vocational awe

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In a recent piece for the New York Times, sociologist Eric Klinenberg makes the case that libraries just might be able to save the 2020 election. In short: many Americans in states where mail-in voting is not the norm are distrustful about the mail-in and drop-off process. So why not insert some trust back into the process by making libraries a primary ballot receptacle? As Klinenberg writes:

There are more than 9,000 public libraries across the United States — in cities, suburbs, rural areas and small towns. In surveys, libraries rank among the most trusted institutions in America. They assist with the census and offer voter registration services. They are open to everyone. They are nonpartisan. They are free.

Even in today’s fractured digital age, libraries rank among the most popular and well-visited places in our cultural landscape. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, on average, U.S. adults go to the library nearly once a month, making library visits “the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far.” So why not lean on their relative stability and popularity amid this crisis?

I was compelled by this argument, as I’ve been previously compelled by Klinenberg’s arguments in Palaces for the People. But I also thought it was significant that Klinenberg’s piece didn’t have any comment from the librarians who would be tasked, symbolically or otherwise, with upholding our democracy. Part of this likely has to do with the form of the piece: it’s a short editorial. But I wanted to hear from some actual librarians.

The overwhelming sentiment: a lot of libraries already provide this service during elections. But more importantly: libraries cannot fix fucking everything, and if we’re being asked to fix everything, pay us appropriately.

“I get that libraries are becoming essentially community centers,” Alexander Dodd, an academic librarian, said. “But I don’t think they should. Librarians in the public sector are already severely under paid, over worked, and expected to essentially run as social services centers more so than libraries at this point. We shouldn’t continue just saying hey, we need to cut out [blank], let’s just have the libraries handle it. It keeps furthering this idea that libraries on their own aren’t worth the tax money and librarians aren’t really doing anything with their actual jobs. I get the sentiment, but if you’re going to ask librarians to have five jobs, pay them for five jobs!”

Or, as Meredith, a children’s librarian, put it:

“Libraries are already looked at to solve society’s shortcomings and we’re always trying to prove we deserve our paychecks, especially now. At my branch, we’re already overworked and we aren’t even open to the public. We’re a polling place but placing another task in the hands of library staff is not the answer. Trying to justify it with libraries being “the most revered institutions” only makes it sound like we should be willing and ready to do this.”

Libraries have become a de facto center for children’s programming, places of respite for those experiencing homelessness, work spaces for people without internet access, places for groups that need to meet and have no allocated space to do so. Why? Because of governmental cuts or outright spending refusals: for childcare programs, for programs for the houseless, for drug rehabilitation and treatment programs, for legislation that would treat internet access as a public utility, for actual community centers. But instead of treating libraries like the big, all-utility, all-service spaces they’ve become, we still fund them as if they’re just lending books.

Because of our refusal to deal with systemic, societal issues, librarians — much like public school teachers — grapple with a condensation of duties onto their profession. Librarians become technology experts, crowd control specialists, and emergency responders, trained in how to deal with someone in the middle of a mental health crisis. Now they’re custodians of our democracy as well….in addition to being, you know, information scientists and attempting to maintain collections of knowledge. They are working at least three jobs. Five jobs? More? But they’re often only compensated (and often poorly) for that last one.

In her excellent article on “vocational awe,” academic librarian Fobazi Ettarh outlines the ways in which the institution of the library has come to be thought of as “inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Some of these ideas are produced and reproduced by librarians themselves. (Ettarh goes in depth on how the profession, dominated by white women, implictly and explicitly polices knowledge and behavior according to white norms). But some are mapped onto libraries by society.

Libraries are, as Klinenberg points out, trusted spaces. And they are trusted because they are conceived of as welcoming, neutral, ubiquitous, existing outside of capitalist forces, equitable, safe, accessible, non-threatening, non-intimidating, and non-partisan. Part of the reason they’ve accumulated that societal connotation is, again, because they’ve been stewarded by white women. But many of those connotations are just flat-out myths: of course libraries exist within capitalism; otherwise, their hours wouldn’t be significantly cut because of budget cuts. Many librarians try to make their spaces as safe, accessible, and non-threatening as possible, but, depending on your identity, they are no more or less safe, accessible, or non-threatening than any other public space.

So what are libraries? They are as fraught, frail, and overburdened as every other American institution. They endure largely based on the “vocational awe” that librarians — and, by extension, the rest of society — bring to the job. But that, of course, is its own massive problem.

As Ettarh points out: “Because the sacred duties of freedom, information, and service are so momentous, the library worker is easily paralyzed. In the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom, advocating for your full lunch break feels petty. And tasked with the responsibility of sustaining democracy and intellectual freedom, taking a mental health day feels shameful. Awe is easily weaponized against the worker, allowing anyone to deploy a vocational purity test in which the worker can be accused of not being devout or passionate enough to serve without complaint.”

Before the pandemic, I was thinking a lot about how jobs with vocational awe — from librarians to teachers, from pastors to zookeepers — ironically expose the workers with those jobs to exploitation. Complain about pay? You don’t love the job enough. Attempt to unionize to advocate for a better safety net? You don’t love the job enough. Complain about systemic sexism, racism, or other exclusionary practices at your institution? You don’t love the job enough.

It’s so deeply shitty, so psychologically toxic — and, of course, leads to massive burnout. Yet these discourses of awe persist: enough to draw hundreds of thousands of people into professions where they are essentially signing up to advocate for compensation that matches their value for the rest of their lives. (It’s worth noting, as Kate Tuttle put it to me on Twitter, that these professions are treated much in the way we treat mothers: “expected to be able to pick up any slack, do any task, with very little support or respect, but they are "revered.”)

And now, in the middle of the pandemic, we can clearly see how awe has become a coward’s excuse. We use the rhetoric of “essential” to excuse lower pay and increased exposure to the virus. As New York subway conductor Sujatha Gidla put it, “We are not essential. We are sacrificial.”

You know what we do with people we’ve deemed “essential”? We rarely compensate them more. We don’t protect them. We don’t actually venerate them, because veneration entails respect, and respect means paying people a living wage and not asking more of them than we’re willing to give ourselves. And this is what we’re doing with librarians: we’ve allowed so many of the other institutions we “respect” to atrophy and disintegrate. So we look to one of the few that’s still held together, seemingly by worker will alone, and ask them to do more with less.

And if they can’t, or won’t, or balk and ask for compensation — the failure of democracy is theirs. Not ours, for not bolstering in faith in the voting process in other concrete ways. Not ours, for failing to regulate Facebook in a meaningful manner that would discourage the spread of conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods about election security as formerly trusted local papers wither on the vine. Not ours, for allowing legislators to slowly defund the post office in an attempt to turn it private. Not ours, for electing the sort of politician who would question the integrity of public election as a show of fealty to the president.

If paid appropriately, maybe librarians could fix our democracy. Not by putting voting receptacles at their institutions, but by laying out all of the problems they’ve been tasked with handling — and helping which trained, well-compensated professionals, in what sort of well-funded programs, should be handling them instead. Librarians have a front row seat to our failures as a democracy. Maybe, instead of laying the task of solving that failure at their feet, we should do something revelatory: listen to them.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

Book I’m Currently Reading: The New Wilderness, by Diane Cook

Have you pre-ordered Can’t Even yet? Get over your errand paralysis and do it now!

Finally: I’m currently looking to talk with clergy and religious leaders about burnout — if that’s you, send me an email!

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