Longtime ICPSR Official Representative Libbie Stephenson encourages, shares insights as she retires

Libby Stephenson
By Dory Knight-Ingram

ICPSR is honored to pay homage to data steward Libbie Stephenson upon her retirement. The Director of the Social Science Data Archive at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Stephenson is ICPSR’s longtime Official Representative (OR)* at UCLA. “She has been an ardent supporter of ICPSR forever, and an integral part ICPSR’s OR meetings through the years,”  said Linda Detterman, ICPSR’s Director of Marketing and Membership. In 2007, Stephenson won the William H. Flanigan Award for Distinguished Service as an ICPSR Official Representative. She served on the ICPSR Council from 1996-2000.

Stephenson officially retires this week, but this is by no means the end of her time as a data steward, she said. We were thrilled to chat with her recently as she reflected on her career, a recent achievement award from the International Association for Social Science Information Services and Technology (IASSIST), and on opportunities ahead.
Tell us more about the IASSIST achievement award you received recently at the annual conference in Bergen, Norway? 
A: This year, IASSIST recognized me and my colleague Ann Green. You don’t realize how much an award like this is going to mean to you until it happens. I feel very proud, and it was quite an honor to be recognized by my peers. Even after retirement, I’d like to go to a few more IASSIST conferences. The thing about IASSIST is that when you work with that group for a long time, you get attached to the people. I made some very good friends through being a part of IASSIST. Going forward, I have some ideas for things that I might want to be involved in, and IASSIST could play a part in this. One of the things I’ve always liked about IASSIST is that there are always new people, new ideas, new things to think about, and new people in the field. It’s a really vibrant group that has never gone stagnant.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on the following statement you made about the role of ICPSR ORs in the late 1990s? 
“ICPSR’s ORs should be prepared to explore and test new technologies, whether it be software for a new statistical procedure, a system for graphing data, or a technique for creating a standardized codebook. Share your new knowledge with ORs and with ICPSR. ICPSR's future depends on our sharing of ideas and perspectives. Join in the discussion!” 
A: That statement came about when it became possible to download data from the ICPSR website. There was a whole lot of hoopla about whether or not ORs should still have a lot of control about how data is accessed. They were good arguments because some of it was about wanting to be able to do follow-up to see if people at ICPSR’s member institutions were getting what they needed or wanted. I favored letting us download data because I thought our job was bigger than just a clerical thing. That was the least of our  activities.
What are the biggest changes or evolutions at ICPSR over your time as OR? 
A: I became an OR around 1978. I was really green and didn’t know very much about data or codebooks; I was a real newbie. One of the nice things I found out immediately is that people were happy to take me under their wing, show me the ropes and encourage me. I’ve always found that part of ICPSR to be very similar to how IASSIST is — that we bring people along and everyone is included. It’s not an exclusive kind of club. We are all part of Social Science research, and I think in some ways, the ORs have had a really tremendous impact on scholarship. One of the biggest changes for me is the idea of producing a codebook for other people to use to understand the data — that was not the norm when I first started.  I remember one big meeting when the ORs got very vocal and said, ‘we need to really press this issue. The materials need to be documented so that we’re not going to be coming to you researchers so we can help people use the data.’ At that point, even federal agencies produced well-documented files.
ICPSR also played an important role in creating an awareness that a data file was a unique item of information. Before then, let’s say a librarian wanted to put a record in a library catalogue. We didn’t have a way to do this because we focused on Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, which did not contain guidelines for cataloging data files. Sue Dodd pushed really hard to ensure that datasets could be recognized as entities, and could be associated with a specific title, author, PI, date of publication, etc. With that effort, even government agencies started putting things into codebooks saying “Please cite the data in this way.” ICPSR played a really big part in getting this going, either by interacting with funding agencies, or saying, “we’re going to need a bibliographic citation.” ICPSR also put a lot of resources in into producing citations. All of that is what’s contributing to the longevity of data and ensuring that it is discoverable, that it has value, and can be part of any information unit collection, whether in a library or archive or research center. It’s not just data. It’s an entity. I think ICPSR played a big part in getting that going and supporting work of people pushing so hard on it.
What, if anything, do you think is unique about ICPSR as a data-sharing resource? 
A: There are a lot of different things, of course. One thing I think is unique compared to other places that talk a lot about data and who profess to managing data is that ICPSR really does do this in the most thorough, complete,  professional, and profound manner. ICPSR has set the tone and raised the bar on how we should operate, and what standards we should follow. How ICPSR really leads is in ensuring that we’re all doing things according to the best ways possible.
If we are talking about knowledge and research as a part of our international heritage, ICPSR is ensuring that the data is still here, and is something that future generations can use and work with. One of the things I said in my acceptance speech at IASSIST was that if we lose a dataset, we are not only losing somebody’s hard work and research. We’re not only killing that, but we’ve destroyed humanity’s chance to learn about what that researcher did. We all play a part in this, whether we’re an OR, researcher, person working at ICPSR, someone who contributes to journal, a journal that links a publication to data that’s in ICPSR — this is all part of this same thing.
What’s next for you on your data stewardship journey? 
A: Actually, I do have something I’m kind of mulling over. When I first started in information studies school, I really wanted to be a public librarian, and was very much focused … on information to the people and my community and all those lofty ideas this kind of stuff. Then, I got this job at UCLA  and liked it, so I stayed. But I have never really forgotten my sense of wanting to be part of that kind of community-type effort. I think about all the kids who don’t really have resources, maybe at home or at their school, and they go to the public library to do their schoolwork. That’s where they can get to a computer, get books, and get help with reading or learning English. I started thinking about public data in the public library. What if I could work with people, especially kids K-12 and show them how we use Census data? Or how to make a map? What if I could get them thinking about data as an entity early on, so it’s just a normal, everyday thing. Then, when they see a news article, they could look at it critically and assess whether it’s valuable or not. I plan to join the Friends of the Library and say “I’m a data archivist and would like to bring data into the public library, and see what we can do. Maybe at first, just raise money to bring in laptops. I want to help contribute something to the next group of ICPSR data users.
Any final reflections on your time as an OR? 
A: When I  first started there was no Internet, there were no PCs, and you ran your results overnight. Then, you returned to find out you left out a comma and had to do it again. When I think about what we can do now, it’s phenomenal how ICPSR has played a major part in making this happen, pushing for more researchers to share their data so others can use it, and developing tools to make data use easier and more understandable. I am thinking of the use of Survey Documentation and Analysis and the Data Driven Learning Guides. In the dynamic landscape we’re in, I encourage the ICPSR community to try to be open-minded about change. From my perspective looking back, the changes might seem really odd or strange at first, and as priorities shift, but it’s going to be fine.


*ICPSR’s Official Representative and Designated Representative promote the effective use of quantitative data at ICPSR's more than 760 member institutions around the world.

Jul 8, 2016

View other headlines