Why Being Bad Is Good

The limits of vocational awe

April 13, 2019

Fobazi M. Ettarh at the 2019 Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Cleveland April 13.
Fobazi M. Ettarh at the 2019 Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Cleveland April 13.

Fobazi M. Ettarh, undergraduate success librarian at Rutgers University–Newark, described her take on librarian values at an April 13 session at the 2019 Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Cleveland. “Vocational awe underpins the narrative of librarianship,” she began. “It defines the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred and therefore beyond critique.”

Most librarians, she said, believe in this dominant narrative, but the process of “examining those elements and decolonizing them can be uncomfortable for many people, causing defensive reactions and revealing blind spots in one’s perspective.”

Ettarh took the traditional characteristics of the library narrative and recast them slightly to give them a realistic perspective:

  • Libraries are good places, offering free access to all, serving a diverse community, and championing truth and free speech—unless your community includes undesirable patrons and only if it does not challenge the status quo.
  • Libraries are sacred spaces, offering sanctuary and social aid—but often only for the privileged or those we deem worthy.
  • Libraries are beyond critique, the last bastions of democracy, and the soul of their communities—but they uphold white supremacy by treating workers badly and erode community values by ignoring valid perspectives and critiques.

Not all libraries exhibit these negative traits, but “I won’t be silent about inequality or injustice or racial profiling,” Ettarh said. Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, in a 2001 workbook on traits of white supremacy, list some methods by which this culture is normalized, enacted, or reinforced, including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, quantity over quality, either/or thinking, and even worship of the written word. Librarians are vulnerable to some of these influences, especially as they apply to the written word. “Our job is to categorize and organize information, creating frameworks for the ‘right way’ to evaluate data, and often settling for antiquated subject headings,” she said. “But the written word is never going to be more important than human beings.”

Is librarianship an occupation or a vocation? “They have different connotations,” Ettarh said. “An occupation is your employment, but a vocation is a strong inclination to a course of action.” As in its original meaning of a call to the religious life, she said, some see librarianship as a vocation that persists throughout the day and night, following you around wherever you go. There are even patron saints, such as Pura Belpré (the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City) or Barbara Gittings (LGBT activist) or the Connecticut Four (who filed a lawsuit against the gag orders of the Patriot Act).

“The stories of our patron saints are stories of vocational awe,” she said. “Sacrificing, struggling, and martyrdom are not goals of librarianship. We can be good librarians without doing any of these things.”

Ettarh said she is a “bad” librarian because she sets boundaries on her work–life balance. “I will not sleep in my office, work through lunch, answer most emails after hours, or feel guilty for taking sick or vacation days. I am happy with my partner, and I won’t let my occupation get in the way. And I won’t be a cataloger.” Mission creep can lead to burnout, which can “take a toll on your mental and physical health” and “make you cynical about the value of your occupation.”

“We are increasingly asked to do jobs that we never trained for,” she said—social worker, therapist, legal consultant, Narcan supplier—and this leads to a state of exhaustion. “So I am ‘bad’ for keeping to what my job description lays out.”

“Being bad can feel so good,” she quipped.


From left: Amy Fyn, Amanda Foster-Kaufman, Christina Heady, and Allison Hosier at the Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Cleveland

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Librarians interviews for this story, clockwise from bottom left: Graham Tedesco-Blair, adult services librarian, Newark (N.Y.) Public Library; Fobazi Ettarh, undergraduate success librarian, Rutgers University–Newark in New Jersey; Chera Kowalski, assistant to the chief of staff, Free Library of Philadelphia; Nicole A. Cooke, associate professor and MS/LIS program director, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Tom Rink, instructor, library services, Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Homa Naficy, chief adult learning officer, Hartford (Conn.) Public Library; Amanda Oliver, MFA student, University of California–Riverside.

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