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.