What does it mean to be present?

Hello everyone. Long time no chat. I wish I could say this will be an eloquent post, but frankly I don’t have the spoons or bandwidth or whatever you would like to call it for eloquence. Please forgive me.

I am popping on here because I am seeing a worrying trend when it comes to conferences. Fewer and fewer conferences are virtual or at the least have virtual option. I had a not so great experience with one of the conferences I keynoted for recently. When they first contacted me for an in-person talk, the vaccine rollout had just started for essential workers and delta was just an airline and/or greek letter. And so when the time came closer, I assumed that it would be virtual. Or at the very least that I could speak virtually. Their response to my request was not only to shame me for my decision, but also to attempt to cut my honorarium in half. Their reasoning? That people really wanted to see me in person and that I’d be disappointing all those who came in person and that setting up the technology to broadcast me is an expense they didn’t foresee.

This is how vocational awe pushes people out of the field. Even as someone whose very talk was about acknowledging and breaking down the barriers that vocational awe inflicts on the field, my accommodations were treated as selfish and unfair.

And so it got me thinking about the larger issues surrounding the idea of being present. Librarianship has a really hard time with letting workers leave the building. In many of my presentations when I discuss the difference between occupation and vocation, I mention how as a pastor’s kid (shout out to my fellow PKs!) while you may physically leave the church building, church never really leaves you. Between Bible studies and retreats and vacation Bible school, you are always in church. And perhaps more important is the idea that showing up is 9/10ths of the work needed to show your faith.

And that same expectation of being present lives within librarianship. Physically showing up to the library every day is seen as paramount. In every single one of my library jobs it was incredibly difficult to get a reasonable accommodation that would allow me to work from home. At CSU Dominguez Hills the closest I could get was a compressed work schedule where I worked 9 hours a day to receive the second and fourth Friday ”off.” At Temple you were only allowed one WFH day a week, and that was if your supervisor allowed it. Ironically, it took a global pandemic to actually give me the accommodations I needed.

And now, as we are rushing back to “normal,” the ability to work from home is the first thing to go. Why is being physically in the library so important? When the pandemic started, the NJ governor instituted a 5pm curfew for all organizations that weren’t essential, and a 9pm curfew for those that were. Do you know what NJ libraries did? I’m sure you can guess. That’s right; they declared themselves essential and not only did they stay open, but in many cases -extended- their hours! It took another mandate stating that libraries, including those on college campuses, were not classified as essential workers and had to close. It took -multiple- ProPublica articles to force Chicago Public Library to close. All around the country the very idea that the buildings would be closed for an undetermined amount of time caused panic! Despite the common rhetoric that, ”Libraries are so much more than books!” there was a real crisis of faith amongst the field of librarianship.

And the pandemic demonstrated that the most important resource in libraries were the people. Library workers all over country did amazing work! They worked at home; they worked in coffee shops; they worked at the beach; they worked in different states; they worked in different countries! And the libraries continued to run.

So why? Why does this idea that being physically present in the library is the only correct way to do the work persist? Do you know what happens when being physically present is seen as a core part of librarianship? The same thing that happens with emphasizing and rewarding perfect attendance: the alienation and marginalization of those who can’t adhere to that standard. Library workers with disabilities, library workers with children, library workers who take care of family and/or have other responsibilities. Or library workers who just do better working from home! Not only that, but it encourages a workplace culture of overwork and flattens all reasons why one might not physically be in the building as frivolous. It pressures people to come into work sick. It pressures people into not using their vacation or personal days. It creates a culture where just showing up is more important than actually doing the work. At its extremes it leads to burnout and even death as seen with the situation with my mentor Latanya. All those times she and I dragged ourselves into the building so that we could be seen was energy wasted from doing actual work. All those months I spent working a 9/8 schedule and burning myself out just to have one day “off” was time I could have been more productive than I was. The energy it took convincing the conference organizers that presenting virtually wasn’t shameful could have been used doing literally anything else!

The thing about vocational awe is that it creates a rigid and harmful standard of library excellence. There are so many ways to be a successful librarian! Let’s deconstruct it and figure out what a new and healthier normal can be.

3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be present?

  1. THANK YOU! There’s a divide between leaders and library staff in my library, in terms of seeing what is required to do our jobs well. I sit in Zoom meetings in a room with a closed door… but I do this isolation on campus, so I’m a *good* worker and building *campus community.*

    (& thanks for sharing that you’re a PK! So am I… I feel seen).

    Like

  2. I see a lot of tensions at my workplace between those who have to be on-site for virtually all of their work hours due to the nature of their job (staffing a circ desk, working with rare non-circulating materials, etc), those who could do a hybrid schedule, and those who could work fully remote. One thing that concerns me about the line of argument regarding how much work can be done remotely in a library system is that if we argue our work can be done anywhere, then I fully expect a library administrator to eventually say “OK, then this company can do it cheaper” and entire library work forces begin to disappear. Obviously there are larger issues of disinvestment in public services and neoliberal austerity at work here, but how do we avoid having extremely valid and important critiques of current workplace culture co-opted by the forces of privatization?

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