You know, if there was any good to come from this terrible pandemic, I would have thought it would have gotten us as a profession to kick this ridiculous sense of vocational awe to the curb. You know, the idea that libraries are sacred and that librarianship is a virtuous calling we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for. The feeling that we have to be all things to all people, fill all the cracks in society that people inevitably slip through, give of ourselves until it hurts. I think this idea is the most pervasive in the area of youth services.
Vocational awe leads to mission creep, overworking, understaffing, and people that are underemployed and/or underpaid (among other issues). Library staff resort to buying program supplies with their own money, working unpaid hours, often struggle to live on wages that are below the cost of living, and burn ourselves out in just a few short years by offering a myriad of programs, pushing for bigger and bigger, more and more... And if you aren't willing to make all these sacrifices, if you can't be all things to all people, aren't a "rock star librarian" (whatever the hell that even means), then you simply aren't dedicated enough, passionate enough, or innovative enough.
And the worst thing is, we already get it from everyone else, and instead of pushing back, standing our ground and saying "enough is enough, we are only human and we deserve to be healthy and happy and not devout our entire life to a job", we do it to ourselves, too. We spend way too much of our own time looking for program ideas, prepping materials for programs, monitoring our library's Facebook page, checking work e-mail, going to outreach events after hours. We beat ourselves up for enforcing the library code of conduct and appropriately asking rowdy teens who are disrupting the whole library to leave for the day, teaching them boundaries and accountability. We may get 20 compliments on a program, but focus on the one ridiculous complaint. We constantly compare ourselves to what others are doing. We train people to expect the unsustainable. We do everything humanly possible, but still feel like it's not enough.
And the REALLY awful thing, is we keep doing it to each other. All too often when I or others post about programming/services in various online library groups, whether asking/answering questions, expressing frustrations, seeking advice, sharing patron complaints, people get insensitive responses that are not helpful basically telling them they are not doing enough, with no understanding of what their staffing or funding levels are like, what their community needs, or what they are already doing. If you have not anticipated, and moved heaven and earth to meet, every possible need within your community, you are clearly not doing enough and not worthy to be a librarian.
You must provide every possible program for every possible age at every possible time, and at multiple locations throughout the community. You must simultaneously allow teens to have their own space and programs, while also including everyone in everything all the time. You must offer developmentally-appropriate and engaging programming, yet also include older and younger siblings. You must provide a full range of in-person programming, while also producing professional quality virtual programming, AND designing and assembling take-home kits for every age group each week. You must be able to spin straw into gold, turn water into wine, and perform miracles with limited resources reminiscent of the Biblical loaves and fishes. No matter how much you are doing, it's not enough.
Why do we do this to each other? For some, it may simply be a need to feel superior in some way- more dedicated, more selfless, more something- by putting others down. But many are likely as hard on themselves as they are on everyone else because they have bought into vocational awe hook, line, and sinker, and pass the pressure they feel to be everything to everybody on to their peers. And for others, it may be simple thoughtlessness and insensitivity when giving well-intentioned, but privileged, advice that can be like rubbing salt in the wound. Some librarians have been fortunate enough to have always worked in libraries that are very well-funded, with very supportive directors and managers, very well-staffed youth services department and don't know the alternative.
But that isn't everyone's reality. Many of us work in libraries that are not well-funded and operate on a shoestring budget. Many of us are solo librarians and may be lucky to have one other staff member besides us to do all YS programming, birth through teen. Some of us work in libraries so understaffed we are chained to the service desk and can barely manage to plan and deliver a couple of storytimes a week, much less leave the building to do outreach. Many of us work in tiny buildings and are limited by space. Some of us are limited by space, funding, and staffing; the perfect trifecta to guarantee stress, overwork, and burnout. And not everyone has supportive management or good community partners. Even when in a relatively good situation, there are still limits to what is possible.
Don't imply someone is lazy or somehow less dedicated when they say they will have to stop doing regular take-home kits once in-person programming resumes. You don't what their staffing and funding levels are. And throwing out the inevitable "get volunteers" shows you either have been very, very lucky and found the rare unicorn of reliable, competent, helpful volunteers, or more likely, have not actually tried relying on volunteer help. Telling someone to offer even more programming, or simultaneous programs, trying to please everyone rather than having appropriate boundaries is not helpful; very few of us have the staffing or space to offer multiple programs at the same time, and I don't know hardly anyone who isn't already doing as much programming as they can manage. Pushing for more and more programming is one of the main factors in the higher rates of burnout for youth services, and why so many leave the field, sometimes after just a few years.
These kinds of responses show a lack of awareness about the reality many other youth librarians have to operate within. Maybe we need a librarian exchange program, so we can all get a better understanding of the what some have to deal with. How about we start with assuming that everyone is operating in good faith, doing the best they can with what they have, and that no one knows their community as well as they do. And even better, let's recognize that we will never be able to be all things to all people. And let's go further and recognize that we shouldn't be trying to. We cannot please everyone. We cannot solve all of society's problems. We are not social workers, counselors, mental health professionals, or babysitters. We are librarians. We are human. We have limits. We have a right to focus on being damn good librarians with healthy boundaries and a life outside of work. We do the best we can with what we have.
AND THAT IS GOOD ENOUGH!
*Note: I want to clarify that this article addresses only a sliver of the much broader issue of vocational awe. I would like to thank Fobazi Ettarh for coining the term and for all their work that ignited and continues the discussion of vocational awe, including its historical roots and the many ways it does harm. I'd encourage you to read their works, two of which are linked below, to learn more about the history and broader issues.
Links to more articles on vocational awe:
- https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe - Though not the first article on vocational awe by Fobazi Ettarh, the librarian who coined the term, this is the one the really ignited the discussion.
- https://acrlog.org/2018/01/12/vocational-awe-and-professional-identity/ - A response to Ettarh's article.
- http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2020/03/resisting-vocational-awe-during-the-pandemic/ - The pandemic brought renewed calls for the end of vocational awe as library worker's risked their health and their lives to provide services and shelter.
- https://annehelen.substack.com/p/vocational-awe - An article by a non-librarian, with quotes from a children's librarian.
- https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0361526X.2022.2028501 - Ettarh's latest article on vocational awe in a post-Covid world. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall, but hopefully can be accessed through a database your library subscribes to.