Vocational Awe

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about vocational awe. There’s been significant research done on this in multiple fields and it’s a legitimate issue. Our work as librarians is important and worth working hard to deliver. It’s right and good for us to take pride in our commitment. Our desire to serve motivates us to do the best work we can for the sake of others. We can make the world a better place. Our respect for our work, our desire for doing it, empowers us. It gives us deep satisfaction and helps people in our communities. That’s a good thing.

But our desire to serve makes us vulnerable, too. People can leverage it to manipulate us in ways we shouldn’t allow. I’ve been guilt tripped into doing work I shouldn’t have had to do, without sufficient compensation, because I wanted to be helpful. Our desire to do good can be used against us. It happens and it’s a problem. Our work is important but not enough for us to risk our health or well-being. It’s not important enough for us to work so hard for insufficient compensation.

We all deserve appropriate pay for our work, a healthy work-life balance, and safe working conditions. But it can be a challenge for those of us driven by a desire to serve to draw and hold appropriate lines when our communities depend on the services we provide. We should be proud and celebrate what we do! But we shouldn’t get lost in it.

Vocational awe also gets in the way of necessary critical examinations of library services and structures. To paraphrase a wise theologian: If our sacred cows can’t survive being questioned, then we’re worshiping shitty cows.

Our job is not to accept or reject vocational awe in toto. It empowers us up to a point and becomes a problem when taken too far. Our responsibility is to define that point of transition. To identify the line we shouldn’t cross and then to maintain a healthy critical perspective on it. To speak out when we’re getting too close or crossing that line. Let it make us better, stronger, more productive without allowing it to hamstring us.

Where this gets complicated is that the line will be different for different people in different circumstances. I’m a cis-het middle class white guy. I am, by default, among the most empowered and least vulnerable in American society. I can say no to things without worrying much about the consequences. It’s relatively safe for me to stand my ground. The line lies far away from me.

Not everyone can say no safely. For many people, the line where their desire to serve becomes a liability lies much closer and poses a more immanent threat to their professional security. Many people are far less empowered and far more vulnerable than I am. For many, the consequences of saying no can be catastrophic.

I work for a well-funded, well-supported suburban library system. We can stand our ground on most issues without too much worry about damaging our relationship with our community. Other libraries are in much more precarious positions and need to tread more carefully.

I have an obligation to know where the line lies for the least empowered and most vulnerable of us. My job is to use my privilege to advocate for their empowerment and safety, for their right to say no when the line gets crossed.

What we do as librarians is incredibly important. Our work is essential to the well-being of our communities.

But it’s not worth risking the health and safety of library staff. We’re not emergency personnel. We’re not EMTs or police officers or fire fighters. We’re not mental health professionals or social workers or crisis responders. We should not be expected to put our health and safety at risk in service to our communities.

We can believe this and also believe in the importance of our work. What matters is finding the balance.

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