“Why would you enter a dying field?” “You need a master’s degree to shelve books?” “Must be nice to sit and read all day.” Such commentary is a rite of passage for librarians, inflicted by everyone from family members to university administrators. Equally often, however, the remarks are effusive: “I LOVE librarians!” “Librarians are superheroes!” “Librarians will save the world!” Contemptuous ignorance and broad-strokes adulation are two symptoms of one pervasive problem: as a society, we have a woeful understanding of what librarians do, a side effect of which ignorance is that librarians frequently try to do everything with two years (part-time) of formal training, a median salary of $59,050, and shaky public standing. The ostensible praise, then, is no less troubling than the smirking denigrations.
Indeed, librarianship is so habitually devalued, ignored, or misapprehended that it has developed insidious coping mechanisms. Fobazi Ettarh details these compensatory measures of self-preservation (with heaping sides of job creep and martyr complex) in her 2018 essay “Vocational Awe and Librarianship,” which has made a deep impact within the profession and warrants attention in parallel fields. We may be overworked, undercompensated, and misunderstood, but what we do is special; this beatifically embattled disposition is vocational awe.
Libraries are “special” because we tend to see them as bastions of democracy, progressive havens for intellection and innovation. In recent years, they’ve also become havens for those in need—of books, music, and storytimes, yes, but moreover of internet and tech access, restrooms, four walls and a roof. These attributes do make libraries special, but they also make them a terrible symptom of this country’s truths. We have virtually no safety nets; homeless shelters and social workers are overwhelmed; childcare is grotesquely expensive; addiction is rampant. These needs have been neglected, consolidated, and displaced largely onto libraries.
Meanwhile, library workers have been conditioned by professional precarity and gendered expectations to be, above all else, reactive to need. While some librarians surely have healthier boundaries than I do, the issue is sufficiently systemic to warrant the first-person plural; many of us respond to requests even when we’re not particularly qualified to fulfill them, a behavior that masquerades as virtue despite likely being a disservice in many instances. Such requests vary across settings and in gravity, from instruction sessions on topics afield to emergency medical care, but they play on the same anxieties about saying no. If we say no to requests, will people stop coming to us for help? If people stop coming to us for help, will our positions be eliminated?
The frailty of library budgets and their reliance on voter goodwill lade any refusal of requests for assistance with fears of perceived expendability. Ettarh points out that the efforts we exert to meet these varied requests may be staggering, but they’re less heroic than a reflexive combination of self-preservation and self-importance. An example par excellence in this shift has been the normalization of Narcan training for public library workers over the past decade. Why so many people are overdosing is a massive, multipronged question, but the reason so many are overdosing in libraries comes readily. Libraries are among the only indoor spaces in the US where one can spend time without having to purchase anything; economic precarity drives us and our patrons into a desperate call-and-answer relay.
One would never ask an OB-GYN to pull a tooth or an electrical engineer to design a bridge. Why is librarianship subject to such occupational plasticity? The answer is a complex knot of sociocultural factors with no single origin, certainly, but a look at the evolution of libraries within the context of American liberal democracy is illuminating. Starting in the mid-1600s, early iterations of public libraries facilitated the dissemination and creation of knowledge to a larger segment of the population than the wealthy elite; accessible libraries became key to a “free society” that increasingly viewed (white male) self-education as crucial to a democratic republic as the eighteenth century progressed. In the US, the personal library and organizing schema of no less a problematic, contradictory figure of the zeitgeist than Thomas Jefferson were adopted by the Library of Congress, following the latter’s burning in the War of 1812. These ideals of intellectual inquiry, self-improvement, and scientific advancement remain manifest in, for example, the American Library Association’s commitment to a liberal democracy “grounded in an informed citizenry.”
While espousing values of diversity and inclusion, libraries are still heavily invested in the ideological scientificity of the Enlightenment that deployed “rational,” systematized conceptions of race to justify slavery and genocide. Even if libraries’ democratic ideals aimed to equip a wider public for intellectual pursuits, that aim entailed propagating a corpus of white male authors to shape them. The pursuit and dissemination of knowledge are seldom their own ends; as Eve Sedgwick reminds us in Epistemology of the Closet, knowledge, like ignorance, is always of something—that is, any educational mission is always grounded in an ideological position that determines what is to be learned and how.
Per Wayne Bivens-Tatum, early American libraries’ mission was missionary indeed. They aimed to “spread knowledge and culture broadly to the people,” he writes in Libraries and the Enlightenment, and their concurrence with the nascent nation’s settler colonial violence was simply an “apparent contradiction between ideal and reality,” any criticism of which “confuse[s] history with philosophy.” But epistemology and history are co-constitutive, and as nina de jesus points out in “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression,” Bivens-Tatum’s characterization of this violence as merely coincident rather than fundamentally co-imbricated with Enlightenment values belies the linkage between philosophical ideal and supremacist execution.
A crucial midpoint between Jefferson’s Enlightenment visions and today’s Narcan-administering librarians is Melvil Dewey, the proverbial father of modern librarianship who—like so many founding fathers—inflicted his misogyny and racism on others both directly and structurally. He recruited women to librarianship because prevailing attitudes believed the work well-suited to female “limitations,” that women warranted lower pay than men, that librarianship was akin to the domestic sphere; in an 1899 issue of Library Journal, Dewey cited among the traits of the ideal librarian “above all, a great heart.” He was eventually forced out of the ALA for chronic sexual harassment of female members. He was also deeply racist and anti-Semitic; he is the mind behind and namesake of the classification system by which infinite amounts of information continue to be organized today, in schemata whose biases are legion.
