Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves

In Brief

Vocational awe describes the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique. I argue that the concept of vocational awe directly correlates to problems within librarianship like burnout and low salary. This article aims to describe the phenomenon and its effects on library philosophies and practices so that they may be recognized and deconstructed.

by Fobazi Ettarh

Author’s note: I use “librarians” here very broadly. I am not limiting the term to those who have the MLIS because vocational awe affects those who work in libraries at every level. I would argue that it often affects staff more than it does librarians due to the sociodemographics of people in staff level positions as well as the job precarity that many staff positions hold.


On June 1st, Mike Newell wrote about Chera Kowalski and other librarians administering the anti-overdose drug Naloxone (more commonly known as Narcan) to patrons in and around McPherson Square Branch in Philadelphia. ((Mike Newell. “For these Philly librarians, drug tourists and overdose drills are part of the job” The Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 1, 2017.)) The article went viral and was shared sixteen thousand times. Since then, Kowalski has saved dozens more lives through the administration of Naloxone. More libraries have since followed Philadelphia’s lead in Narcan training. Representative Patrick Maloney of New York introduced the Life-saving Librarians Act ((Life-saving Librarians Act, H.R.4259 (2017-2018).)) giving the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to award grants for Naloxone rescue kits in public libraries. To Representative Maloney, and many librarians, training librarians to be literal life-savers makes sense because it serves the needs of patrons in our communities, and society as a whole. In addition to this core value of service, democracy is another value many believe libraries bring to society. Hillary Clinton, at the 2017 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, commended Kowalski’s work and also stated, “…You are guardians of the First Amendment and the freedom to read and to speak. The work you do is at the heart of an open, inclusive, diverse society [and] I believe that libraries and democracy go hand in hand.” ((Hillary Rodham Clinton., “Closing General Session” (speech, Chicago, Illinois, June 27, 2017), American Library Association Annual Conference, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/HRC-Transcript.pdf))

On its face, it seems natural that libraries and librarians should celebrate these stories. Indeed, these librarians are working to save the democratic values of society as well as going above and beyond to serve the needs of their neighbors and communities. However, when the rhetoric surrounding librarianship borders on vocational and sacred language rather than acknowledging that librarianship is a profession or a discipline, and as an institution, historically and contemporarily flawed, we do ourselves a disservice.

“Vocational awe” refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique. In this article, I would like to dismantle the idea that librarianship is a sacred calling; thus requiring absolute obedience to a prescribed set of rules and behaviors, regardless of any negative effect on librarians’ own lives. I will do this by demonstrating the ways vocational awe manifests. First, I will describe the institutional mythologies surrounding libraries and librarians. Second, I will dismantle these mythologies by demonstrating the role libraries play in institutional oppression. Lastly, I will discuss how vocational awe disenfranchises librarians and librarianship. By deconstructing some of these assumptions and values so integrally woven into the field, librarianship can hopefully evolve into a field that supports and advocates for the people who work in libraries as much as it does for physical buildings and resources.

Part One: The Mythos of Libraries and Librarianship

Librarianship as Vocation

The word “vocation” (from the Latin vocatio) is defined as “a call, summons,” ((Jeffrey Scholes. “Vocation.” Religion Compass, 4 (2010): 211–220.)) and stemmed from early Christian tradition, where it was held that the calling required a monastic life under vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. ((Dorothy Emmet. “Vocation.” Journal of Medical Ethics, 4, no. 3:(1978): 146-147.)) Indeed, from its earliest biblical instantiations, a vocation refers to the way one lives in response to God’s call. Although the word has since become used in more secular contexts, my use of the word “vocation” to describe contemporary views of librarianship skews closer to its original religious context, especially concerning the emphasis on poverty and obedience. Many librarians refer to the field of librarianship as a calling. ((Anonymous. “Who would be a librarian now? You know what, I’ll have a go.” The Guardian. March, 2016.)) ,   ((Jamie Baker. Librarianship As Calling. The Ginger (Law) Librarian. March, 6.)) Their narratives of receiving the “call” to librarianship often fall right in line with Martin Luther’s description of vocation as the ways a person serves God and his neighbour through his work in the world. The links between librarianship and religious service are not happenstance. Indeed, the first Western librarians were members of religious orders, ((Richard E. Rubin. Foundations of Library and Information Science. Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc. (2010) p. 36.)) serving the dual functions of copying and maintaining book collections.

The Library as a Sacred Place

The physical space of a library, like its work, has also been seen as a sacred space. One could argue that it is treated like a sanctuary, both in its original meaning (keeper of sacred things and people), and in its more contemporary meaning as a shelter or refuge. Again, the original libraries were actual monasteries, with small collections of books stuffed in choir lofts, niches, and roofs. ((A. K. Mukherjee. Librarianship: Its Philosophy and History. Asia Publishing House (1966) p. 88.)) The carrels still prevalent in many libraries today are direct descendants of these religious places. The word “carrel” originally meant “working niche or alcove” and referred to a monastery cloister area where monks would read and write. Reflecting their conjoined history, churches and libraries had similar architectural structures. These buildings were built to inspire awe or grandeur, ((Nikolaus Pevsner. A History of Building Types. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976) p. 98.)) ,   ((David Kaser. The Evolution of the American Academic Library Building. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997) p. 5-16, 47-60.)) and their materials meant to be treated with care. Even now the stereotypical library is often portrayed as a grandiose and silent space where people can be guided to find answers. The Bodleian Library, one of the oldest and largest libraries in Europe, still requires those who wish to use the library to swear an oath to protect the library: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”

Although contemporary architectural designs of libraries may not evoke the same feelings of awe they once did, libraries continue to operate as sanctuaries in the extended definition as a place of safety. Many libraries open their spaces to the disadvantaged and displaced populations in the community such as the homeless or the mentally ill. In the protests and civil unrest following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library (FMPL) became a makeshift school for children in the community. When the story went viral, there was an outpouring of books, supplies, and lunches for the children. The hashtag #whatlibrariesdo became a call to action and resulted in a huge spike in PayPal donations to FMPL. In addition, the sign on the library’s door stated, “During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next.” In this way, the library becomes a sanctuary threefold, a place where one can listen to the “still, small, voice,” ((1 Kings 19:11-13, KJV. )) a shelter for displaced populations, and a source of humanitarian aid. Since Ferguson, similar responses have occurred in libraries after major events in other areas such as Charlottesville, Virginia. And, in the current sociopolitical climate, much of the discourse surrounding these libraries center them as “safe spaces.”

Librarians as Priests and Saviors

If libraries are sacred spaces, then it stands to reason that its workers are priests. As detailed above, the earliest librarians were also priests and viewed their work as a service to God and their fellow man. Out of five hundred librarians surveyed, ninety-five percent said the service orientation of the profession motivated them to become librarians. ((Mara, Houdyshell, Patricia A. Robles, and Hua Yi. “What Were You Thinking: If You Could Choose Librarianship Again, Would You?” Information Outlook, July 3, 1999, 19– 23.)) Another study found that the satisfaction derived by serving people is what new librarians thrive on. ((Ria Newhouse and April Spisak. “Fixing the First Job.” Library Journal, Aug. 2004, 44– 46.)) Similarly, many Christians describe their religious faith as “serving God,” and to do so requires a life spent in service. Christians often reference Mark 10:45 to describe the gravity of a call to service: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Considering their conjoined history, it should come as no surprise that librarians, just like monks and priests, are often imagined as nobly impoverished as they work selflessly for the community and God’s sake. One study of seasoned librarians noted that, “surprisingly, for a profession as notoriously underpaid as librarianship, not a single respondent mentioned salary” as a negative feature of the profession. ((Teresa L. Jacobsen “Class of 1988.” Library Journal, July 12, 2004, 38–41.)) As with a spiritual “calling,” the rewards for such service cannot be monetary compensation, but instead spiritual absolution through doing good works for communities and society.

If librarians are priests then their primary job duty is to educate and to save. Biven-Tatums notes that public libraries “began as instruments of enlightenment, hoping to spread knowledge and culture broadly to the people.” ((Wayne Bivens-Tatum. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Library Juice Press, 2012.)) The assumption within librarianship is that libraries provide the essential function of creating an educated, enlightened populace, which in turn brings about a better society. Using that logic, librarians who do good work are those who provide culture and enlightenment to their communities. Saint Lawrence, the Catholic Church’s official saint of librarians and archivists, is revered for being dangled over a charcoal fire rather than surrender the Church archives. Today, librarians continue to venerate contemporary “saints” of librarianship. One example is the “Connecticut Four,” four librarians who fought a government gag order when FBI agents demanded library records under the Patriot Act. ((Doe v. Gonzalez, 386 F. Supp. 2d 66 (D.Conn. 2005).)) And now Kowalski joins the ranks as a library “saint” through the literal saving of lives with Naloxone. All of these librarians set the expectation that the fulfillment of job duties requires sacrifice (whether that sacrifice is government intimidation or hot coals), and only through such dramatic sacrifice can librarians accomplish something “bigger than themselves.”

Part Two: Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression ((nina de jesus. Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. September 24, 2014.))

It is no accident that librarianship is dominated by white women. ((Gina Schlesselman-Tarango. “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library.” Library Trends, (2016) 667–86. Retrieved from: http://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/library-publications/34.)) Not only were white woman assumed to have the innate characteristics necessary to be effective library workers due to their true womanhood, ((See Garrison, 1972, 1979; Hildenbrand, 1996.)) characteristics which include missionary-mindedness, servility, and altruism and spiritual superiority and piety, but libraries have continually been “complicit in the production and maintenance of white privilege.” ((Todd Honma. Trippin’ over the color line: The invisibility of race in library and information studies. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, (2005)1 no.2, 1–26. Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4nj0w1mp)) These white women librarians in public libraries during the turn-of-the-century U.S. participated in selective immigrant assimilation and Americanization programs, projects “whose purpose was to inculcate European ethnics into whiteness” ((R. Frankenberg. White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minne- apolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.)) Librarianship, like the criminal justice system and the government, is an institution. And like other institutions, librarianship plays a role in creating and sustaining hegemonic values, as well as contributing to white supremacy culture. James and Okun define white supremacy culture as the ways that organizations and individuals normalize, enact, and reinforce white supremacy. ((Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. ChangeWork, 2001 http://www.cwsworkshop.org/PARC_site_B/dr-culture.html)) Cultural representations of libraries as places of freedoms (like freedom of access and intellectual freedom), education, and other democratic values do not elide libraries’ white supremacy culture with its built-in disparity and oppression. In fact, each value on which librarianship prides itself is inequitably distributed amongst society. Freedom of access is arguably the most core value of librarianship. It runs throughout the entire Library Bill of Rights and is usually defined as the idea that all information resources provided by the library should be distributed equally, and be equitably accessible to all library users.

