The Librarian's Catch-22: Understanding Vocational Awe and its Stereotypes

Sarah Lee
June 16, 2023

Being a librarian is often considered a noble calling, but this notion can have its fair share of challenges. One such challenge is the idea of it being a "calling," which is admirable - but sometimes can be problematic. This concept of “vocational awe” could perpetuate stereotypes, contribute to burnout in librarians, and restrict the profession's growth.

Here’s what a librarian on Reddit shared recently: 

The above anecdote precisely highlights the fact that librarians are professionals like any other. They deserve fair compensation and work-life balance.

Humanizing the profession by sharing librarians' frustrations and challenges can help combat vocational awe. 

In this article, we aim to highlight the less favorable aspects of the job, and emphasize the need for fair compensation, expectation management, and a good work-life balance for librarians.

Beyond the Stacks: Revealing the Dynamic Roles of Librarians

Librarians have a diverse and evolving set of skills that extend far beyond the stereotype of the librarian as a custodian of books.

Did 'Spider-Man: No Way Home' Recreate the 'Spideys Pointing at Each Other'  Meme? - News18

Librarians as Educators 

Librarians teach information literacy skills that enable patrons to effectively find, evaluate, and use information resources. From teaching elementary school children how to navigate an online database to helping graduate students refine their research strategies, librarians play an integral role in education.

Librarians as Information Specialists

Librarians are experts in organizing, curating, and providing access to information. They classify and catalog materials, build and maintain collections, and develop search tools that help patrons discover relevant resources. Their knowledge of navigation aids researchers across disciplines.

Librarians as Community Builders

Libraries serve as community hubs, and librarians foster this role by developing programs and services that meet local needs. They host events like book clubs and storytimes, provide homework help for students, and offer job search assistance for job seekers.

Librarians as Technology Facilitators 

Librarians help patrons utilize an ever-expanding array of technologies like e-readers, laptops, databases, and software applications. They provide technology training classes and one-on-one assistance using library tools and resources. 

Positive Impact of Librarians 

The diverse skill sets and expertise of librarians benefit patrons in myriad ways. Here are some ways librarians leave a positive impact on us:

  • Create healthy learning environments

  • Improve patron experience by understanding patron requirements and backgrounds

  • Ensure that information is available in proper formats (audio, text, video)

  • Build trusted connections within a community

  • Curate the different roles a library space plays for a local community

  • Students gain research, critical thinking, and digital literacy abilities that improve academic performance.

  • Manage information for job seekers and small business owners.

  • Give communities access to a wide range of educational, cultural, and recreational programs.

  • Help researchers accelerate the pace of discovery by utilizing the vast collection of knowledge organized and maintained by librarians.

A Closer Look at Vocational Awe in Librarianship

What is Vocational Awe? 

Vocational awe refers to the tendency of library professionals to view themselves as "servants to the greater good" and place their work on a pedestal. This perspective causes librarians to undervalue themselves and their contributions. 

Vocational awe often leads librarians to accept poor working conditions, low pay and status, and a lack of recognition for the expertise they provide.

Fobazi Ettarh and the Origins of Vocational Awe 

The term "vocational awe" was coined by librarian Fobazi Ettarh in her 2018 article, in which she wrote: ❝Vocational awe reinforces the idea that what librarians do is more of a calling or passion than other kinds of work, which then makes it seem acceptable to underpay and overwork us.❞

Consequences of Vocational Awe 

Vocational awe can limit the perceptions of librarianship in several ways:

  • It obscures the complex skills, knowledge, and labor required of the profession. Librarianship is viewed as a "calling" rather than expertise-based work deserving fair compensation.

  • It prevents librarians from advocating effectively for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. The perception that librarians should be motivated by altruism, not material gain, hinders collective action.

  • It reinforces stereotypes of librarians as shy, soft-spoken "shushers" rather than knowledgeable professionals. This outdated image does not reflect the diverse roles and skill sets of today's librarians.

  • It obscures the value librarians provide to society. When the work of librarians is placed on a pedestal and viewed as a "higher calling," its concrete benefits to communities, researchers, students, and others are overlooked.

Dispelling Myths, Dispelling Common Misconceptions

Built by Women, Led by Men 

A common misconception is that librarianship is a "female" profession with little prestige or power. In reality, women have comprised the majority (around 68% ♕) of the library workforce in America. However, they have long faced discrimination in pay, status, and leadership opportunities. 

