Some time ago, I came across tweets by Fobazi Ettarh expressing her disappointment that people defended a White female librarian who called a Black woman a racist term, then doubled down on her tweet. From there, I followed the links and came upon her 2018 In the Library with the Lead Pipe article, “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves.” I had read it before, but I decided to give it a read again and thought as to how this could be applied to what I’ve written about on this blog in the past. Originally I was planning to put every point she made in the article into one blogpost, but that seemed to be squeezing too many ideas into one place, so I split off many of her points into specific blogposts, to fully explore what she says and to explain more how can relate to fictional depictions of librarians.
Ettarh began her article noting librarians “administering the anti-overdose drug Naloxon,” saying that while this seems natural at first, with these librarians working to “save the democratic values of society as well as going above and beyond to serve the needs of their neighbors and communities,” the rhetoric around this “borders on vocational and sacred language” instead of “acknowledging that librarianship is a profession or a discipline, and as an institution, historically and contemporarily flawed, we do ourselves a disservice.” She goes on to define “vocational awe” as a “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.” 
There are undoubtedly fictional librarians believe that institutions are seen as “good and sacred,” and “beyond critique,” especially since these characters are almost universally created by those who haven’t been librarians, have worked in libraries, have library degrees, and so on. As such, their views of libraries are informed by popular perceptions. As such, some characters clearly see librarianship as a vocation or a calling, based on the Christian tradition of calling requiring a “monastic life under vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience” as Ettarh points out.
One of those characters is Myne in Ascendance of a Bookworm who works in a church library, which she had been excited to be a part of. Unfortunately, in Part 3 of the series, she is not shown in the library. Instead, she is only shown being denied from the library and becomes subservient to authority, which is sad to see for her character.
This different from previous parts of the series, in which she undoubtedly sees her role as a librarian as one of obedience. Through all of the series, her role as a librarian becomes interconnected with her role as a gray-robed priest. This related to what Ettarh adds about vocation within librarianship. She argues that she has “allusions to religiosity and the sacred” and states that libraries created with the “same architectural design as churches in order to elicit religious awe.” She goes onto say that awe is a overwhelming and fearful feelings rather than a comforting one, meant to elicit “obedience from people in the presence of something bigger than themselves.”
This differs from O’Bengh, also known as Cagliostro, in an episode of What If…?. He is a sorcerer who works in a library, which looks exactly like a temple. He is a manifestation of librarians as priests. Sometimes it isn’t as explicit as his character. As I noted in the aforementioned post, O’Bengh falls into the librarian as an information provider stereotype. The fact the library is a temple, this, as I noted in that post, furthers the perception that libraries, and by extension librarians, are sacred. In many ways, he acts like a monk inside of a monastery who never leaves the monastery, as he never appears in any other episodes.
Ettarh goes onto argues that vocational awe manifests itself in “response to the library as both a place and an institution,” with library workers easily paralyzed by the “sacred duties of freedom, information, and service.” As a result of these “grand missions,” advocating for a full lunch break or taking a mental health day “feels shameful.” This awe is “weaponized against the worker,” meaning that there can be vocational purity test of sorts in which a worker “can be accused of not being devout or passionate enough to serve without complaint.”
In some ways this is weaponized against librarians. Take for instance Gabrielle (voiced by Victoire Du Bois) in I Lost My Body. She has an annoying supervisor who fits many librarian stereotypes and attempts to stop Gabrielle from talking to Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris), the show’s other protagonist, who is checking out books. While she is shown to be hard at work shelving books elsewhere in this mature film, she also is enforcing library rules and expectations all at the same time, with Gabrielle dubbing her “Mrs. Watchtower”. Since the library scene is so short and we see the movie mainly from Naoufel’s perspective, we don’t know the motivations of this annoying supervisor, who doesn’t even have a voice actor, and fellow librarian.
The same can be said about Amity Blight (voice by Mae Whitman) in The Owl House. In the episode “Through the Looking Glass Ruins”, her boss, Malphas (voiced by Fred Tatasciore) fires her after she is found in a forbidden section of the library. Although she isn’t supposed to be there, she is trying to help Luz Noceda (voiced by Sarah Nicole-Robles), who later becomes her girlfriend, find a book about a previous human traveler to this magical world. She accepts the consequences but Luz gets Amity’s library card back after going through a series of trials. Not surprisingly, Amity is grateful and kisses Luz on the cheek.