There have been, however, vast exceptions to this ideal. Quantitatively, the most significant of these exceptions was the exclusion of millions of African Americans from public libraries in the American South during the years before the civil rights movement. ((Toby Patterson Graham. A Right to Read : Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900-1965. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002).)) White response to desegregation efforts in public libraries varied. While some libraries quietly and voluntarily integrated, other libraries enforced “stand-up integration,” removing all of the tables and chairs from the building to minimize the interaction of the races in reading areas, or shut down the branch entirely. The result of these segregationist practices in libraries was a massive form of censorship, and this history demonstrates that access to materials is often implicated in larger societal systems of (in)equality. This should then hold true for other library values as well.

Protecting user privacy and confidentiality is necessary for intellectual freedom, and both are considered core values in librarianship. ((“Core Values of Librarianship of the American Library Association.”Accessed December 4, 2017. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues)) As mentioned earlier, when the Patriot Act passed in 2001, many librarians fought against handing over patron data, and there is a great deal of history of librarian activism around intellectual freedom. For example, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom coordinates the profession’s resistance efforts through the Freedom to Read Foundation. There are also multiple roundtables and committees focused on local, state, national, ((E.g. ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC),Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT), Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), etc.)) and international conflicts over intellectual freedom. However, similarly to freedom of access, there have been exceptions. And, as libraries grapple with justifying their existence, many have turned to gathering large amounts of patron data in order to demonstrate worth. Further, while often resisting government intrusions, libraries also commonly operate as an arm of the state. For example, Lexis-Nexis, a library vendor used in many libraries, is participating in a project to assist in building ICE’s Extreme Vetting surveillance system. ((Sam Biddle and Spencer Woodman. “These are the technology firms lining up to build Trump’s ”Extreme Vetting Program.'”The Intercept. August 7 2017.)) This system would most likely gather data from public use computers and webpages in public, academic, and private libraries across the nation, and determine and evaluate one’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society, or whether they intend to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States. Although the erosion of privacy is not limited to libraries, other fields do not claim to hold the information needs and inquiries of their constituents quite as dearly.

Part Three: Martyrdom is not a long-lasting career

Up until this point, it might seem like I believe librarians should not take pride in their very important work. Or that librarians who love their work and have a passion for library values possess some inherent flaw. This is not my intent. Rather, I challenge the notion that many have taken as axiomatic that libraries are inherently good and democratic, and that librarians, by virtue of working in a library, are responsible for this “good” work. This sets up an expectation that any failure of libraries is largely the fault of individuals failing to live up to the ideals of the profession, rather than understanding that the library as an institution is fundamentally flawed. Below, I mention the primary ways vocational awe negatively impacts librarians.


We’ve now uncovered the roots of vocation within librarianship and its allusions to religiosity and the sacred. The vocational metaphor helps us understand cause. However, it is important not to forget awe, which represents the effect. Merriam-Webster defines awe as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred.” ((Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003. Continually updated at https://www.merriam-webster.com/.)) As mentioned earlier, libraries were created with the same architectural design as churches in order to elicit religious awe. Awe is not a comforting feeling, but a fearful and overwhelming one. One of its earliest uses was within the Hindu epic Mahabarata. The God Krishna inspired awe in the protagonist Arjuna and commanded him: “Do works for Me, make Me your highest goal, be loyal-in-love to Me, cut all [other] attachments…” ((Eknath Easwaran. The Bhagavad Gita. Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 2009.)) A more modern, secular example of awe is the military doctrine “shock and awe,” which is characterized as rapid dominance that relies on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy’s perception of the battlefield and destroy their will to fight. In both cases, awe is used as a method of eliciting obedience from people in the presence of something bigger than themselves.

As part of vocational awe in libraries, awe manifests in response to the library as both a place and an institution. Because the sacred duties of freedom, information, and service are so momentous, the library worker is easily paralyzed. In the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom, advocating for your full lunch break feels petty. And tasked with the responsibility of sustaining democracy and intellectual freedom, taking a mental health day feels shameful. Awe is easily weaponized against the worker, allowing anyone to deploy a vocational purity test in which the worker can be accused of not being devout or passionate enough to serve without complaint.


