantage of.

One possibility would be to try to develop direct relationships with department-level graduate student organizations. Initially this might amount to having librarians visit an organization during one of their meetings. But I think an ideal arrangement would be for these groups to have an officer position dedicated to keeping the students in the department informed of the resources that the library offers and advocating use of all the library’s resources, not only its collections. Not only would this serve to make students more aware of library services, it would help to combat a common belief among graduate students that getting help is not okay.

What barriers to library use have you come across? How can library school students help to break these down?

Cover photo credit: “For this With Those with Imposter Syndrome” by Alan Levine. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Ian Harmon is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Assistant in the Scholarly Commons, the University Library’s digital scholarship center. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in the ways that technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship, and hopes to work in digital humanities and scholarly communication. He is also passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good. In his spare time, Ian likes riding his bicycle, watching baseball, and listening to late night public radio. You can follow him on Twitter @harmoniant.

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