Responses & Retrospectives: Not Just Your Problem: Metadata Shame, Imposter Syndrome, and Archivists by Jodi Allison-Bunnell,

Photo of Jodi Allison-Bunnell. Color.

Jodi Allison-Bunnell (courtesy of Jodi Allison-Bunnell).

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

It usually happens during the tour of the stacks: As we stand among the grey boxes, in a dark corner, a colleague will lean toward me and confess, sotto voce, that their metadata—accession records, finding aids, donor records, or digital collections—is really a mess. Their eyes are downcast with shame at the gap between the standards that they know and what they actually have. They are certain that they are the only individual or institution with this problem.

But what I know—and am always truly delighted to tell them—is that they are not at all alone. Twenty-three years of work in large and small institutions, a regional consortium, and as a consultant has shown me that everyone has ugly metadata. Everyone carries shame about it. And it doesn’t need to be that way.

Last spring, at the annual meeting of Northwest Archivists in Bozeman, Montana, I co-presented a panel with fellow consultants Rachael Woody and Maija Andersen to predict the future of archives in 2020 (http://northwestarchivists.org/resources/Documents/NWA%202019%20Program.pdf). During that panel, we discussed a number of important themes, including salaries in the archival profession (Rachael’s passion!) and the continued certainty of constrained resources. I used the framework of “The good, the bad, and the ugly” to predict that a year from now, your metadata will still be ugly. And there’s no shame in that.

Metadata shame is part of a larger phenomenon: imposter syndrome. First identified in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, it’s when an individual believes they have insufficient skills, intellect, and experience for a given task or environment, usually professional, despite objective evidence to the contrary. (Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247).  Although Clance and Imes’ initial paper was focused on high-achieving women, the term has since been applied to all genders of highly intelligent, qualified, and achieving people who suffer this crushing self-doubt.

The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale, a non-diagnostic self-assessment, asks a respondent to indicate degree of agreement or disagreement with statements that include: “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am,” “I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am,” “I rarely do a project or task as well as I’d like to do it,” and “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.” (https://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf, accessed 2019 Oct 11. From The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (pp. 20-22), by P.R. Clance, 1985, Toronto: Bantam Books. Copyright 1985 by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., ABPP.)

Clearly, there are many archivists who would agree with many of those statements. At the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists last August, Session 701, “My Comeback Story: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in the Archives Profession” drew hundreds of attendees that overfilled the largest room in the conference facility. The presenters shared their stories of struggling with imposter syndrome and how they have transformed that experience into positive outcomes. Some of their experiences were related to race, education, or the specific dynamics of their institution. But Drew Davis of the College of American Pathologists gave examples that are universal: We have so much to do and so much to know, and one response to that reality is shame. We compare ourself to other professionals and are certain that they are more successful. Davis ultimately found that he is naturally competitive. Instead of fighting that tendency, he turns his comparison with others into an opportunity to be inspired, motivated—and successful

His response is the map for all of us: rather than letting shame overcome us, we can put that energy toward action. When I was building a Digital Public Library of America hub at the Orbis Cascade Alliance, we confronted the challenge of half a million digital object records that had been created before the consortium had Dublin Core best practices. A few core fields needed remediation before the content could be aggregated efficiently at the regional and national level. As part of a series of workshops I developed with consultant Anneliese Dehner and Julia Simic (Assistant Head, Digital Scholarship Services, University of Oregon), we inserted humor and cultivated the concert of the “metadata shame-free zone.” We wanted to create an atmosphere that inspired action, bolstered skills, and created clear priorities for metadata cleanup. And we delivered the results we needed: 100,000 digital objects cleaned up, aggregated, and ready for DPLA.

So let’s come out of that dark corner of the stacks, openly reveal our challenges to colleagues, and support one another in developing solutions. Let’s share our comeback stories to make the profession better for all of us. No more metadata shame. And no more imposters.

This post was written by Jodi Allison-Bunnell. Jodi Allison-Bunnell has twenty-three years of experience leading and participating in collaborations to increase access to unique content in archives, libraries, and museums by using shared systems and standards. She is the owner and principal consultant at AB Consulting (http://consulting.allison-bunnell.net). She was the program manager for Unique and Local Content at the Orbis Cascade Alliance until 2018; prior positions include project manager for Northwest Digital Archives and archivist at the University of Montana. She holds an MA and an MLS from University of Maryland at College Park and a BA summa cum laude from Whitman College.

The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

2 thoughts on “Responses & Retrospectives: Not Just Your Problem: Metadata Shame, Imposter Syndrome, and Archivists by Jodi Allison-Bunnell,

  1. dlabinsky says:

    Interesting post! We have a lot of “metadata shame” where I work, due primarily to legacy metadata and the lack of time/staff to clean it up–which is true most places, I guess. It’s just embarrassing to post an image on social media and not be able to tell people who the subjects of the photo are (which is when crowdsourcing may come in handy).

    Re imposter syndrome and Rachael Woody’s research, I think there’s a direct correlation between our generally low salaries and any shame some of us feel — society correlates worth with how much a person makes.

    Like

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