With the expansion of job duties, and expectation of “whole-self” librarianship, it is no surprise that burnout is a common phenomenon within libraries. Harwell defines burnout as the prolonged exposure to workplace stressors that often drain an employee’s vitality and enthusiasm, and often leads to less engagement and productivity. ((Kevin Harwell. “Burnout Strategies for Librarians.” Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship 13, no. 3 (2008): 379-90.)) And being overworked is not the sole cause of burnout. In a study of academic librarians, ((Julien, Heidi, and Shelagh Genuis. “Emotional Labour in Librarians’ Instructional Work.” Journal of Documentation 65, no. 6 (2009): 926-37.)) study participants said they are forced to regulate their emotions in their work and that they often feel an incongruity between the emotions they have to show and what they really feel. Librarians who interact with the public on a regular basis must interact with uncooperative and unwilling patrons, patrons who want preferential treatment, and so on. In the memorable phrasing of Nancy Fried Foster, patrons often approach the reference desk looking for a “Mommy Librarian,” someone who can offer emotional support, reassurance, sociality, answers, and interventions at points of pain or need.” ((Emmelhainz, Celia, Seale, Maura, and Erin Pappas. “Behavioral Expectations for the Mommy Librarian: The Successful Reference Transaction as Emotional Labor.” The Feminist Reference Desk: Concepts, Critiques and Conversations, edited by Maria T. Accardi, 27-45. Library Juice Press: Sacramento, CA, 2017. escholarship.org/uc/item/2mq851m0)) The gendered expectations of a library profession that is majority female can certainly exacerbate the gendered expectations placed upon interactions with patrons. Ironically, institutional response to burnout is the output of more “love and passion,” through the vocational impulses noted earlier and a championing of techniques like mindfulness and “whole-person” librarianship.


“One doesn’t go into librarianship for the money” is a common refrain amongst library workers, and the lack of compensation for library work is not a recent phenomenon. A 1929 report summarized that “improvement in these conditions has not yet reached a point where librarianship may be said to receive proper recognition and compensation.” And in the 2017 Library Journal‘s Placements and Salaries survey, graduates overwhelmingly pointed to underemployment issues as a source of unhappiness, including low wages; lack of benefits; having to settle for part-time, temporary, or nonprofessional positions; or having to piece together two or three part-time positions to support themselves. Librarians’ salaries continue to remain lower than those for comparable jobs in professions requiring similar qualifications and skills. Statistics like these point to the very secular realities of librarians. Librarianship is a job, often paid hourly. It’s not even everyone’s primary job. It has sick time, and vacation–or should–and imagining these facts aren’t important because of the importance of the library’s mission only serves the institution itself.

Through its enforcement of awe through the promotion of dramatic and heroic narratives, the institution gains free, or reduced price, labor. Through vocational mythologies that reinforce themes of sacrifice and struggle, librarianship sustains itself through the labor of librarians who only reap the immaterial benefits of having “done good work.”

Job creep

Job creep refers to the “slow and subtle expansion of job duties” which is not recognized by supervisors or the organization. ((Van Dyne, and Ellis, “Job creep: A reactance theory perspective on organizational citizenship behavior as overfulfillment of obligations,” in The employment relationship: examining psychological and contextual perspectives ed. Phillip Appleman (New York : Oxford University Press).)) As this article argues, librarians are often expected to place the profession and their job duties before their personal interests. And with such expectations, job creep can become a common phenomenon. The problem with job creep manifests in multiple ways. One, what employees originally did voluntarily is no longer considered “extra” but instead is simply viewed as in-role job performance, which leads to more and more responsibilities and less time in which to accomplish them. Employees who cannot do more than what is in the job description, perhaps for personal or health reasons, are consequently seen as not doing even the minimum, and management may come to believe that workers are not committed to the organization, or its mission, if they don’t do extra tasks. Returning to Chera Kowalski and all of the other librarians currently training to administer, and already administering, anti-overdose medication, this expectation has gone so far as to create a precedent for Representative Maloney to introduce the Life-saving Librarians Act. No longer are these trainings voluntary “extra” professional development; it will likely soon become part of the expected responsibilities of librarians across the country.

Adding duties like life-or-death medical interventions to already overstrained job requirements is an extreme but very real example of job creep. And with the upholding of librarianship as purely service-oriented and self-sacrificing, what is a librarian to do who may not feel equipped to intervene as a first responder? Or a librarian who is dedicated to, say, a library value of children’s literacy or freedom of information, but because of past traumas, cannot cope with regular exposure to loss of life on the job? Librarianship as a religious calling would answer that such a librarian has failed in her duties and demonstrated a lack of purity required of the truly devout. And without the proper training and institutional support that first responders, social workers, and other clinicians have, librarians, through such job creep, are being asked to do increasingly dangerous emotional and physical labor without the tools and support provided to other professions traditionally tasked with these duties. As newspapers, Clinton, and librarians around the nation celebrate Kowlaski and others like her, we must ask if those voices will chime in to also demand the therapy and medical services typically needed for PTSD and other common ailments of those working in such severe conditions. Do we expect those benefits to manifest, or librarians to again quietly suffer the consequences of their holy calling, saving society at the expense of their own emotional well-being?


By the very nature of librarianship being an institution, it privileges those who fall within the status quo. Therefore librarians who do exist outside librarianship’s center can often more clearly see the disparities between the espoused values and the reality of library work. But because vocational awe refuses to acknowledge the library as a flawed institution, when people of color and other marginalized librarians speak out, their accounts are often discounted or erased. Recently, Lesley Williams of Evanston, Illinois, made headlines for being fired from her library due to comments (on her personal social media accounts), illustrating the hypocritical actions of her library in regards to the lack of equitable access to information. Although she was advocating for the core library value of equitable access, similar to that of the “Connecticut Four,” her actions were regarded as unprofessional.

