Read on! Vol. 156 Vocational Awe

Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to pull six of Dr. Seuss’s books from publication because they feel these books are harmful. This was a business decision by a private company, but it opens the door to discuss and critique libraries as many libraries grapple with what to do with these six titles (we’re keeping ours for now). 

Fobazi Ettarh, a school librarian and library researcher, developed and defined the concept of “vocational awe” in librarianship. Her first article on vocational awe – the feeling that libraries are “inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique” – was written in 2018. In it, she argues that vocational awe contributes to library worker burnout and some of the problems our profession still faces. 

For the most part, Ettarh is right. I know I am guilty of placing libraries and library work on a pedestal. The truth is, libraries can be oases of freedom and democracy and information, but they are not without serious flaws and a checkered past that should be examined and openly discussed. 

One of the most famous librarians, Melville Dewey, was a womanizer and a racist even by the standards of his time (late 1800s). The Dewey Decimal System, which is used by a vast majority of public libraries, has echoes of his beliefs to this day. 

Libraries were not always a source of equality in our communities. In fact, a majority of public libraries were actively segregated before the Civil Rights Act. Today, most librarians (especially those with a masters in library science) are white women, which limits our experience and perspective. 

The good news is, learning our history and letting go of vocational awe allows us to grow and do a better job of serving all members of our community. We certainly aren’t going to get it right all the time, but we’ll keep trying!

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