Vocational Awe and the Awesomeness of Vocation

It is hard to believe that, in a little less than two months’ time, I will be graduating. Each day is filled with the expansive feeling, not unlike that of drawing in a lungful of fresh mountain air, that all of this will be done in just a few weeks. That is immediately followed, of course, by the crushing sensation, not unlike having one’s head forced underwater to the depth at which unreinforced submarines crumple like soda cans, that all of this has to be done in just a few weeks. Honestly, I shouldn’t even be taking the time out to write this post, but there is another rapidly approaching occasion I don’t want to let go unremarked.

In just over a week, I will have been working full-time in libraries for a full year. I don’t think I will ever forget the thrill that coursed through my spine as I walked behind a service desk for the first time, or the glow of pride I felt when the first patron looked at me and asked, “Can you check this out for me?” and I said, grinning ear to ear, “Yes, sir. Yes, I can.” This year has been the first time in my life that I have walked into a workplace because I want to work there, and the satisfaction of that for someone who took their bachelor’s into the Great Recession is inexpressible. The facilities are lovely, the work is interesting, and my coworkers are almost overwhelming in their generosity and helpfulness, but what has truly made the hours (and the whole year) seem to fly by is the sense of accomplishment in service—that I can send my wife a text by lunchtime (as I did on my first day) saying in total sincerity, “I have genuinely helped so many people today.”

I read an interesting article early on in my library job(s) about “vocational awe” and its can negative impacts on working conditions for library staff. I used to be a teacher, and so it is a phenomenon with which I am very familiar. Teacher training repeatedly emphasized that the mark of being a “real” teacher was your willingness to sacrifice your own needs for the students, how pride in your chosen profession was lived through the evening and weekend hours you put in off the clock, how questions about salary were beneath the dignity of those who had been called to teach. This was dysfunctional and exploitative, and I have seen firsthand how this kind of bondage to the “vocational awe” of a service profession treated as a path of self-renouncing sainthood destroys the lives of good women and men. I am grateful to Fobazi Ettarh (the author of the article linked above) and many others for calling attention to the dangers of such attitudes in librarianship.

Yet I keep the reservation that, although I certainly want to see library staff well-treated, well-remunerated, and empowered to advocate for themselves, I would never want us to lose our sense that we are engaged in a sacred vocation—one that serves the ideals of all the world’s great philosophical traditions, both religious and secular. Ettarh writes that “when the rhetoric surrounding librarianship borders on vocational and sacred language rather than acknowledging that librarianship is a profession or a discipline … we do ourselves a disservice.” She is not wrong when this is presented as an either/or dichotomy, but it is the suggestion of dichotomy that troubles me. As she notes in her paper, Martin Luther defined a vocation as “the ways a person serves God and his neighbour through his work in the world.” One need not share Luther’s theism to appreciate the point. Much of the work of Karl Marx, for example, is dedicated to the same idea from a secular standpoint—the notion that a human being can find work that allows her to transcend the distinctions of the “contemplative” and the “active” life, of service to high ideals and attendance to the mundane tasks of living, of being in the world and being of it.

Librarianship will, as Ettarh argues, not be sustainable if it is not addressed from the outside as a profession comparable to any other at the same skill level. At the same time, however, the library will not be the magical place it is to work in (or for patrons to visit) if it is not felt, from the inside, as a vocation. There are still about six weeks to go before I can call myself a librarian, but as I have grown toward taking on that mantle both in my classes and at work, I have come to appreciate how librarianship’s fusion of its two natures—the vocational and the professional—preserves the particularity of each.

Over this year I have, for the first time in the decade I have been in the workforce, received raises and promotions. I have been acknowledged for my efforts’ worldly fruits in commendations and publications. Having lived my entire adult life in precarity and poverty, I have been offered a path to (staying in) the “middle class”. And yet, as deeply grateful as I am for this, to express it only in those terms would slight what finding librarianship has done for me. It is pointedly not just that I have found a profession in which I can succeed and be acknowledged, and a line of work that grants me (and my family) the dignity of a living wage. It isn’t even just that I enjoy being able to put my skills to their fullest use, or that I am glad of having interesting and enjoyable tasks (though both those things are true). The feeling that dominates this experience has been, not instead, but over and above and because of and through all those things, that I have found where I am meant to be, and that the work I do is no longer just an economic support, but also a part of my larger human flourishing—a way of healing the world in the best sense of the Jewish tikkun ‘olam. Man does not live by a profession alone…

Librarianship, of course, is not the only work that can do this. Any kind of honest and worthwhile work, whether or not the bourgeoisie choose to call it a “profession”, can be a vocation. As the Buddhists say, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Most of us, however, are not saints or forest sages and we find it easier to realize ourselves and to cultivate peace and compassion in the world through some kinds of work than others. Library work is the work that works for me as, I hope, you are finding it does for you.

And so, as I prepare to make the transition from school to professional practice, I want to add a gentle reminder to all of the heated and much needed discussion out there about salary negotiations and tenure and unionization and all the rest. Do beware the dangers of vocational awe, but please, please do not forget in the process the literal awe-someness of having discovered your vocation.

Featured Image: A detail from a painting at the Monastery of San Jeronimo in Granada depicts St Jerome, patron saint of librarians, alongside St Pope Gregory I, patron saint of teachers, revealing two complementary visions of the reconciliation of spiritual and worldly success.

2 replies

  1. Thanks for sharing this, and best wishes for your career after graduation. In my current library work, I feel much of the same sense of vocation you describe. And this tends to be more sustainable in libraries that are well staffed. I hope your readers will also take Fobazi Ettarh’s article (linked in your post) to heart; understaffed libraries are more prone to the burnout and job creep that she describes.

    This is something to find out as you research and interview for job openings. What are staffing levels at different times of the week and the year? Is there funding to continue and/or increase current staffing? Who provides backup when the regular staff are out for any reason? Is there support for professional development? If any of this seems thin, think seriously about what is being asked of you, and whether your own sense of vocation makes it worth giving above and beyond to that organization.


  2. I appreciate you trying to keep a positive spin on things but I can’t help but wonder if you don’t really think vocational awe is a problem because you have had any problems arise in the workplace with your co-workers, etc? You mentioned you’ve received pay increases and promotions. Not all librarians are so lucky. I would say you are certainly writing this article from a place of privilege. Libraries that are well staffed, with HR departments, with clear policies and guidelines allow for less burnout and job creep for sure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s