In my column in the January/February issue (“Your Library’s Story,” p. 64), I encouraged librarians to take control of the narrative when telling the story of their impact. The ability to demonstrate our value is crucial as our funding bodies face decreased revenue because of the pandemic. In promoting a positive external image of the library, it’s possible to also inadvertently position the library internally as above censure. This silences criticism and keeps libraries from improving.
At the heart of this issue is vocational awe, originally defined by Fobazi Ettarh in her article “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” which positions the profession as a calling and the institution as a sacred beacon of democracy. We’ve all read articles that portray libraries as “a city on a hill” and librarians as selfless community servants. While these narratives might be useful externally, within the profession they can stifle legitimate concerns and dissent.
Libraries should not be beyond critique. At a time when the structural racism inherent in American institutions is being starkly exposed, narratives that portray libraries as institutions that neutrally welcome everyone erase the marginalization, racism, and exclusion experienced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and people from other marginalized groups at the hands of library employees and inequitable library policies. Our rhetoric around the value of libraries often centers on the people who work there, but library workers are humans who can’t just leave their unconscious biases at the door.
Within our profession, we should be able to examine areas where we fall short.
While vocational-awe narratives are rooted in white supremacy, they can harm all workers. These narratives characterize people who prioritize their own well-being as being lazy or lacking commitment. This past spring, when most libraries closed their buildings to protect public health, critics on social media accused library workers of abandoning their patrons and being unwilling to be “essential” when they were most needed. Library workers who were advocating for safety (against those who wanted libraries to open or provide curbside service before it was safe in their area) were portrayed in one article as “too precious to roll up their sleeves and get to work.” While this commentary also recognized that individuals deserved to feel safe and supported, the portrayal of workers’ safety concerns in such language can have a chilling effect on self-advocacy.
Within our profession, we should be able to examine areas where we fall short. I recently watched a friend leave the profession because of the death by a thousand cuts she suffered as a Black librarian, including microaggressions, racial trauma, and the erasure of her contributions. Rich literature on the negative and traumatic experiences of BIPOC library workers should give any library administrator pause, yet most of our organizations have not yet acknowledged the white supremacy inherent in our formal or unspoken workplace norms. Those looking for recent works that shed light on these experiences should read the excellent book Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS, edited by Rose Chou and Annie Pho, and Kaetrena Davis Kendrick and Ione Damasco’s article “Low Morale in Ethnic and Racial Minority Academic Librarians: An Experiential Study.”
When an institution is beyond critique, it can’t be improved. The sooner we acknowledge the role libraries play in upholding inequities, the sooner we can identify ways to change for the better. Confronting the ways in which our organizations cause harm—whether to patrons or staff members—is uncomfortable but entirely necessary. Recognizing how we, as individuals and as part of institutions, have benefitted from and upheld white supremacy can be deeply painful, but the fact that our BIPOC patrons and colleagues do not get to choose whether to engage with racism should motivate white librarians to do the work.