Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Very Much Not in Awe

Kind Reader sent along this very, very long article on “vocational awe” among librarians. The gist is that librarians see themselves as saints and saviors, libraries as sacred places, and that viewing themselves and their libraries in this way leads to job creep, poor pay, and burnout. There, I just saved you a half hour’s reading time.

Mostly it acknowledges what any librarian with a remotely critical sense can easily see, and indeed I’ve been criticizing libraries for many years, completely unaffected by “vocational awe.”

That awe, to the extent that it exists, seems more like something cultivated in library school than experienced among actual librarians in the workplace, but as the author points out, a librarian actually wrote a book called “Sacred Stacks,” and played up the relationship between libraries and religious callings. Ugh.

Despite the many points of agreement, I do have a few quibbles. According to the article, “the original libraries were actual monasteries, with small collections of books stuffed in choir lofts, niches, and roofs.” I didn’t track down the 1966 book that factoid came from, but it seems like the “original libraries” like that at Alexandria weren’t religious at all, and even in Europe the original libraries were private ones.

Nevertheless, libraries from the Middle Ages on down were usually in monasteries. The article argues that “If libraries are sacred spaces, then it stands to reason that its workers are priests. As detailed above, the earliest librarians were also priests and viewed their work as a service to God and their fellow man.”

But the argument actually presented is that the earliest librarians weren’t priests, but monks, which is actually very different.

Priests might view their work as service to their “fellow man,” but monks cloister themselves away from their fellow men and their fellow women and devote themselves to God. The “original libraries” in this case weren’t libraries for anyone to use but the monks, and their copying over centuries wasn’t to pass on literature for laypeople to read.

Does this change the argument at all? I think it does. It implies the origins of Western libraries in monasteries had little to do with service work and everything to do with protecting the collection of books, scrolls, etc.

That’s also a significant strain of librarianship, especially prominent among rare books librarians, but it’s very different from the service oriented librarianship that leads to job creep and burnout. The stacks are sacred, but the public can go hang.

Despite the quality of the overall thesis, which I do mostly agree with, there’s also the problem that everything has to be fitted within the framework of the premise, and so all librarian trends are fastened to the Procrustean bed of religious awe and language.

For example, on librarians’ poor pay, the article cites a study that says “‘surprisingly, for a profession as notoriously underpaid as librarianship, not a single respondent mentioned salary’ as a negative feature of the profession.”

This is interpreted thusly: “As with a spiritual ‘calling,’ the rewards for such service cannot be monetary compensation, but instead spiritual absolution through doing good works for communities and society.”

It could be that, or it could be that the people who become librarians aren’t willing or capable of doing the sorts of jobs that pay more. The article claims that “Librarians’ salaries continue to remain lower than those for comparable jobs in professions requiring similar qualifications and skills,” but that’s a bunch of statistical sleight of hand.

This is something that librarians often can’t understand, but salaries aren’t determined by qualifications and skills alone. They’re determined by the market and competition, with some history thrown in.

Library salaries were traditionally low because only women worked in libraries, except in administration. They didn’t do it just because they were saints who liked helping people, although there were plenty of librarians like that. They did it because most professions were closed to women, leaving librarianship and school teaching as two of the best professional options.

For an article that is concerned with how oppressive libraries are to librarians, and that brings up the history of library segregation in the South before the 1960s as if it’s relevant to the entire profession today, it’s odd that the historical economics of women in libraries is overlooked.

Librarian salaries are still low because of that history, which is why it’s important. Librarianship is feminized work, and feminized work gets paid less than other professional work, whether it’s done by men or women.

Library salaries are also low now because there are plenty of librarians for every job, or their salaries are fixed by government guidelines, or the work isn’t that complicated, or other economic reasons that have nothing to do with spiritual absolution or doing good works.

On many points, the thesis holds, though. Indeed, librarians do “continue to venerate contemporary ‘saints’ of librarianship” such as the “Connecticut Four.” The job creep involved in administering Narcan to overdose victims is an example of job creep wherein librarians believe they should save the world as they deprofessionalize themselves to do so.

Librarians thinking of themselves as saints and priests is akin to the Library Culture I invented and mocked a few months ago.

And it could be that librarians experience burnout because they sacrifice themselves to library work rather than that the profession attracts people who can’t handle stress well, which is why they choose librarianship over more competitive and financially rewarding occupations. Heck, those two might be related.  

Whatever our difference, I agree with the article that libraries are just buildings and librarians are just workers with jobs. Many of them want to save the world one library card at a time. The rest of us just shake our heads and go back to working with none of the grace and salvation libraries supposedly provide.



  1. To quibble with your quibbles:

    “But the argument actually presented is that the earliest librarians weren’t priests, but monks, which is actually very different.

    Priests might view their work as service to their ‘fellow man,’ but monks cloister themselves away from their fellow men and their fellow women and devote themselves to God.”

    Monks were not by default but often were/and still are priests. There is a difference between diocesan priests and religious priests (the latter living in communities like monasteries and taking an additional vow of poverty). Additionally monasteries were seen as a great spiritual benefit to the public in the middle ages. And those who sought that life may have sought it for any number of reasons, but many surely believed they were called to that way of life to pray for and effect positive spiritual change for humanity.

    And here:

    “The job creep involved in administering Narcan to overdose victims is an example of job creep wherein librarians believe they should save the world as they deprofessionalize themselves to do so.”

    You would do well to re-read the comments to your ill-thought blog post of December 7, 2017 on this topic. You might learn something.

    • To quibble with your quibbles of the quibbles, some monks in monasteries were/are priests but not very many. Most monks are laymen. And monasteries were very useful to the public in the middle ages as a place for prayer and as a safe place for travelers to stay, but the public would not have been allowed to use the materials in the library.

  2. Convents often had small libraries, too, and they weren’t priests at all, though I’d agree that many (but not all) of them had a religious calling. The Benedictines in particular tended to have libraries, because of the rules governing daily reading. Some monks and nuns copied books and pamphlets for sale to the public, which was more to make money than because they were interested in outreach or reader’s advisory.

  3. Bob Holley says:

    Let me add one more observation about the feminization of the field. I got my degree from Columbia University before it closed down its library science program. One factor that I learned about was that the libraries in the richer suburbs could offer very low wages because some women who wanted a respectable job with some status didn’t need to earn a decent salary because they were supported by their well paid male spouses. Perhaps with the change in social, cultural, and economic values, some men even fit into this category. I know at least a few “trophy husbands.”

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