An essay so bent on critique might seem a counterintuitive way to advocate for an institution that I truly DO believe is fundamental to democracy, but I believe that identifying libraries’ past and present ideological undercurrents is essential for that democracy to become more progressive than liberal. Indeed, critique is a staple of the information literacy skills on which librarians hang their hats. Often, however, pride and precarity—vocational awe—keeps us from applying the same standards to our own endeavors.
When COVID-19 hit, my own symptoms presented. Having worked in both public and academic libraries, I’d read and (I thought) absorbed Ettarh’s essay back in 2018, but the initial pandemic shutdown back in March exposed my delusions. I’m embarrassed to say that at first, when the announcement came that classes would move online but the library would stay open, I was largely unfazed. Of course libraries would stay open. How else might students without laptops or internet complete their coursework?
That changed a week in when I exited my office and saw a toddler sneeze directly onto a computer. I love my job, but I don’t want to die for it—and more than that, I don’t want others to die for it. Realizing that my relationship to my vocation had verged into willingness to jeopardize my health (and, indirectly, others’ health) was a jolt, to say the least.
Fortunately, we closed to the public soon after, and employees who can are working remotely. During this time, I’ve been monitoring my impulses—many of which cry out to help, go the extra mile, get something done sooner or better than needed. I imagine many academics, librarians and otherwise, have been grappling with similar impulses throughout the pandemic. They’re signs of passion and shared ethos, but I now also recognize them as narcissism (a need to prove to myself that my work truly matters) and anxiety under capitalism (a need to prove to my employer that my work truly matters to their survival). This thought pattern in which I figure as indispensable to our benighted students and faculty is Enlightenment paternalism, vocational awe, and economic precarity in one. Students and faculty need me, but more than that I need them to need me so that I can document my neededness to justify my continued employment through impending austerity.
I love my job and what my library does for and beyond its institution. I love what public libraries do for and beyond their communities. If I come out of this still holding my job, I won’t love it any less. On the contrary, I’ll continue to work hard at it—but I’ll be much more wary about that love and the impulses to which it’s conditioned me to respond.
How, then, can we push against wrongheaded self-sanctification when equally wrongheaded external invalidation is loud and frequent? Giving good-faith consideration to the “libraries are obsolete” claim frequently leveled as an argument against their public funding, librarian David Lankes points out that, in plugging various societal shortfalls, libraries operate on a deficit model as “institutions of remediation.” If not precisely obsolete, they’re perpetually catching up to need after it’s felt. “Obsolete” isn’t the right term because it implies irrelevance and uselessness, but it gets at something important.
Libraries will never be irrelevant in a country whose richest one percent owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. They’re integral indeed to a society built by slave labor on stolen lands, where inequality is structural and pervasive, even constitutive. This framing confronts us with a curious and disquieting reality: that libraries are intrinsically reactive institutions whose essence at once inheres in their ability to meet needs and relies upon the continuation of unmet needs. In this sense, the obsolescence of libraries is a wonderful goal, because it would indicate that many of the public’s needs were fulfilled. But there’s also a sense in which need is exactly what makes a community. We share resources and skills with one another according to our wants and means, rather than existing as discrete, unconnected units in proximity. It’s absurd to think of every person purchasing every book they want when it will spend most of its days in disuse: that’s rampant consumerism, not collectivity.
I don’t intend to lay out a grand etiology, but to suggest that we’re less removed from Enlightenment-era libraries than we might think: their raison d’être, after all, was entrenched economic inequality that kept crucial resources in the hands of an elite few. These origins are instructive not because we should blithely embrace the philosophies that helped build this nation into its current morass of inequality, but because they offer a model of need whose solution is communal rather than individualistic.
Librarians can’t be missionaries or saviors; we’re workers under capitalism. Our need, I think, is to better recognize ourselves as such and recognize that even if we’re lucky enough to have fulfilling jobs, we’re not exempt from sustaining or passing on capitalism’s harms. To this end, librarians need to look, as de jesus incites us to do, at the ways Enlightenment values have instilled inequities in and through libraries.
It’s no failure to admit that libraries are abysmally inadequate surrogates for healthcare, homes, schools, childcare, and so on. By the same token, it’s not vanity to refuse to do work that exceeds the scope of one’s job, and there’s no shame in the inability to perform a skill for which one isn’t trained. It’s not paternalistic to think everyone deserves access to resources, but to believe that one institution and its workers can provide them all without doing harm smacks of the white (wo)man’s burden. Divesting ourselves of the savior/martyr complex that Ettarh and de jesus critique is a matter of professional ethics and care for others, for ourselves and the communities we’re ostensibly so committed to serving.
This also isn’t a call for libraries to revert to solemn, silent book repositories, nor to say that the ALA Core Values aren’t worth celebrating. I want movies and video games in libraries; I want recording studios and 3D printers and chaotic storytimes. I want miniature ponies in libraries. I want everyone to have a place to sit without having to purchase anything or explain their presence. Nobody knows what libraries will look like after coronavirus has finished wreaking its medical and economic havoc, and it’s hard to be optimistic. But if it does all burn to the ground, we can at least equip ourselves to rebuild with something fuller and better than Thomas Jefferson’s holdings and worldview.
Lynne Stahl is the Humanities Librarian at West Virginia University. Her public writing has appeared in venues including The Washington Post and Entropy, and her research spans feminist theory, popular culture, and critical information studies. She is currently at work on a monograph about queer spectatorship and tomboy films.