As I mentioned earlier, vocational awe ties into the phenomena of job creep and undercompensation in librarianship due to the professional norms of service-oriented and self-sacrificing workplaces. But creating professional norms around self-sacrifice and underpay self-selects those who can become librarians. If the expectation built into entry-level library jobs includes experience, often voluntary, in a library, then there are class barriers built into the profession. Those who are unable to work for free due to financial instability are then forced to either take out loans to cover expenses accrued or switch careers entirely. Librarians with a lot of family responsibilities are unable to work long nights and weekends. Librarians with disabilities are unable to make librarianship a whole-self career.


Considering the conjoined history of librarianship and faith, it is not surprising that a lot of the discourse surrounding librarians and their job duties carries a lot of religious undertones. Through the language of vocational awe, libraries have been placed as a higher authority and the work in service of libraries as a sacred duty. Vocational awe has developed along with librarianship from Saint Lawrence to Chera Kowalski. It is so saturated within librarianship that people like Nancy Kalikow Maxwell can write a book, Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship, not only detailing connections between librarianship and faith, but concluding the book by advising librarians to nurture that religious image conferred upon them. The ideals of librarianship are not ignoble, and having an emotional attachment to the work one does is not negative in itself, and is often a valued goal in most careers. What I have tried to do with this article is illustrate that history and expose the problematic underpinnings. Because vocational awe is so endemic and connected to so many aspects of librarianship, the term gives the field a way to name and expose these things that are so amorphous that they can be explained or guilted away, much like microaggressions. And, through the power of naming, can hopefully provide a shield librarians can use to protect themselves.

The problem with vocational awe is the efficacy of one’s work is directly tied to their amount of passion (or lack thereof), rather than fulfillment of core job duties. If the language around being a good librarian is directly tied to struggle, sacrifice, and obedience, then the more one struggles for their work, the “holier” that work (and institution) becomes. Thus, it will become less likely that people will feel empowered, or even able, to fight for a healthier workspace. A healthy workplace is one where working around the clock is not seen as a requirement, and where one is sufficiently compensated for the work done, not a workplace where “the worker [is] taken for granted as a cog in the machinery.” ((Ellen Rosen. Improving Public Sector Productivity: Concepts and Practice, (Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage Publications, 1993) p. 139.))

Libraries are just buildings. It is the people who do the work. And we need to treat these people well. You can’t eat on passion. You can’t pay rent on passion. Passion, devotion, and awe are not sustainable sources of income. The story of Saint Lawrence may be a noble one, but martyrdom is not a long-lasting career. And if all librarians follow in his footsteps, then librarianship will cease to exist. You might save a life when wandering outside for lunch, but you deserve the emotional support you’ll no doubt need as a result of that traumatic event. You may impress your supervisor by working late, but will that supervisor come to expect that you continually neglect your own family’s needs in the service of library patrons? The library’s purpose may be to serve, but is that purpose so holy when it fails to serve those who work within its walls every day? We need to continue asking these questions, demanding answers, and stop using vocational awe as the only way to be a librarian.

Thanks and Acknowledgments

I’m very much indebted to the amazing and knowledgeable editors at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, and in particular to Sofia Leung and nina de jesus for diligently removing all traces of footnote inconsistency, tense changes, and rogue commas, as well as helping me create the best possible version of this article. I would also like to thank Amy Koester for keeping us all on track when necessary, and also being incredibly flexible when life inevitably got in the way. Finally, I would like to thank my partner for providing copious support as she listened to me whine and provided a steady stress writing diet of Salt and Vinegar Pringles and Uncrustables. Any mistakes left in this document are most definitely my own.

Works Cited

“Core Values of Librarianship of the American Library Association.”Accessed December 4, 2017. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues

Anonymous. “Who would be a librarian now? You know what, I’ll have a go.” The Guardian. March, 2016.

Biddle, Sam and Woodman, Spencer. “These are the technology firms lining up to build Trump’s ”Extreme Vetting Program.'” The Intercept. August 7 2017.

Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Library Juice Press, 2012.

Clinton, Rodham Hilary. “Closing General Session” (speech, Chicago, Illinois, June 27, 2017), American Library Association Annual Conference, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/HRC-Transcript.pdf

de jesus, nina. Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. September 24, 2014.

Emmelhainz, Celia, Seale, Maura, and Erin Pappas. “Behavioral Expectations for the Mommy Librarian: The Successful Reference Transaction as Emotional Labor.” The Feminist Reference Desk: Concepts, Critiques and Conversations, edited by Maria T. Accardi, 27-45. Library Juice Press: Sacramento, CA, 2017. escholarship.org/uc/item/2mq851m0

Emmet, Dorothy. “Vocation.” Journal of Medical Ethics 4, no. 3:(1978): 146-147.

Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 2009.

Foster, Nancy Fried. “The Mommy Model of Service.” In Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester, edited by Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons, 72-78. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2007.

