Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Dangers of Vocation

I've talked before about how words matter, and I want to talk today about a trope not specific to library work, but one that is used heavily in library work, library education, and professional discourse. This is the talk of our work as a calling and as a vocation. This language is dangerous.

If you know me, you might assume that my major opposition is based on the religious connotations of this language. It is, but not because of the christian-centric world that created this language, although using language steeped in religious tradition is something that we should avoid. While the religious background of the language has faded, it remains quite strong.

What actually bothers me about the language of "vocation" or "calling" is the way that it impacts how we view our work, its value, and our own value.  While there isn't anything particularly wrong with feeling specifically drawn to a field that matches your demeanor and particular expertise, the sense of vocation that we use in relation to library work or education and some other fields is overlaid with a sense of service for the sake of service.

Vocation in this sense indicates that people are called to certain types of work not only based on their skills but based on a call to service. The call to service is even more specifically christian, implying a kind of drive toward good works that are valuable as good things, not necessarily having other types of value to society. Indeed, the history of library work in the United States looks a lot like mission work. I want us to push against language that has connotations that our work isn't essential to society, and I believe that our work has become more and more valuable over time.

Language that frames library work as a call to service also opens a door wide open to devalue the labor of library work. If we are called to do service in the sense of a vocation, and that work is good work, the calling is one that pulls us apart from general life, from business life. Why then would one called to this work demand to be appropriately compensated for labor? Think of the fields other than library work where this language of vocation is used. Notice anything?

Let's talk more about how this language frames our understanding of our own work and our profession. Let's be more careful about the words that we use because the impact of how we speak is far more broad than we imagine.

Keep Rockin'

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