As I’ve observed my colleagues in person and online, I’m convinced that there are two extremes in attitude approaching our work in libraries. The extremes are positive and negative, with some library workers doing a lot of work for the sake of “the cause,” seeing their work as more than just a career or a job, they infuse a level of religious fervor to their approach. This approach (and the harm that it causes) was brilliantly encapsulated by Fobazi Ettarh in coining the term “vocational awe” in relation to libraries.
There is, however, another extreme: the disillusioned library worker. I’ve noticed a deeply (and loudly) negative trend among librarians online, mostly on Twitter, where the librarian community seems, ironically, dead set against libraries. I suspect that this approach stems from a frustrated vocational awe. The idea that libraries are intrinsically good has crumbled, and with it the vision of one’s place within it has been corrupted. A tempest of frustrated negativity is reinforced by dwelling solely on the shortcomings of libraries, especially in difficult times, such as during a worldwide pandemic.
Like so many things, I find that the healthiest avenue is somewhere in the middle. I’m not a revolutionary when it comes to the library field, though I recognize there are many shortcomings that must be addressed. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we lack people who can come together constructively to address the deficits. A lot of library Twitter reviled the ALA recently for it’s non-statement regarding advocating for vaccines for front-line library workers in the pandemic. The statement was problematic, but so too was the reaction from library workers: they derided the ALA entirely, writing it off as a worthless, faceless, feckless institution mired in “establishment activity.” I worry that this view is guilty of “throwing out the baby with the bath water:” we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our institutions, then work to correct the weaknesses.
Another recent critique of the field on Twitter was embodied in a debate surrounding “rock star librarians.” Colleagues began criticizing those who work to move the field forward: those who go out of their way to publish papers, serve on committees, advocate for needs, and who stand out among their peers for their work as librarians per se, beyond the day-to-day activities of their jobs. Again, we need to understand the limitations and shortcomings of the library cultural landscape, while supporting good work that helps address the issues of need. I saw several people criticizing the fact the library associations have awards for “rock star librarians,” as if the recognition itself were a problem. The critique struck me as simplistic; we throw up our hands in dismay and disgust at the “elitism” in the system, without suggestions for how else to approach the topic. It’s entirely possible, for example, for library associations to add additional awards for those who do great work on a daily basis: the people who keep libraries running without the flashy committee work. But the negativity attacks those who have the best shot of helping move the field forward toward a more equitable reality. Our hope is in those who have acquired influence being able to sway those in positions of authority, and that they can attain positions of authority themselves to make substantive change.
This phenomenon of frustrated vocational awe, I think, is predicated on maintaining the values of librarianship while taking away the myth of inherently good libraries. The values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, unmoored from the institution itself, naturally flows into anger at the institution for failure to live up to its ideals. Many frustrated librarians, I believe, long for change through revolution, eschewing the slower, incremental process. I’m of the opinion that incremental change is much more sustainable because it relies on swaying stakeholders and establishing new normative standards. It’s not enough to topple the top of the institution, if nobody else follows along. Cultural change is difficult and takes time. It means tireless work, and it’s disappointing to see so many colleagues take to online platforms to blindly tear at their library institutions, or to openly wish for a different career.
In the end, I don’t have a ready remedy for negative, frustrated vocational awe. It could be that once a library worker has crossed the line into bitter jadedness, that there might not be an easy path back toward happiness. It isn’t the library’s role to make us happy with it, but to serve our patrons as best as we can. At the same time, there’s a need to make our workplaces more equitable and inclusive, and there are real weaknesses there that need real work. These things are real, and they exist together: the fact that the library’s ideals are good, but that the library sometimes fails to live up to them. The fact that library workers often do great work for their communities, but they risk burnout and overwork through vocational awe. That the field is moved forward slowly by those willing to do the work, but that more could be done to laud those who keep the library functioning on a daily basis. All these things exist at the same time. If we view them in a certain way, they can be interpreted as a call to action. Conversely, they can be a call to bitter criticism which doesn’t solve the problems. For me, I choose to do what I can while holding on to the ideals as best I can. I hope to be constructive in the end.