Frankenberg, R. White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Garrison, D. The tender technicians: The feminization of public librarianship, 1876– 1905. Journal of Social History, (1972). 6 no. 2, 131–159.

Garrison, D. Apostles of culture: The public librarian and American society, 1876–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

Graham, Patterson Toby. A Right to Read : Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900-1965. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Harwell, Kevin. “Burnout Strategies for Librarians.” Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship 13, no. 3 (2008): 379-90.

Hildenbrand, S. Reclaiming the American library past: Writing the women in. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1996.

Houdyshell, Mara, Patricia A. Robles, and Hua Yi. “What Were You Thinking: If You Could Choose Librarianship Again, Would You?” Information Outlook, July 3, 1999, 19– 23.

Hunter, Gregory. Developing and Maintaining Practical Archives. New York: Neal Schuman, 1997.

Inklebarger, Timothy. 2014. “Ferguson’s Safe Haven.” American Libraries 45, no. 11/12: 17-18.

Jacobsen, Teresa L. “Class of 1988.” Library Journal, July 12, 2004, 38– 41.

Jones, Kenneth, and Okun, Tema. Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, ChangeWork, 2001 http://www.cwsworkshop.org/PARC_site_B/dr-culture.html

Julien, Heidi, and Shelagh Genuis. “Emotional Labour in Librarians’ Instructional Work.” Journal of Documentation 65, no. 6 (2009): 926-37.

Kaser, David. The Evolution of the American Academic Library Building. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Keltner, D, and Haidt, J. “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion.” Cognition and Emotion 17, no. 2 (2003): 297–314.

Linden, M., I. Salo, and A. Jansson. “Organizational Stressors and Burnout in Public Librarians.” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 2016.

Maxwell, Nancy Kalikow. Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship. Chicago: American Library Association, 2006.

Mukherjee, A. K. Librarianship: Its Philosophy and History. Asia Publishing House, 1966.

Newell, Mike. “For these Philly librarians, drug tourists and overdose drills are part of the job” The Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 1, 2017.

Newhouse, Ria, and April Spisak. “Fixing the First Job.” Library Journal, Aug. 2004, 44– 46.

Pawley, Christine, and Robbins, Louise S. Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth-Century America. Print Culture History in Modern America. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2013.

Peet, Lisa. “Ferguson Library: a community’s refuge: library hosts children, teachers during school closing.” Library Journal, January 1, 2015.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. A History of Building Types. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Pitcavage, Mark. “With Hate in their Hearts: The State of White Supremacy in the United States” last modified July 2015. https://www.adl.org/education/resources/reports/state-of-white-supremacy

Rosen, Ellen. Improving Public Sector Productivity: Concepts and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage Publications, 1993.

Rubin, Richard E. Foundations of Library and Information Science. Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc, 2010.

Scholes, Jefferey. “Vocation.” Religion Compass, 4 (2010): 211–220. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2010.00215.x

Schlesselman-Tarango, Gina. “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library.” Library Trends, (2016) 667–86. Retrieved from: http://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/library-publications/34.

Van Dyne, and Ellis, “Job creep: A reactance theory perspective on organizational citizenship behavior as overfulfillment of obligations,” in The employment relationship: examining psychological and contextual perspectives, edited by Phillip Appleman New York : Oxford University Press.

52 Responses

  1. Pingback : My Vocational Awe Article is Out! – WTF is a Radical Librarian, Anyway?

  2. Lizzybell

    This is really what I needed to read today. Thank you for writing what I have struggled with mentally and emotionally for the last few months in particular.

  3. This is a terrific article! Thank you for it. Having previously come from social work which also has a lot of image-related baggage (you’re either a selfless martyr giving your whole life to others or you’re a soulless bureaucrat who takes people’s kids), I’ve seen how people can get trapped by that and experience burnout because they either don’t fit or are trying too hard to live up to an unrealistic image of their profession. I feel like we are in such a polarized society now that people immediately jump to the conclusion that if you critique something you’re a hater. If you recognize institutional racism and oppression in librarianship, you must think all white librarians are racists. That’s b.s. To me, seeing one’s work or profession through a critical lens is an act of love, and that is what you did here. I believe that we can care our work without deifying it. We can do good work without being martyrs and losing sight of own needs. I really enjoy my job, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a job — not a sacred mission. I teach LIS students and I’ve been really happy to see them in recent years talking more and more about labor issues in our profession whereas when I was in school 14 years ago, the idea of considering our needs was unthinkable. Hopefully we’re moving to a more critical and aware and less awe-struck vision of what we do. I think our profession will be better for it.

    1. Anon

      ” If you recognize institutional racism and oppression in librarianship, you must think all white librarians are racists. That’s b.s.”

      Can you elaborate on this comment? Thank you.

      1. I think some people respond to critiques of whiteness in librarianship as if they are being accused specifically of being racists and shut down. Dialogue about these things can’t happen unless we let go of our personal sensitivity and recognize that we’re looking at institutional patterns of racism that, in many cases, are unrecognized and unintentional on the part of the librarians. We can’t have these conversations if white people always focus on themselves and not the big picture and how that big picture (whether intentionally or not) oppresses others. Too often, people respond to critiques of whiteness in American institutions by saying that the author must think all librarians are racists. They are missing the point.

