Vocational Awe and Academic Service

Recently in one of my classes, we read the article “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Fobazi Ettarh. The themes brought up in the article and ensuing discussion with my colleagues in class continue to stick with me. While there is plenty to be said about vocational awe in terms of how librarianship can be viewed as “inherently good,” “sacred,” and “beyond critique,” (Ettarh, 2018), I am specifically interested in exploring how vocational awe plays into service, specifically in an academic context.

This interest began not only because I read “Vocational Awe and Librarianship” for one of my classes, but that reading coincidentally occurred in the same week that I began to learn how to build an academic CV. When I first learned about the element of service required on many CVs, I’ll admit I was surprised at first; but it did make sense after considering the profession and academia at large. However, after taking some time to reflect, I couldn’t help but notice how the element of service connects back to the concept of vocational awe, and I became conflicted; especially after I realized that I fell victim to vocational awe in my initial assumptions about service as a requirement in the field.

In Ettarh’s article, there are a couple of key points about labor and pay. For example, “you can’t eat…[or] pay rent on passion” and “The library’s purpose may be to serve, but is that purpose so holy when it fails to serve those who work within its walls every day?” (Ettarh, 2018) In other words, vocational awe invokes an implication that librarians do the job for the love of the field and that money or pay shouldn’t matter as much as helping patrons. On one hand, I get it. Libraries are by and large public institutions whose goal is not to generate funds but instead provide a service to the public. On the other hand, librarians are highly skilled professionals, often with advanced degrees, who deserve to get paid for their work.

This brings me back to the concept of service. In an academic context, there are multiple kinds of service: service to the institution/campus, service to the libraries, and service to the profession. Based on my understanding, service to the institution/campus and to the libraries is completed at the college or university at which a librarian works, so they should, in theory, be paid for their time of service. However, that doesn’t take into account that librarians serving their institution/campus and libraries still have their job responsibilities that they must attend to. And when it comes to service to the profession, that is usually completed by serving on a board or committee of a local or national library organization, like ALA or ACRL. Librarians, by completing this kind of service, are providing their time, energy, and expertise for free in order to better the field. In fact, librarians often have to pay to complete service on the local/national level, as you need to be a member of the local/national organization (usually requiring membership dues) in order to participate in any of its service opportunities.

We value the opinions and expertise of ourselves and our colleagues, which is why we want to hear and share that expertise on committees or boards. But we also respect the time and energy of ourselves and our colleagues and want to make sure that everyone is getting paid for their labor. Don’t get me wrong, professional development and advancing the field are important, and some librarians may participate in service activities because they are passionate about the profession and want to enact change. These are all important endeavors. But, we must also face the reality that vocational awe outlines: librarians are expected to do additional work for little or no pay to provide service to the profession, with the assumption that the service work is done solely out of love or passion for the profession. 

As discussed at the beginning of this post, I’m still highly conflicted about the relationship between vocational awe and service. I recognize how service to the field contributes to the advancement of the profession, but I also recognize how providing this often free labor contributes to the vocational awe of the field. To me, there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution.


Jane Behre is an MLIS student at the University of Maryland. At UMD, she is the coordinator for the First Year Book Program and a member of the Research & Teaching Fellowship’s 2021 cohort. She holds a B.A. in Theatre from Barnard College, Columbia University, and worked professionally backstage for two years before deciding to make the switch to library science. Within the field, her interests include academic librarianship (with a focus on the performing arts), research & instruction, and information literacy. In her free time, she enjoys cooking for her friends and family, listening to podcasts, and, of course, going to the theater.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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