Aka the humblebrag post in which I discuss how I came up with a term.
When the call for proposals for the Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries conference, I was super excited. It often felt like these topics were mentioned at other conferences, but not thoroughly and in only a select number of sessions. This was the opportunity to speak on how these things affect not only our work, but how we interact with other professionals.
Sveta invited me to be on a panel about being feeling ambivalence experienced while being a librarian, and I was like YES, these are the kinds of conversations that, in my opinion, are not done nearly enough and should be explored. As we were brainstorming, I mentioned that I was interested in deconstructing this idea of vocational awe in librarianship. I saw the concept as the root of a lot of problems within librarianship, especially in creating a work/life balance and in larger critiques of the field. As I worked on this panel, and in facilitating a roundtable with Rachel Fleming, I experienced just how pervasive it was within librarianship.
So it wasn’t until the night before the conference, when Sveta told me that I created the term, that I realized that this language wasn’t already in the discourse. For me, the phrase seemed so apropos that I thought everyone was using it. (ok humblebrag over)
So what exactly is “vocational awe?” Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession. The closest that Sveta found to a similar concept was occupational mythology in the journalism world.
Now there are many ways this plays out, but this is something that a librarian in my friend group recently put on Facebook.
The story is about how a bunch of middle school students refused to participate in a photo op with Paul Ryan in DC due to disagreements over his alignment with Trump and general policies. But look at the comment. The person who shared this uses it as a platform to show how the amazing impact of libraries going as far as to say that since Alexandria, libraries have imparted these freedoms (freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedoms of communication, etc) on its peoples. If libraries are so inherently amazing, then why were so many libraries segregated? If librarians raise such free thinkers, why are there such rampant -isms (racism, sexism, ableism, etc) within librarianship? How can one really critique a field and the people within it, when it is held to such high esteem?
And so what happens when librarianship is seen as a calling rather than a profession? Well, you get articles like the one below:
The language becomes about passion (and lack thereof) rather than advocacy and fulfillment. The more one struggles for their work, the “holier” it becomes and the less likely that people will fight for a healthier workspace, and the less likely it will be that people will actually separate themselves from their work. I mean how often have you heard someone say that they work through lunch and on the weekends, because they’re so “passionate” about what they do? Or that they should put a bed in their office? Since when is living at your workplace seen as a badge of honor? Why should working until you literally burnout due to physical and emotional exhaustion be the norm? While this article does go on to talk about emotional labor and some concrete strategies to belay it, the article title and abstract seem to conflate burnout with lack of passion rather than lack of institutional support.
Vocational awe is f*cking toxic and we as librarians need to stop spreading this rhetoric that libraries are this beacon of democracy and critical thinking. 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. It is not a sustainable source of income, and we need to stop treating vocational awe as the only way to be a librarian.