        1. Robin Rader

          You might be interested in Roithmayr, R. (2014). Reproducing racism: How everyday choices lock in white advantage. New York, NY: New York University Press.

  4. Pingback : Vocational Awe and Professional Identity | ACRLog

  5. Alyn

    I was so happy when, post-LIS, I came across the phrase “vocational awe.” It perfectly captures a sense of disillusionment I experienced entering the field and discovering that the idealized vision of libraries I learned about just didn’t exist. While we did cover lots of issues surrounding equity and freedom of access (i.e. convos about digital divide, looking at library policies and who they protected/targeted), I’m pretty ashamed that we spent very little time talking about the history of segregation and libraries.

    I’ve never actually felt any inclination toward martyrdom. Part of it’s personality, and part of it’s growing up with a mom who’s a part-time librarian and full-time martyr. Even with that disinclination, I still feel the pressure to try to live up to that whole-self librarianship. I see librarians post about skipping lunch or using their days off to prep for programs, and I feel like I am somehow underperforming by not “going above and beyond” or “giving it my all.”

    This feeling is exacerbated somehow by my own sense of gender identity, particularly considering that I’m a children’s librarian. For the most part I’m a cis woman, though I occasionally experience some degree of disconnect with that identity (but not enough identify as nonbinary or trans*). For whatever reason, I’m pretty good at maintating work-life boundaries. But I know how many womyn struggle with that, which makes me feel both guilty and lacking somehow – as though my inability to put the needs of the children before my own, even during off-the-job time, makes me not nurturing/caring enough for either my profession or my gender.

  6. Pingback : An introduction! – Pursuing it with Eager Feet

  7. CJ

    Vocational awe. This is a new term to me, but it’s a great way to explain the perpetually (earnest & well-meaning but) patronizing “Oh, you’re a teacher! Thank you so much for all the work you do; I could never do that!” comments that I’ve always wanted to respond to with “Hmmm, yeah. want to really show your gratitude? Please pay me enough to pay my mortgage and my student loans.”

  8. Ruth Tillman

    I wanted to say that I really appreciate this concept of vocational awe and I’ve been reflecting on how it applied to be as a librarian who worked at NASA, another place which is heavily tied to vocational awe. I was a brand new Librarian! I was at NASA! People always responded “NASA!” I had found so much of their work engaging and inspiring for so many years.

    And there were days that I could get fully caught up in the best of that awe. Other times, it was a job. And then… there were times it was really bad. Managing decisions by the contracting company I actually worked for which I considered harmful. Certain patrons’ behavior driving us to develop policies of secrecy to avoid…incidents. Harmful decisions by people in the admin over on the NASA side. Physical harm caused to a coworker which occurred because of some of those decisions and which caused me and others emotional harm because a) we cared for her and her injury was potentially life-threatening (she recovered fairly quickly, but it was scary at first) and b) we realized our own safety did not matter to the people in charge.

    I was a Librarian. I was at NASA. I realize now that part of what I was suffering from was my own vocational awe trying to navigate the world as a new librarian and part was other people’s as their expectations of what I was experiencing differed so greatly from my experience and… I remember the first time a librarian friend said “Hey pal, how’s it going at NASA?!” and I didn’t lie. I told him I threw up on my walk to work and I cried at night and I wanted to find a new job and… his face… I mean he was completely supportive. But it was like telling a kid Santa wasn’t real. The length of this comment has almost made me want to turn it into more of a blog post responding and reflecting but, see, here’s where the vocational awe thing comes in again. I feel the need to explore this and reflect, but I’m also afraid that if it becomes a standalone blogpost and not a comment on your article, especially with your article as context… more people will feel that same sadness my friend felt, that I’ll be perceived as disloyal to profession/mission, that people’s response to this image of a librarian at NASA will lead them to turn their disappointment into anger. These were all things I feared at the time and I guess…years later… I still do.

  9. Pingback : New(ish) year, new(ish) editor! | SNAP Section

  10. Kathy

    Not to be pedantic, but St. Lawrence is the patron saint of archivists, and St. Jerome (or St. Catherine) the patron saint(s) of librarians. Also, St. Lawrence was burned on the grill for not turning over the ‘treasure’ of the church. Secular authorities thought of gold and silver; St. Lawrence brought in the poor and destitute.

    1. Veronica

      I was looking around the Internet to see if Saint Lawrence really was the patron saint of librarians and archivists, and the only site that listed us as part of his patronage was Wikipedia. Other sites mentioned Saint Jerome and Catherine of Alexandria. I even used my library’s databases and encyclopedia, and I was becoming very confused on where she got this tidbit of information – which she references multiple times. Maybe there’s a piece of literature out there that I missed.

  11. Pingback : Application essays and congruence – Gavia Libraria

  12. Pingback : On the Mend: Falling Into and Out of Overwork | ACRLog

  13. Thank you for articulating this! There’s so much to talk about, for instance, the interplay of vocational awe and neoliberalism in shrinking library budgets. I hope you’ll consider writing more about this topic.

