Vocational Awe?

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.

vocational awe1

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:

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 10.12.56 AM

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.

29 Replies to “Vocational Awe?”

  1. HAHA. Ok, so when I posted that I’d sacrifice pay to stay in it, I meant it’s bc I don’t want to do anything else, not bc I’m holier than anyone to stay in it, but sure, make it sound like me actually seeing the ENTIRE situation as a WHOLE as worth the sacrifice. Am I toxic now to the rest of my industry? I don’t think so. It’s not that I don’t think I deserve better pay (which if you would’ve posted the REST of that thread, you and the rest of the people reading this would see), it’s that I don’t want another profession. Not to mention, the job I had before this paid EVEN WORSE. This is a good situation for me. So, sorry not sorry.


  2. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my visitors would really benefit from some of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Cheers!|


  3. Folks conveniently forget that American libraries are cultural institutions, and as such, carry the baggage American culture does. In LIS schools, the history of libraries ‘Americanizing’ immigrants and all of the racial and cultural aggression that is a part of that should be taught just as much as Libraries As Beacons of Freedom–it might help us keep our rhetoric about ourselves more realistic. Cataloging is required, but not History of Libraries, and that’s troubling. As for the passion thing–just one more way we are told to do more with less, instead of finally announcing that we can only do less with less. Be more passionate and you can do amazing things even as your funding is cut! Argh.

    Thank you for this.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for coining this term! I think it connects to one of my biggest pet peeves about librarianship–the self-congratulatory way that librarians often talk about our work. If non-librarians want to frame librarians as everyday heroes, that’s great, and that heroic narrative is something to lean into when advocating for funding, but that self-congratulatory tone I hear so often seems like a way to deflect any criticism or self-reflection.


  5. “Vocational awe” is right on target! I think this problem also contributes to the low pay many librarians are willing to accept (since we “do it for love, not money”), thereby reinforcing the overwhelming whiteness of the field. Others interested in this topic may want to check out nina de jesus’s blog post on how the phenomenon of vocational awe (though she doesn’t use that term) functions to maintain systemic racism and oppression in libraries: https://epicfails.xyz/posts/2016-08-13-the-biggest-obstacle-to-diversity-in-libraries.html. I hope to hear vocational awe addressed further at future library programs.


  6. I had a professor at MLIS school today say “libraries are the last bastion of privacy.” Really? Just one more example of exactly what you’re talking about with vocational awe.

    And because we’re all so good and professional and nice, anyone who speaks up to say “actually you’re squashing me and making it harder to do my job by failing to mitigate the effects of systemic BS” (or even better making it my job to interrupt microagressions against me, but topic for another day…lol) you become the unprofessional one, the mouthy one, the difficult one.

    Ok end personal unburdening disguised as a professional rant!

    Humblebrag the shit out of this one because it is dead on.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Amanda Panda (Duh) and commented:
    ‘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.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: