Might Librarians’ Vocational Awe Have Negative Effects on the Community?

Librarians' Vocational Awe

Regular readers of our blog know that we are huge library supporters here at Pages Unbound. Over the years, we have enthusiastically discussed all the wonderful work libraries do, from providing a safe space for those experiencing homelessness to hosting public forums to providing classes on everything from art to gardening. However, in my latest post, I mused that, despite all this, the library is still primarily associated in the public mind with books. Any TV show or movie, for example, is likely to portray libraries as book repositories and places to do research, not so much places for the local biking club to meet or for teens to try out the latest video games. And I suggested that this was not a bad thing, but something libraries could embrace to distinguish themselves from other community resources.

I understand the incentive for libraries to point out all their non-collections related activities (and here we can understand the collection to mean books, films, music, magazines, databases, etc.). Many public libraries in the U.S. have been struggling with funding for years (often since the recession around 2008, if not before). They feel the need to justify their existence by pointing out everything they do, from serving as a place for people to cool down in the summer to offering kickball games after school to offering free tutoring services and free Zumba classes. They proclaim that they provide computers, printers, WiFi, and fax machines to people who otherwise would have no access. They offer resume-writing and job search assistance to help people find work. They teach English to English language learners and other languages to the community. Libraries are truly the place for everything!

Usually, libraries and their supporters point out these expansive services as a good thing. Libraries have made themselves indispensable to the community. But what if it’s not good? What if all the services libraries have taken on over the years and the subsequent job roles librarians have had to take on, actually have large-scale repercussions that may be barely noticeable, but still important? And not good at all? Specifically, I want to talk about the idea of “vocational awe” and how this encourages libraries and their staff to take on increasing job duties, which they arguably may be ill-equipped for and should not be bearing the burden of in the first place.

In “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” Fobazi Ettarh describes vocational awe in the following manner: “’Vocational awe’ refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh goes on to explain that vocational awe leads to the expectation that library workers will “sacrifice” themselves to their jobs, often taking on additional job duties with no additional compensation. Workers who cannot perform to a high level due to personal or medical reasons may be viewed negatively, along with those who complain about the job, since the “sacred” work libraries do to provide safe spaces and serve democracy must be upheld at all costs. Vocational awe obviously can lead to things like burnout, as Ettarh notes, but might its negative consequences go even farther?

Ettarh mentions the existence of “job creep,” in which one’s job duties slowly expand, without recognition from the employer. Aspects of the job that were once voluntary, for example, become mandatory, with no additional compensation. Ettarh gives as an example how library workers once might have trained voluntarily to administer anti-overdose medication, but now are regularly simply expected to do it as part of the job, regardless of their comfort level. This is but one example, however. I believe that job creep has been occurring in libraries for years, to the extent that much of the work that libraries do now, is really an example of job creep.

Librarians once were–and are still described as–information professionals. In theory, the job of the librarian is to help guide individuals to the information they seek. So, for example, if someone has a legal question, a library worker can show that individual where to find the answer, although they cannot interpret the answer for the individual. If someone is looking for information on a certain moment of history, a library worker can show them the appropriate shelf in the stacks, show them how to use a relevant database, and explain to them how to use keywords to find relevant websites. If someone has lost their job and needs financial help, the library worker can give them addresses and phone numbers for the appropriate local agencies that can help. The librarian is not there to teach the person history or to get them a new job or an emergency loan, only to show them how to find more information about it. And this is because the librarian has been trained as an information professional, not as a lawyer or a historian or a social worker. They can’t be expected to do the jobs of other people, which they have not been trained to do and are not qualified to perform.

This job description has changed a lot. I have visited many libraries and I speak to a lot of library workers. Some of the job duties libraries now perform include:

  • Teaching yoga story time (even though they are not registered yoga instructors)
  • Tutoring children in writing and math (even though they are not certified tutors)
  • Teaching homeschooled children classes on science, art, and coding (even though they are not certified teachers)
  • Teaching children and adults Spanish and ASL (even though the librarian is still learning the languages themselves)
  • Assisting individuals to write their resumes and apply to jobs (even though they are not job coaches)
  • Providing anti-overdose medication, agency referrals, and a sympathetic, listening ear (even though they are not trained social workers)
  • Offering kids football and basketball games, video game tournaments, art activities, and more (even though they are not running the local community center).

