Take One Step Back: Giving Others the Chance to Serve | BackTalk

Taking a step back is about more than just creating an opportunity for others to step forward; it is about making sure that we are getting the most for our profession and communities.

While every professional organization has different rules about service, I want to discuss patterns I have seen across many of them. I love the American Library Association (ALA), my other professional organizations, and librarianship, but I see an incredible need for some people—myself included—to take a few steps back. Before I go any further, it is important to recognize my own privilege. I am a white, cisgender male, who has benefited from numerous structural privileges in our profession and society. I am in a position of leadership that does not carry with it the many complications of the tenure system. I have nothing to lose. A discussion about stepping back in no way threatens the trajectory of my career. However, I still see an urgent need. Taking a step back is about more than just creating an opportunity for others to step forward; it is about making sure that we are getting the most for our profession and communities.

I have been thinking about this lately as I recently completed my first real service role in ALA. I have spent the last three years working with a small, but wonderful, roundtable. I also had the opportunity a few years ago to serve as president of the Utah Library Association. In both of these organizations, and I am sure many others, there was a pattern of the same people serving in roles of leadership, presenting at conferences, and staying in the limelight. Our professional associations exist to advocate for members, but also to help them develop. If those development opportunities are monopolized for years, sometimes decades, are we really helping develop our profession? If we invite the same presenters time and again, are we likely to gain new insights?

This is not about any particular individual or part of our professional organizations. This is about making sure that we structurally create opportunities for more people. This is about my own personal choices and responsibilities as well. This is a good opportunity for me to take a step back from service and make room for others. It makes me feel anxious because I want my CV to exhibit a continuous commitment to my professional organization, but there are things much more important than my personal CV, and there are many different organizations that could benefit from our service if we think outside the box.



I know at times there are no other volunteers. However, sometimes there are no volunteers because everyone assumes you are going to continue to serve. I know that we want to invite the most exciting talent to present at our conferences, but what talent do we overlook as we invite the same national speakers time and again? As we try to build greater diversity, equity, and inclusion within our profession, we have to create more opportunities for people to serve and develop. (And if you control the purse strings, you need to make sure that those opportunities are accessible and funded.) I know we worry about continuity, but if we have done our jobs well, then when we step back it will not leave a void. There are people ready to lead who have been mentored and are waiting in the wings.

There are things that any of us can do to help create these opportunities. If you are nominated to stand for office, consider declining the offer if your opponent is (or will be) someone who has never served. If you are consistently asked to present or keynote at conferences, consider collaborating with someone less experienced than you and share your honorarium. You might also consider coauthoring articles, posters, monographs, and presentations with junior colleagues. If you have been serving on the same committee or roundtable for years, think about finding a new home to allow yourself and others to stretch professionally.

As we take steps back, or even to the side, we need to be a mechanism of support for others to step forward. Throughout my career, colleagues and mentors have consistently taken steps back in order to help me take steps forward. We can all do this. We need to help remove barriers in our profession. This will unlock the abilities of so many of our colleagues and make our profession stronger.

Dustin Fife is Director of Library Services at Western Colorado University. He was a 2016 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, the 2015–16 Utah Library Association President, and 2017–18 ALA Learning Round Table President.

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