Ettarh writes that librarianship by its very nature privileges those within the status quo. She goes onto see that those outside of the center of librarianship can see more clearly, for the most part, disparities between reality of library work and “espouse values.” She goes onto say that vocational awe refuses to acknowledge libraries as flawed institutions, meaning that when marginalized librarians, including people of color, speak out, their accounts are “often discounted or erased.” She adds that vocational awe ties the twin phenomenon of undercompensation and job creep, when employees are pressured to “deliver more than the normal requirements of their jobs” which is gradually increased by the employer, within librarianship due to workplaces that are self-sacrificing and service-oriented.
This results in, as Ettarh puts it, librarians becoming self-selected. It leads to expectations that entry-level library jobs need usually voluntary experience within a library, coupled with “class barriers built into the profession.” What this means that those who have financial instability and cannot work for free have to take out loans or switch careers entirely. Furthermore, those librarians with family responsibilities cannot “work long nights and weekends” and librarians with disabilities can’t make librarianship a “whole-self career.”
In animation this is shown in terms of oft-stereotype of White female librarians who are elderly spinsters. It is implied that such librarians, who are often strict, have experience in library school, degrees, and have been in the library for ages. It is further indicated that even if one moves beyond White librarians in animation, I can’t think of one librarian who is physically disabled, which Ettarh seems to be talking about in her article. Many of the librarians may be mentally disabled though, through their demeanor and actions. Often they are characters for only one episode, so there isn’t enough of a focus on them to know who they are as actual people. That is the nature of current depictions
Back to Ettarh, she further says that having an “emotional attachment” to your work is often valued, and says that while it isn’t a negative, vocational awe is endemic and “connected to so many aspects of librarianship.” She goes onto say that the problem with this is that efficacy of a person’s work is tied to their amount or lack of passion rather than “fulfillment of core job duties”. She adds that if being a good librarian is “directly tied to struggle, sacrifice, and obedience,” then the more one struggles in their work, their institution / work becomes “holier”. This means that people are less likely to “feel empowered…[or] to fight for a healthier workspace.” 
Perhaps this is what Kaisa, the ever popular librarian in Hilda feels as she feels exhausted in one episode. More than that, she is experiencing burnout. As I wrote in that post, Kaisa exhibits many of the characteristics of burnout, or what some call librarian fatigue. However, it is hard to know whether her workload is sustainable, if she has a lack of personal control over her workplace, if is insufficiently compensated or recognized, or has a lack of social support, which often leads to burnout. As I put it in that post, librarian burnout/fatigue is something which librarians need to discuss more openly and it should be shown more directly in fictional depictions.
As a reminder, burnout, as noted in that article, means a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind”. It is caused by factors such as an “unsustainable workload, role conflict…lack of personal control at work, insufficient recognition…lack of social support, a sense of unfairness, and personal values…at odds with the organization’s values.” This is connected with feelings of detachment and cynicism, a lack of accomplishment, sense of ineffectiveness, and overwhelming exhaustion, with physical symptoms including hypertension, muscle tension, headaches, chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances, and more.
I end with words from Ettarh. She writes that libraries are only buildings and that people inside, the librarians, do the work, who need to be treated well. She adds that “you can’t eat on passion. You can’t pay rent on passion. Passion, devotion, and awe are not sustainable sources of income.” She goes onto say that while libraries may have a purpose to serve,but is that purpose so high and mighty when it “fails to serve those who work within its walls every day”. She concludes by saying “we need to continue asking these questions…and stop using vocational awe as the only way to be a librarian.” That is something I have to agree with wholeheartedly.
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 She also says that the article tries to “dismantle the idea that librarianship is a sacred calling…describe[s] the institutional mythologies surrounding libraries and librarians…dismantle[s] these mythologies by demonstrating the role libraries play in institutional oppression….[and] discuss[es] how vocational awe disenfranchises librarians and librarianship” in hopes that librarianship can “hopefully evolve into a field that supports and advocates for the people who work in libraries as much as it does for physical buildings and resources.”
 Ettarh defines a healthy workplace as “one where working around the clock is not seen as a requirement, and where one is sufficiently compensated for the work done” and says it is not a workplace where “the worker [is] taken for granted as a cog in the machinery.”