Now, I understand that librarians are generally proud of this work, and that they want to do it. I understand that suggesting that they not do it goes against everything they have been trained to believe in. After all, they want to help people. They don’t want to walk away from that woman who needs a new job to feed her child, or that teenager who might end up on the streets if they can’t help him graduate. They are the saviors of the community. The ones who do all the work to give the community what it needs, to keep equal access available, and democracy afloat. But that’s vocational awe speaking.

The reality is that, in taking up all these extra job assignments, librarians are taking on the roles of other professionals who should be doing this work instead. Librarians are often (understandably) proud of their degrees and certifications, and they do not like when other people try to do their jobs for them. This is in part why using volunteers in lieu of paid staff is so controversial. While some see it as a way to keep the library doors open, others realize that having a volunteer do the job is not the same as having a paid professional. It’s the same in reverse, however. Having a librarian act as a tutor or a teacher or a social worker when they have not been trained to do so, is not the same. Worse, it gives local leaders an excuse not to fund initiatives that could help the community.

When librarians start tutoring on their own time, with no extra compensation, they are saying that the school system does not need to pay for more tutors. When librarians start offering kickball sessions and Ping Pong tables, they are saying the local council does not have to invest in a community center. When they begin acting as job coaches and social workers, they are saying the community does not need to fund other agencies to do this work. In taking on extra duties (for no additional compensation), libraries are usually responding to some sort of need in the community that is not currently being met. But, in so responding, they also suggest that the need has been fully met–when it hasn’t. Library staff are not the same as trained professionals in their chosen fields.

If libraries truly want to serve the community, partnerships are the answer. As one of the last few, public spaces where anyone can linger without paying, libraries are a natural gathering space. They also remain a trusted public institution, even when individuals do not really trust their governments anymore. This makes them an ideal space to provide all the services they provide from free lunches and showers to homework help. But if libraries want tutors, they need to ask the school system or a local college to provide them. If they want yoga, they need a registered instructor to teach it. If they want to provide social services, they need to get a trained social worker embedded in the building. Librarians should not be asked to take on all these roles. It is not their job. And they have not been trained to do it.

Suggesting that libraries go back to the focusing on how to access information may seem ridiculous, if not downright threatening to libraries and their staff. But it has always ostensibly been about the collection. That bike club? It’s supposed to introduce cyclists to resources on biking. The craft night? It’s supposed to circulate some of the crafting books or introduce people to the crafting database. It was never supposed to be about librarians learning how to cycle in a few weeks or teaching themselves a new DIY skill every month because they need a reason to attract people to the building, and the administration does not want to or cannot afford to pay an expert. It was never supposed to be about librarians “saving” people who might otherwise roam the streets looking for trouble, if there is no library program on Tuesdays. The fact that libraries and staff often do not even want to entertain the idea that libraries maybe should change is an effect of vocational awe, prohibiting critique of the system and its “sacred” work.

I understand that librarians are proud of the work they do, and that many do it voluntarily, out of the goodness of their hearts. They may even enjoy using that old math degree to tutor the children after school or getting to teach Zumba on Friday nights. But librarians need to ask themselves why they are being asked to take on additional roles–even the roles of other paid professionals–for no additional compensation. If the answer is, “But the community needs it!” Or “No one else will do it!” Or “I feel personally responsible for that woman who lost her apartment!” that is vocational awe speaking. And libraries and their supporters should think carefully before they keep asking staff to do more and more, without training or recognition. It is not the job of libraries to save the world. And they should certainly not be trying to save it alone.

21 thoughts on “Might Librarians’ Vocational Awe Have Negative Effects on the Community?

  1. Carol says:

    Interesting to hear about the various hats librarians might wear. Sometimes in my teaching career, I felt like I should have gotten a degree in social work or counseling among other certifications like conflict management, investigating who stole a student’s property, running the fundraisers, etc etc! The art of teaching was only one of my jobs!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, teachers are another group who often experience vocational awe! They are often expected to meet all of students’ needs, from buying school supplies for the kids with their own money to tutoring after school (maybe unpaid) to supporting students in all their extracurriculars and fundraisers to providing counseling, etc. And we as a society don’t really question it because teachers are supposed to care. And we have all these narratives of super teachers going above and beyond to help their students graduate.

      But, again, I think we have to ask ourselves if this SHOULD be normal. Of course, teachers should care. But where is the line between caring and burnout? Does it really make sense for teachers to take on the full responsibility of each student’s life?

      Other occupations don’t experience this. No one blames the grocery store cashier for not “listening” and “building relationships” with the people checking out. Bank tellers aren’t blamed when someone does something they shouldn’t have because they “weren’t there” for that person. It’s nice if you have people who want to do that, but why are expecting librarians and teachers to go above and beyond every day, at their own expense, mentally, emotionally, many financially–and blaming them when they don’t? Are these going to be viable long-term careers if we expect them to do this, but don’t compensate them accordingly?

      Liked by 3 people

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, even just looking at teacher job descriptions can be exhausting. I had a friend applying to teach at private schools, and they are hardcore with their expectations for teachers to constantly be available, to run extracurriculars, to attend sports games and the talent show and the concert, etc. Good luck if you have your own kid and want to go to THEIR activities to support THEM, I guess. Or just want to go home and do nothing!

      And I taught while I was in grad school, and the expectation that teachers ask as therapists and provide mental support showed up even then and was always a topic of some controversy, as some teachers think they truly owe students that support and some argue they signed up to teach and are not trained to be a therapist. (I would go with the latter theory personally.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Carol says:

        As I was leaving teaching the trend was to mainstream special needs children and I had some students with severe autism and severe emotional needs that really challenged me! I was always fighting for one on one aides for those students. Just that situation alone puts a tremendous burden on teachers. Its not a career for the faint of heart!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

    This is such an interesting discussion! I’d never heard of the term vocational awe, but it does seem to fit. I feel like there needs to be a bit of a distinction, though, between libraries, because it makes a difference when you talk about taking jobs from others and partnership. It’s such a different world working in an urban library versus working in a small rural library.

    My library is for sure guilty of a lot of things you’ve pointed out, and I’m sure part of it is vocational awe. I know our library receives A LOT of pressure from the community to do more and serve patrons in different ways and justify our existence. However, partnerships such as you suggested aren’t an option for us. We started doing a Gentle Chair Yoga class because patrons requested something similar, and we had no yoga studies within an hour and a half of our library, which was too far for the older patrons to go for weekly yoga. We did partner with said studio to train one of our staff on how to teach the gentle yoga for a while, but that’s it. We’ve had some resume classes, but again, there are no job coaches in the area. Heck, our county doesn’t even have an unemployment office, and you have to drive at least an hour to get to the one that represents our county.

    The burnout is so real, though, and the pressure to perform is real, because everyone wants something different and they want the library to supply it. Around here, at least, the idea is they’re paying tax money for the library to exist, so it should be able to provide whatever needs they have. It’d be really nice to be able to provide more partnerships and supports for librarians! Plus, for rural libraries, where it’s more likely for there to be job creep and a lack of partnerships, the pay tends to be worse. I mean, the list of job responsibilities I have right now is absolutely ridiculously long, but I could make more money working at any unskilled profession around town right now.

    I feel like libraries live in this really weird, awkward intersection of being seen as this necessary pillar of the community and monolith that can’t be allowed to fail, but also somehow as a service the community is “owed” in some way. I don’t know. This discussion has really got me thinking, though, especially about all the things we’re expected to provide at my library!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Well, I do think that vocational awe is playing into this a bit, and often at the institutional level. Because, if you start thinking about it, why DOES the library feel personally responsible for the lack of a yoga studio in the area? Is it truly their job to offer every type of class someone might want? To me, these things are often extras the library can do to help the community, as you point out, but that’s because the library as an institution is already primed to be receptive to these calls for help. You don’t often see other organizations suddenly start offering physical fitness classes and job help and science camps just because they feel this overwhelming desire to fill a gap in the community that’s outside the purview of their job description.

      And, yes, this is counter-intuitive to everything we’ve been taught to think and feel about the library. The library is there to serve the community, so when the community asks, it should answer! But there may be a problem in that the library has so long allowed the public to see it as a catch-all for every type of service imaginable because now, as you say, they just expect the library to keep taking on additional roles. But where does it end? And why should the community keep making the library do stuff like job help instead of asking for a professional to move into the area?

      Obviously, it’s not always that easy. And that’s why the library feels the need to step in. But then you create this dilemma where people might want a service like an employment center and local officials are going to go, “But the library already does that and we didn’t even have to pay them more for it!”

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

        So many good points in this! I actually think the reason the library feels responsible is because, like you said, the community seems to think this is the library’s job. I feel like it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know at the end of the fiscal year, our director basically meets with local officials and justifies why the library exists and why it spends what it does or requests as much as it does in taxes, etc. I feel like it’s this never-ending cycle of “what have you done for me lately” combined with I want the most bang for my buck, without stopping to think whether that’s a good way to run a library.

        It’s also this weird dichotomy that I’ve learned of more and more lately where library staff in rural areas are paid peanuts but are generally expected to take on more responsibilities than urban counterparts, who usually have more support for other things. I’ve joined a rural library listserv, and it’s opened my eyes about things that I thought were unique to our library that honestly aren’t at all. xD

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, that’s a good point. I think that libraries have primed their communities to expect them to respond to ALL their needs, so, now if they don’t, the community gets mad. But the reality is that any organization is going to have limits of time, money, staff, etc. Something people don’t always think about precisely because libraries are so good at doing a lot with little!

          Also a great point! Every library different and ones located in places where there are fewer services in general may feel more of a push to deliver more.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. BookerTalk says:

    I haven’t seen this happening as much in the UK library system. The libraries have indeed gone well beyond books into information resource centres but there are no signs of librarians running yoga sessions and certainly not administering medication.

    The stretching of the concept of the library is something that concerns me though. Investment in things like computer equipment and DVDs has come at the expense of the book collection which to me is the core of why they exist

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I have seen some libraries speculating whether they should move their book collections off the floor and give over more space to computers and study tables. In one way, this seems to make sense. A lot of people use the library to access the internet or even just hang out. But libraries also serve a population who loves to browse the shelves. Moving the books to a basement only staff can access is going to impact that group negatively. And I think the move is premature. I think most people would probably be opposed to libraries becoming primarily internet cafes.


      • BookerTalk says:

        I sincerely hope that isn’t the future – being able to browse shelves is one of the aspects I love about the libraries. I can find things I wouldn’t otherwise encounter


        • Krysta says:

          Yes! I think many patrons DO still love browsing the library for books. I understand that many people who go to libraries just chill on the couches or use the internet, but I hope libraries continue to balance the needs of all their patrons. And not just decide that book browsers must no longer exist just because they aren’t as noticeable.


  4. Mel says:

    This was a really interesting post with many points I agree with as a librarian. I think it’s particularly interesting that you say that partnerships with professionals whose job it actually is to do these things is the answer. Something I’ve noticed in my time as a librarian is that those professionals, however, often refer people to the library and say “oh, a librarian can do this for you.” I get so many calls from people who went to a courthouse or another institution and claim to have been told that we would have the resources for their problem at the library and be able to help them do whatever they need to do to fix it. I think many organizations have this view of libraries that you have described, not even just librarians.

    I remember too when we were asked at my last branch if we wanted to learn to administer anti-overdose medication, and I felt really bad about saying no. But I just didn’t think it would be helpful for me, a non-medical professional, to learn to do something I wasn’t comfortable doing and possibly risk someone’s life by not being able to do it in a real world, high pressure situation. But I still felt really guilty for not taking on an extra duty when it could help someone, because helping people seems to be the job of a librarian. I think libraries have become substitutes for other social services because those people don’t seem to be able to reach as large a portion of the community.

    I have only been a professional librarian for three years, but I feel like library school did not prepare me for the actual duties librarians are now expected to do in their jobs. We get trained on how to access information, and end up providing social services instead. I do of course think someone needs to provide these services, but there are a lot of things I’ve been asked to do and situations I’ve been in where I feel like I’m not qualified to help because I’m not a social worker or therapist or job coach. I do care about helping people, but at the same time I get really stressed because I know that some things we’re asked to do are not things I’m qualified or trained for, and I don’t want to give someone bad service or advice.

    I just wish other organizations would respect libraries enough to help us and partner with us to help the community. I often feel like libraries are on our own and other organizations actually make our jobs harder by not doing their own jobs. I wish people understood what the purpose of a library and librarian actually was and didn’t try to force us into providing services we have no business providing without the proper professionals.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I can totally understand this! I remember an exchange at the library where a woman asked the staff member on desk to help them write their resume. The staff member pointed out some resources the woman could use, but gently suggested that, for someone to sit there and actually go through the resume line by line, she should go to the local career help center. This seemed reasonable to me since the library is small and the staff can’t reasonably be expected to sit for half an hour or more with one person, providing career and writing advice. But the woman answered that she’d already called the career center and they don’t help with resumes! Well, I looked at their resources and it certainly seems like they are SUPPOSED to. I mean…what exactly is that that they do, then? Resumes are a huge part of the job search process and they aren’t going to work with them? Like you said, the woman was referred back to the library for this service, even though it seems like she shouldn’t have been.