  14. Pingback : ShoutOut: Fobazi Ettarh, MLS – The Ink on the Page

  15. Matt Gullett

    Thank you for articulating a sometimes subtle, yet harmful element of our professional bias in the idea/ideal of vocational awe. To offer such a thoughtful critique gives space and pause to reflect and realize just how much a lack of critique can actually harm our professional stance.

    As an academic librarian and a practicing psychotherapist, I notice how our profession, as you have revealed as well, struggles greatly with boundaries, i.e., mission creep, and self-care, i.e., having a life outside of one’s work.

  16. Robin Rader

    Here’s another angle on the pitfalls inherent in vocational awe. “We must learn to honor excellence in every socially acceptable human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
    Gardner, J. W. (1984). Excellence: Can we be equal and excellent too? (Rev. ed.). New York: Norton.

  17. Thanks, it’s an important subject and I loved the naming of “vocational awe.” I expressed a similar analysis when I reviewed a 2002 book Vandals in the Stacks attacking an author – a non-librarian! – who dared critique some practices of the library and archive professions.

  18. karl

    I think this is an incredibly important piece, but I encourage taking it in a different direction. I work at perhaps the apex of vocational awe in librarianship: I am a theological librarian. That’s right, my religious identity is completely wrapped up with my professional role in all sorts of interesting ways. As a cis-hetero-white male, you might argue that I suffer less from that complex than others might. Yet despite my privileged status, I still struggle with very human realities and have experienced various work settings both inside and outside of libraries. In my experience, completely “owning” the vocational awe can actually be transformative. You describe vocational awe as the set of attitudes that “result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” I think the presumption that institutions that are good and sacred are beyond critique is where this article runs into problems. In my own religious tradition, Christianity, the goodness and sacredness of a group of people is precisely what allows it to come in for critique. In ancient Israel, God held God’s people to a higher standard because they were a chosen people. Jesus held his followers to an even higher standard of critique than what was common in his Jewish society. He called religious people “whitened sepulchres.” Because I work for a library at an institution that takes the Christian scriptures and Jesus seriously, we have a kind of built-in critical apparatus. We have to “do better” because we have a sacred calling. This includes issues of economics and work-life balance. I don’t make a ton of money at my job, but I am able to support my family, and my institution cares about making sure the spread between the highest-paid and lowest-paid workers is not that great. My institution also cares about breaks, sick and vacation time, time for family and church involvement and recreation, etc. These are not merely calculated approaches to retaining talent, but a kind of sacred obligation. I am very conscious of ways my organization continues to fall short. I do a lot of “job creep” (but on the flip side, folks whose job is not in the library care about it too and help me out). I too go home tired at the end of the day, and sometimes the bills feel impossible. Still, I would not trade my “sacred” theological library for a “secular” one where I need to be constantly available just to tread water and the top dog makes 10x as much as the lowest paid worker. I would encourage librarians in libraries of all sorts to fully embrace the awe connected to our vocation, and to make the logical connection that the sacredness of what we do requires valuing and protecting the lives of the people who do this work. This includes part-time workers and folks without a library degree. No true martyr ever seeks to be one; the martyr is not “guilty” of the outcome of their life. A martyr continues to express their sacred calling even in the face of oppression and ultimately death, exposing the violence of the system that does not recognize their value. I hope (and pray) for more recognition of the sacredness of library work and less martyrdom.

  19. dd

    As a librarian, understanding the professional awe and expectations of the calling, I am dismayed when i see other librarians not upholding the values of privacy and who are judgemental of users’ info needs and who are divisive. I then understand that the awe is an individual bestowal, not one that I can apply to the profession as a whole. Also, it is not the individual librarian who make this vast amount of resources available. It is usually the taxpayer or generous donors who should be thought of in awe for their generosity.

  20. continental

    I really, really regret wasting my time and money on a useless MLIS degree. I should have taken a 2 year paramedic certification course at the Junior College. Then my services would be in demand!

  21. Janice Flahiff

    Well said and summarized. Not only applicable to librarianship but many positions in the paid and unpaid sectors.
    Linked to this on my FB page. . Thank you!

    On another note, I learned more on the job than at library school (early 80’s). In many ways I feel I just went to finishing school instead of graduate school. It just wasn’t very rigorous and there was too emphasis on people skills rather than technical/computer skills. Wondering if times have changed?

    1. Rose

      I totally agree with you on this. At lot of what library school is theory and developing professional skills. While I have learned things and have applied them to my work, the vast majority of learning is going to be experience. I am lucky to be working in a library while going to grad school. I feel for anyone that is going to grad school with the hopes of getting their foot in the door. At the library I am working at, I applied to three different positions before I even got an interview. The longer I go to school, the angrier I get. I had a project where we had to act as vendors/publishers/subscription agents giving a presentation to librarians about their products. While I understand this is for us to know how these players work, it still pisses me off that we had to act like them. Maybe I am just burned out on school but school is not doing a lot for me. As far as I am concerned, I just got to get through this program. I have no idea where it will lead me. As long as I am able to pay my bills I am good.

  22. Pingback : Steering Share: Considering Labor Models in Archives Work – Issues & Advocacy