Remember Yourself: Vocational Awe and How to Avoid It

I had been the teen services person at my branch for almost four years, and had forged many great relationships with the teens there. One of my regulars, a sixteen year old boy who was one in a large family and always in with his younger siblings, came up to the desk and told me, in a tone inviting me to laugh, “Hey, wanna know something sad? One of my friends, he can’t read.”

In this moment, I could have done a few things. I could have laughed with him, something he was clearly giving me all the social cues to do. I could have lectured him on making fun of a friend that can’t read. I could have invited him to bring the friend in to the library.

But, something in me told me that that statement was a test to see how I would react. “Yes,” I said, with empathy. “That is sad. I would hate to not know how to read.”

He took a moment, looking down at my desk, rubbing the back of his neck. “Actually, I’m the one who can’t read. Can you help?”

The answer, of course, was absolutely. I talked with him more about what he could and couldn’t read. What he liked. He called himself stupid and I explained neuroplasticity to him, that your brain is a muscle to be exercised, not something you’re born with finished. I found him high-low books that interested him and helped him find books he could read to his young sisters to practice.

He came back the next week and told me how much he enjoyed the high-low book I’d suggested to him, asked for more suggestions, asked for homework help, came to all my programs.

I rode that high for months. I cried when I told the story to my family, shared the story with other teen people. This was what I was in this job for. This was what ALA means when they say “Libraries Transform.”

Now let’s pull back a little and talk about where I was at in my job at that point. I worked 12:30pm-9pm every week day, and then switched to day shift on the weekends, where I worked alternating Fridays and Saturdays. Most of those evening shifts we did not have a manager and I was the most senior staff member, so if a patron had a complaint, or if the police had to be called, or if there was incident report to be written, that was my job. My branch was chronically understaffed, and I never took 15 minute breaks because I couldn’t stand leaving my coworkers in the fray. I was a union steward, and I was embroiled in a battle for my coworker to be able to wear a badge identifying their pronouns. My stepfather had had a heart attack less than a year before and I had been counseled on “high utilization of sick leave” by my manager for taking a week off to be with him and my mother. I left work early one evening to take my partner, who I had lived with for at least 7 years at this point, to the ER, and was forced to use my vacation leave for the time because “sick time is only for spouses and immediate family,” even though it would be illegal for me to marry her.

And, a few months after I had bragged to everyone about the great experience I had had with that teenager, he began to sexually harass me. I couldn’t bring myself to stand up to it or tell anyone, because I had brought it on myself, hadn’t I? I had been far too friendly with him and led him on. Not to mention how much of my ego I had tied to that great Library Moment™.

What is Vocational Awe?

Fobazi Ettarh defines Vocational Awe as “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.” In other words, when you believe what you are doing is Good and Right it becomes easy to endure more than you would at any other job.

Have you ever skipped your break?

Smiled through a patron saying something that hurts you down to your core?

Stayed after closing time to finish helping a patron, and not reported it on your timesheet?

Said yes to every single thing your manager asked of you, when you already feel buried under your tasks?

Worked at home to prepare for a program because you didn’t have time at work?

How many times have you cried in the staff bathroom?

What is Self-care?

What do you think of when you think of self-care? A bath bomb? A fun scented lotion? Maybe your workplace has done a mindfulness training, or yoga. Those are helpful, right?

Would it be as helpful as your workplace providing maternity leave? A pay raise? More staff? Safe work spaces?

self-care dog by @_pocketts

Today, I’m giving you permission to do a few things that will help you take care of yourself in a much realer way than a bath bomb.

Take your damn break. The whole thing. Preferably, outside of the library. Especially if your break room is like mine–a table in your office space where you can watch everyone else working and be asked questions while you eat.

Say no. Advocate for your time and what you can really do in the hours you’re inside the library. Tell your boss early if you’ve bit off more than you chew. Tell people if you need help. If your boss isn’t helpful, tell their boss. If your workplace is unionized, tell your steward. You’re allowed to ask for help.

Let go of things that are hurting you. If that’s your whole job, drop it. It’s good to have a back up plan, but sometimes it’s okay not to. Sometimes the only way you can come up with a plan is to get out of the bad place or situation that’s taking away all your energy.

If you see things are wrong, try to change them. I’ve mentioned unions a couple times in this post. As the president of AFSCME Local 3425, I am very pro-union, and I think without the support of my union and the platform union leadership has given me I would have been eaten from the inside by now. Don’t be afraid to talk to your coworkers about unionizing. Reaching out to AFSCME or SEIU or any of the other big unions might be what you need right now. I’m not going to pretend union work is easy– it can easily fall into the trap of Vocational Awe as well– but sometimes the only way you and your coworkers can have a voice is through unionizing.

I’m not perfect at following these rules, and I break them a lot. So here’s one more rule for you: Forgive yourself. I was in Frankfort on Tuesday advocating for unions and libraries, and I told myself I would also talk to the representatives about the scary transgender bill that will threaten many of the teens I serve. Then our bus ride started with a prayer, and I looked around at all the other union leadership that was there and realized I and the other library union leader I had come with were the youngest people there, by a lot. No one else looked obviously queer, either. Two more references to God and prayer once we were there and I couldn’t open my mouth to say a word about trans rights, or even LGBTQ+ rights in general. I spoke up a lot during the trip, but I left out the topic closest to my heart and I felt like a coward.

And you know what? That happens a lot. I mess up. I let things drop that are important to me, I say yes too much, I skip breaks. I don’t speak up because I’m afraid of confrontation. You remember what I told that teen a few years ago? About neuroplasticity? Your brain is a muscle, and just like you can’t just make a decision to run a marathon, you can’t just make the decision to take care of yourself. You have to make that decision, and then you need to practice, and fail, and practice some more.


And because we’re library people here, here’s some resources from me to you:

Fobazi Ettarh coined the term “Vocational Awe,” and you should go straight from this to Fobazi’s work. I recommend Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. You can find Fobazi on twitter @Fobettarh.

For how a manager should be supporting staff in self-care efforts, here’s A Manager’s Role in Staff Self-Care by the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee.

Less is Not More: Rejecting Resilience Narratives for Library Workers by Meredith Farkas is about the damaging attitudes that lead library workers to feel unable to advocate for change in their workplace and the need to acknowledge that many of the factors that cause burnout are beyond the employee’s direct control.

And finally, I didn’t use the words Compassion Fatigue in this piece but you should be aware of what it is and acknowledge it in yourself. You can find resources for that at the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.

Special thanks to Julie Howe (@unruly___julie) and Jessy Griffith (@plasticbird, @JessyLibrarian) whose presentation at KLA in 2018 introduced me to the term Vocational Awe (and provided some of the resources I link to above!)


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