      And I definitely understand the concern about being trained for anti-overdose medication. I think this is actually something a lot of people might be uncomfortable with. If they were comfortable with it, maybe they’d be in a different career path! But I would think about it like this. I, as an individual, don’t feel morally responsible for people who need medical aid, if I can’t provide it. My role as a caring member of society would be to call someone who COULD help, not to train myself for every contingency just in case. I think it’s incredibly strange that librarians are expected to go above and beyond to start providing medical aid because they are supposed to care and supposed to help. Well, sure. They can care. And they can help. But does it have to be by administering medical aid? We don’t fault the average individual for not doing this. I wouldn’t blame any other person in customer service for not doing this.

      I totally get the stress, too. I know from my library friends that whether librarians should act as social workers is a hot topic. Maybe think not, but many others recognize that they already are–they just aren’t being trained for it. So they’d rather be trained at any rate. But, in many cases, training seems to mean something like a webinar. And I’m not wholly convinced that’s the same as getting an experienced social worker embedded in the building.

      So true! Partnerships have to go both ways! Maybe other organizations are feeling staff shortages and budget constraints, too, and they think, well, why not make the library do it? And I think that’s in part because libraries are really, really good at doing amazing things with no budget. My hometown library is operating on almost nothing, but every year they somehow manage to expand services or add a new feature to the building or whatever, to the point that I am pretty sure 99% of the community doesn’t even realize they are struggling financially. They pass the shortages onto the staff hours and the materials budget, stuff the public can’t see as much.

      In one way, this seems awesome. Yay the community gets more stuff! In another way, though, it’s really bad, because now the library is simply expected by the community to perform to ridiculously high standards with little money and support. And the burden of that gets laid on staff, the majority of whom are part-time, but asked to work like they are full-time. It’s not sustainable long term.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. karma2015 says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I am a librarian and I have been talking about how librarians are put on a pedestal and when we complain about that, it is frowned upon.


    • Krysta says:

      From the responses here, it seems like a lot of library staff are feeling job creep and worrying about where it will all end and whether they will be burnt out. And maybe that usually is a secret. Probably you can’t go into work and say, “Dear administration, don’t you think you’re asking too much of me considering that I only work so many hours in a week and am paid below average?” because that doesn’t make you look like a valued employee. But it staff are worried about it, I think administration needs to start talking about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • karma2015 says:

        I agree. During this pandemic, more was ask of us with such little resources and when we expressed concerns about returning back to work, we were told to be ungrateful and not wanting to work, which was not the case. We workers have banned together more to really expressed our concerns and frustrations more but it is an uphill battle.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, I think the pandemic has really exposed a lot of vocational awe. Back when everyone started to close down, a lot of libraries refused. It was just expected that, well, of course, the library would stay open. They are there for the community! The unstated assumption was that librarians should literally be willing to risk their lives to help people access the internet, help them with unemployment resources, etc.

          And, yes, librarians want to help! But why were we willing to risk their lives–not to mention the lives of the people who were going in to the building– to live up to the ideal?

          And, maybe, just maybe the answer to “So many people don’t have internet and it’s more important than ever now” is not “So risk librarians’ lives to keep internet available” but “So local community leaders need to figure out how to make internet available and affordable to all of their constituents.”

          Liked by 1 person

  6. DoingDewey says:

    Great post! I had already read and heartily agreed with the article you linked on Vocational Awe. It had also occurred to me that it’s really a shame that librarians are having to take on these additional roles, instead of the community funding additional services that are composed of professionals dedicated to each social service they provide. I hadn’t thought this through in nearly the detail you do though and I really appreciated your thoughtful take on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! While I admire the work that libraries do, I think that it is beneficial to consider critically why exactly they are doing what they are. What is the core mission of the library? How does each program or service tie back to it? If the answer is simply that the library has dedicated itself to providing any service the community currently needs but lacks, I do think we have to ask, “But why the library?”


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