The SAA Annual Meeting was a whirlwind, but one moment in particular has stuck with me. When Sam Winn asked everyone at the SNAP Roundtable Meeting who had experienced “imposter syndrome” to raise his or her hands, mine quickly shot up in the air. I had felt like an imposter just a few hours earlier at the Business Archives Colloquium. During the session the attendees had broken up into discussion groups to talk about the particular challenges of preserving unusual objects in our collections, such as cosmetics, food, textiles, and movie props. While every topic was fascinating, I chose the paintings/art group since I deal daily with the challenge of housing these items. I’ve previously written about the problem of preserving unfixed pastels, and I was eager to hear if my colleagues had any solutions or found themselves in a similar situation. I quickly discovered, however, that though I was there to learn, the group turned to me as an expert on how we at Pixar tackled artwork in our collection. I wasn’t a student—I was a teacher. All of the reasons that I wasn’t qualified to be talking about Pixar’s methods ran through my head—I’m young, I’m new(ish), I’m low in the hierarchy, I’m not trained in conservation—but ultimately I realized that I did have something to share. Pixar is in a fairly unique position with the volume of artwork we handle in an archival way, and as processing archivist I have a lot of experience with managing our materials both intellectually and physically. I might not have all the answers, but I had to accept that I do know a few things about art in archives.
I often feel like an imposter in professional settings. I’ve been out of school for a little over a year and I feel (and look) fairly young in the workplace. I’ve had years of experience in archives, but so much of that was paraprofessional that I am quick to forget about it or discount it. I still need to remind myself that I have a voice and a valid opinion to share. As an introvert who dislikes confrontation, I’m happy to stay quiet in a meeting and let my more vocal and experienced coworkers duke it out and make the decisions. Needless to say, learning to contribute, rather than sit back and take in information, has been a tough lesson.
Recently I began supervising the day-to-day projects of two archives technicians and was a little unsure if I was really the best person for that job. They were in school or newly graduated, and as a recent grad myself, it felt a little like supervising my peers. While I loved the opportunity to have people help enact my vision and prepare the collection to move, I was worried about my qualifications and the power dynamic of the situation. I was constantly second-guessing myself—how I was doing, whether they liked me, if they despised listening to me, whether my directions were clear or rambling and inane, if this was a worthwhile experience for them, etc. And the truth is, sometimes I’m making it up while supervising. I’m pretty sure we all are, but archives and processing are about a million tiny decisions that you make based on context. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach because each collection is unique and needs to be dealt with in a way that makes sense to its situation.
Accepting that I was the best person for this job was a difficult task. But, given my experience in archives in general, and at Pixar specifically, I was. As we prepared the collection to move, I was the expert on what we had in the archives and what needed to be done. As we now process our backlog, I’m the expert on what’s left to do and how things are currently being done, even if I feel like there’s no set formula to follow. I want to have all the information and defer to someone with more knowledge, but in actuality I am that person. I lean heavily on my coworkers for their institutional knowledge, but I have something to contribute when it comes to our processing philosophy. That’s scary to me. I want to still be learning, and as a perfectionist and overachiever I want to have all possible information before I make a decision, even if that’s not feasible. But I can’t sit back. It’s imperative that I weigh in. One of the things I worked on with the archives technicians was encouraging them to give their opinion when we were deciding what to do with a certain processing conundrum. They were so eager to learn that they sometimes forgot that they knew things and could help shape the decision. They might be in school or newly graduated, but their opinions were valid and existing knowledge important. I also wanted to be clear with them that I did not have all the answers and we would have to figure it out together.
As I’m learning to trust my instincts and speak up, I hope you all are doing the same, whether you’re students or new to the profession. Your take on a situation is exactly the one that your institution needs and your role is important. Be confident in what you know. I’ll always be learning, but it doesn’t follow that I can’t contribute to the conversation while learning. We all need to make the shift at some point from passively taking to actively adding. Both we and our institutions will be better for it.