Fobazi Ettarh’s Vocational Awe should be on every worker’s reading list (Librarians Speaking Truth to Power, #2)

This is the second in a series of posts in which I reflect on librarian-authored writings that I find courageous, inspiring, and thought provoking.

Fobazi Ettarh is a librarian, not a saint. And she wants other librarians to stop promoting a holy image of libraries. Ettarh’s article “Vocational awe and librarianship: The lies we tell ourselves” is about the myths surrounding librarianship – the “sacred” nature of the work, its “inherent” goodness, and its supposedly unwavering support of freedom and democracy. Ettarh believes these myths make librarians reluctant to advocate for good labor conditions or to critique very real problems in the field.

Deconstructing the idea that librarianship is a kind of sacred “calling,” Ettarh talks about the expectation that library workers will do anything and everything to serve, including jeopardizing their own health. She also explains that this expectation can be linked directly back to the Library’s early connection with churches and monasteries, institutions that have historically rewarded self-sacrifice and martyrdom. She believes this type of thinking is ultimately misguided and detrimental to the profession and its workers.

Ettarh stepped on my toes with this one. I am familiar with the troubling history of librarianship and am well aware of the library field’s shortcomings. However, that knowledge has not kept me from extolling the virtues of libraries and holding them up as beacons of democracy and freedom. Have I been bitten by the vocational awe bug and not even known it? Am I perpetuating beliefs that are harmful to my colleagues’ well being?

I certainly don’t want to, which is why I am really glad I read Ettarh’s piece early in my library career. I am an optimist at heart, which is a good thing, I think, but I don’t want that optimism to be interpreted as a belief that librarians and libraries can do no wrong and never exploit people. In fact, libraries have quite a long history of wronging and exploiting people, through racial segregation, censorship, heterosexism, homophobia, dehumanizing cataloging practices, and widespread use of unpaid and underpaid labor.

Librarian Saint

The disconnect between reality and myth is common in the world of work in general. As Ettarh herself stated in an interview she did with Cathy Hannabach last October, “vocational awe” is by no means confined to the library setting:

I definitely don’t see vocational awe as just a library thing…Education is definitely another field where it’s driven more by calling. Also social work. The interesting thing is, and one that I definitely want to explore more, is that it tends to be very feminized fields that have a lot of this mission-driven rhetoric. Being a teacher, being a social worker, being a librarian—they all are majority feminized fields. So I think that there is definitely something about the way gender plays a role that is interesting about vocational awe” (Velasquez-Potts, 2019).

And now here we are in the middle of COVID-19, where vocational awe is being exploited big time. In some cases, bosses are manufacturing vocational awe by creating new superficial, transitory pseudomyths to prop up previously unappreciated service professions. If you have any job that involves serving the public, you may be hearing that you are essential, you need to be there for your customers, and that they have a right to the services you provide. You may be told that society needs you, that everyone need you, that what you are doing is essential to the functioning of the society and the economy. You may be called courageous for putting your life on the line and working through your fear of infecting your loved ones. What you may not get – especially if you are a low-paid worker – is any guarantee that you will have a job when the pandemic ends, or that your family will be taken care of should something happen to you. You may not hear anyone say that your life, whether or not you have a family, whether or not you are a caretaker, is just as valuable as that of anyone else, including the anyone elses who are working from home or looking to you for service. In short, you will be put on a pedestal for your service worth while the value of your life apart from what can you do for others goes unnoticed.

Vocational awe is one manifestation of a complicated societal web of dysfunction weaved out of sexism (external and internalized), classism (external and internalized), and plantation capitalism (thank you, Reverend James Lawson, for teaching me that term). Those -isms are not going anywhere fast and neither is vocational awe.

So where do we go from here? Ettarh has suggested that library staff join forces with others in their institutions and with unionizing efforts rather than trying to go it alone (Velasquez-Potts, 2019). I agree and would take this idea a step further by suggesting that we form coalitions with people in other professions beyond our own institutions, particularly people whose work is analogous to ours and who are experiencing the same thing. Library workers are part of a larger economic ecosystem where the docile and dispensable worker has been idealized across professions. As Ettarh points out, we cannot push back effectively on that by ourselves.

At the same time, we need to think big when it comes to advocating for ourselves. For example, I believe we librarians need to talk and write about notions like vocational awe and worker exploitation beyond academic publications and professional conferences. Scholarly publishing outlets serve a purpose, but they are highly insular spaces. To move the profession in a progressive direction we need to gain the attention of allies and accomplices both within and beyond libraries and academia. Those in other fields may have less to lose financially and may be freer in what they can say publicly. And we should not assume they don’t care or aren’t interested in library workers’ problems. The challenges that librarians write about are challenges in non-academic fields as well, and many non-academics might value our allyship.

Another way to resist the library holy talk is by practicing librarianship itself outside of the confines of the library “church.” With all the changes happening in our society and the world economy, we need to be exploring more independent paths to being librarians at the same time that we are trying to transform working conditions within the traditional library space. Starting grassroots community resource collections that respond to unfulfilled information needs, being advocates for librarianship by blogging independently about library work, being an expert consultant or a guest on radio and TV news networks, offering research consulting and contract librarian services to individuals and organizations, writing a column on librarianship for a non-library publication, and supporting grassroots library projects that are already in place are all ways to engage in transformative practice beyond the existing librarianship paradigm.

Of course we also need to be making our voices heard at the ballot box by supporting candidates who support workers. Some of us might even want to run for public office ourselves. Many librarians certainly have the savvy, administrative acumen, and negotiating skills to do political work.

One thing Ettarh’s piece got me to wondering about is whether vocational awe functions the same in all types of librarianship. Is it different, for example, in corporate libraries or for digital asset management librarians? I have met librarians who work for large corporations, primarily with digital assets. Only one seemed to have the awe bug – the others did not.

On the other hand, is it possible that some of us really have been “called” without having drunk the library sainthood Kool-Aid? Is there a middle ground between awe and atheism? Kind of like being spiritual but not religious? This is not to say that we should put ourselves on pedestals, only that we can be real about the limitations and shortcomings of libraries while still acknowledging how miraculous and life saving of a place a good library can be for some people.

As I type these words I can already feel the slickness of the slope. Vocational awe, even in its watered-down form, has the potential to be a mind trap. To escape it, we need to not only admit that it exists, as Ettarh counsels us to do, but also be honest about what we gain from it. As dangerous as self sacrifice is, there is often a psychological wage that accompanies it, a sense of moral superiority. Reality check: none of us are saints, all of us are human, and most of us want to stay alive more than we want to work. There are many others like us out there in non-library land, so let’s work with them to create workplaces and economic structures that honor everyone’s lives and well being.

Do you work in a profession that encourages self sacrifice? Have you been afflicted by vocational awe? What do you think we should do about it?

References

Ettarh, F. (2018, January 10). Vocational awe: The lies we tell ourselves. In The Library With The Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe/

Velasquez-Potts, M. (2019, October 23). Imagine otherwise: Fobazi Ettarh on the limits of vocational awe. Ideas On Fire. https://ideasonfire.net/98-fobazi-ettarh/

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