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.

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52 Responses

  1. Rose

    As a current MLIS student, this was so refreshing and reassuring to read. I have been working in libraries as a part time staff person for over two years; already I have began to see the cracks in this profession. While I have loved working in libraries, I am becoming frustrated with the vocational awe (a perfect phrase by the way) of library work. At my last job, I was working at a rural public library that was a nightmare to work at. The last six months of my time there I had to deal with job creep, a toxic work environment, not to mention a flood. All of this while getting paid 9 dollars an hour for part time work. Thankfully I moved and now work at a library that is significantly better at taking care of its workers. I still experience the same job stresses of difficult patrons and the impostor’s syndrome that comes with this profession. Not to mention that the library I work at we have a significant amount of patrons that are homeless, have mental illnesses, and/or substance abuse. There are days where I feel like I am not doing my job right or I am not passionate enough. I can also feel this especially in my master’s program. While I have learned a lot in my master’s (although more at my job); I am getting the sense of the vocational awe even within my grad program. Everyone is stressed out but no one wants to be the first to say it. My advice to anyone is to do the best you can. Not every patron is going to leave happy and with what they wanted. You cannot control every situation. Also finding a hobby outside of the profession and spending time with people you love helps significantly. Take care everyone. :)

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