Information anxiety, information behavior, and minority graduate students



Increasing numbers of minority students now attend American graduate programs, however, attendance does not guarantee graduation, and graduation rates for minority students in masters and doctoral programs are low. This poster presents the preliminary findings from an ongoing study examining the information behavior of black graduate students. It suggests that students are affected by information anxiety, which creates a barrier to obtaining and using information for academic work. The study also considers participants' views on how race may affect information gathering, access, and sharing.

Currently, almost third of the population in the United States is considered a minority, with the changing demographics already apparent in our colleges and universities. While minorities now enter graduate education at increased rates, they have low retention and graduation rates. This study focuses on the information behavior of African-American graduate students, a group which has only a 47% degree completion rate after ten years (Council of Graduate Schools, 2008).


Low numbers of completed degrees may be a form of library anxiety manifested by an inability to use the library at the requisite level of expertise (Jiao and Onwuegbuzie 1998; Mellon 1986). This study reframes ideas about graduate students and library anxiety to expand the sources of information – printed text, electronic, and human – which may or may not be part of the library's services and suggests that it is information anxiety rather than library anxiety that affects information behavior in this group.

The study is qualitative, using Cognitive Work Analysis (CWA) (Vicente, 1999; Pettigrew, K., Fidel, R., & Bruce, H. 2001), as the methodological framework. CWA examines cognitive behavior and the constraints faced by actors in the workplace as they perform knowledge work – work that requires information and decision-making based on the information acquired. Here the academic activities of graduate students are defined as knowledge work. Participants are graduate students in masters or doctoral programs and at the comprehensive exam, thesis, or dissertation stage as these stages are more likely to require search and retrieval of large amounts of specialized information without the benefit of a course structure. The structured interview has open-ended questions permitting participants to comment on various information sources of information: humans (librarians, other students, and professors); electronic resources such as the library web page, databases, social networking and push technology sources such as discipline listservs and RSS feeds; and the physical library resources such as books. Participants were also asked about their perceptions of race and whether their status as a black person on a majority white campus affected their information behavior.


Four significant insights into the information behavior of these students have emerged from the study thus far:

  • 1.Time – The primary feature of homework, papers, creating reading lists prior to comprehensive exams, and deciding on dissertation research is the constraint of time. Time constraints were often determined by someone other than the participant, creating problems in balancing multiple tasks. Time, rather than the nature of the task, often determined the effort spent and the number of resources used during the information search.
  • 2.An Anxious Search – Participants' search efforts are fraught with anxiety as they found either too much information, necessitating time spent determining relevance, or not enough information, so that time was spent attempting to find enough information to complete the task. Professors were often unavailable for assistance, and participants stated they had difficulty ending searches due to uncertainty about what the professor wanted. In addition, participants uniformly stated a belief that they needed more information than their white counterparts in order to be taken seriously by other graduate students and faculty.
  • 3.Users of Electronic Media – Participants are frequent users of electronic media such as journal databases, listservs and wikis created for academics, students, and practitioners in their discipline rather than the physical library, which they rarely visit. They use Google and Google Scholar and feel confident in their abilities to judge the authenticity of information on internet sites, but believe they spend a lot of time ascertaining authenticity. They often resorted to the internet because the library did not carry resources relevant to their research needs (usually regarding minorities).
  • 4.Race and Information Behavior – Participants perceive race as a negative factor in their search for information, stating that in their experience, librarians have no knowledge of their racially-related research interests. They also stated that white students 1) have separate access to information, 2) can meet their information needs easily since their research focuses on majority issues and populations with a great deal of existing research, and 3) can be unwilling to share their resources with black students. Participants share their information dilemmas across departments with other black graduate students and use these students to learn about resources, rather than ‘official’ information sources such as the librarian.


The diverse resources used by these graduate students to gather information for academic tasks suggests that researchers and practitioners reframe and expand the idea of library anxiety and consider the notion of information anxiety. What caused anxiety for participants were problems in finding too much, or not enough, online information; determining authenticity and authority of online sources; and obtaining information from people who, according to participants, knew little about the research and relevant literature on the minority populations that were the focus of their research.

Additionally, participants endured an almost constant state of anxiety due to their belief that professors and fellow students would be more critical regarding any information they produced. This anxiety compelled them to spend time obtaining large amounts of information in an effort to appear competent when they had to produce information sources for others' examination. Certainly most graduate students have moments of uncertainty during their program; however, these findings suggest that participants' uncertainty arises as much from anxiety over how their information will be received by others, and whether that reception will be tainted by racial stereotypes, as from anxiety over their search and retrieval skills. In addition, the perception that faculty and library staff lack interest and expertise in research related to minorities was seen as invalidating the value of participants' research. Thus, every aspect of participants' information behavior could be a foreseeable cause of information anxiety.

Despite the elements of anxiousness and uncertainty that accompany participants' information behavior; these students were confident, eager to pursue their research, and willing to share their information with other black graduate students. They expected to succeed, even in the face of professors who ignored their research interests, libraries that didn't carry needed journals, and repeated questioning (both internal and external) about the information products they provide for others. This study is a first step in uncovering this group's information behaviors so that in acknowledging the causes of information anxiety, we can create better information systems and services for this unique student population.