Vocational awe plays a role by perpetuating stereotypes of librarians as nurturing "mother figures" rather than skilled professionals. This gendered view of the job limits how society values and compensates librarian work.

Challenging Stereotypes 

The reality is that librarianship is a dynamic profession that continues to evolve with the changing information landscape. Librarians today utilize cutting-edge technologies, data analytics, and digital tools in their work. 

They tackle complex issues like misinformation, intellectual freedom, and digital equity. This dynamic nature challenges outdated stereotypes of librarians as "shushing" book caretakers.

Real-life Stories

Carla Hayden stands as an emblem of remarkable significance in the world of librarianship. As the 14th and reigning Librarian of Congress, she has etched her name in history, being not only the first woman but also the inaugural African American to hold this position.

Her achievement is truly groundbreaking, showing that she is incredibly talented and dedicated.

Anne Jarvis, a pioneering force in the world of librarianship, has left an indelible mark on her field and society as a whole. Her impact, though quiet, has been profound. Through her dedication and expertise, Jarvis has helped usher libraries into the modern age, ensuring access to knowledge for generations to come.

Under Jarvis's guidance, libraries have evolved into vibrant community hubs, invaluable resources that level the playing field by providing equal access to information. The libraries we cherish today stand as monuments to Jarvis's foresight and dedication to spreading knowledge for the betterment of humanity.

These real-life examples demonstrate that librarians are no longer confined to the stereotypes of being mere custodians of books. They are innovative leaders, change-makers, and community builders who actively contribute to society's intellectual and social growth.

Reframing Success, Embracing a Broader Perspective in Librarianship

Vocational awe promotes a narrow definition of success that emphasizes altruistic service over professional recognition, compensation, and advocacy. This limited view does not reflect the full range of contributions that define success for today's librarians.

Redefining Success

Stories of librarians who have successfully advocated for their libraries and the profession as a whole provide examples of alternative definitions of success:

Anne Grodzins Lipow authored groundbreaking legislation in California that increased funding for public libraries by $100 million annually. Her advocacy work demonstrates how political and policy change can define librarian success.

Nancy Pearl led a grassroots campaign that transformed the public image of reading and helped make libraries essential community hubs. Her ability to promote the value of libraries shows an alternative form of professional impact.

➟ Many academic librarians have achieved success through research, publication, and innovative programming that advances the field of library and information science. Their intellectual contributions redefine what it means to be a "successful" librarian.

These stories encourage librarians to embrace their unique contributions and redefine their measures of success beyond altruistic service. 

Advocacy, community impact, research, and innovation can all define professional achievement when librarians move beyond vocational awe's limited perspective.

From Awe to Empowerment - Tips to Navigate Vocational Awe

Connect with supportive colleagues

Build a network of peers who share your perspective and experience. Engage in open dialogue about the challenges of vocational awe.

The more voices that shed light on this issue, the more opportunities we have to reshape perceptions of librarianship from within the profession itself.

Advocate for change

Take action by advocating for better pay, benefits, and working conditions at your library. Join professional organizations that promote librarian advocacy and compensation commensurate with expertise. 

Build a supportive community of librarians who can provide encouragement, advice, and solidarity as you strive for positive change.

Celebrate librarians

Reflect on your measures of success as a librarian beyond altruistic service. Engage with organizations that promote your professional growth, recognition, and impact. Seek mentors and role models who have overcome vocational awe to redefine what being a "successful" librarian means.

Redefine your success

Determine what gives your work meaning beyond vocational awe. Find purpose and impact in ways that inspire you. Make self-care a priority.

Continue the conversation

Discuss vocational awe on social media using the hashtag #vocationalawe. Share blog posts, articles, and personal stories shedding light on the issue. Build understanding and work together towards solutions.

The ideals of service and social good will always be deeply meaningful parts of librarianship, even amidst the challenges faced by stressed librarians. However, vocational awe limits the potential of libraries and librarians. 

Recognizing its impact is the first step toward building a sustainable future for the profession.

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About the Author

This article is part of a collaborative series between GR Techand industry leaders, aimed at bringing new ideas andinsights to our readers.

Sarah Lee

project manager

I'm a highly skilled project manager with extensive experience in the education technology industry. With a background in computer science and a passion for improving educational outcomes, I have dedicated my career to developing innovative software solutions that make learning more engaging, accessible, and effective.