Staff Profile: Zöe Wilkinson Saldana


Who they are: Zoë Wilkinson Saldaña (two last names!), social science and geospatial data librarian. I use “they/them” pronouns.

What they do: I help learners and researchers find and interpret data across the social sciences. Sometimes that looks like helping a student develop a text analysis strategy for a messy dataset, and other times it’s teaching workshops on data visualization or web scraping with Python. I support the Digital CoLab with workshops, fellowship programs, and research consultations, and I liaise with the Department of City and Regional Planning. I also select materials in geography, maps, and urban studies. My home department is Research and Learning Services in Olin Library.

Why it’s important: I often hear from students and researchers who are newcomers to digital methods and eager to solve a problem that is important to them but are struggling to find the context for how to move forward. These are bright, extremely creative learners who are eager for some guidance in their early adventures in data.

I find that the most important work I do is conceptual framing. I help learners break up an exciting, intimidating new project into a doable sequence of steps. I also help frame their learning process and set expectations for what methods and techniques they will need to learn to tackle the task at hand. I then connect them to the unique constellation of resources at Cornell, including further consultations with me and my colleagues, which will help them to succeed.

As we build this framework together, I also work hard to model critical and feminist perspectives on digital methods, especially data science. For me, this looks like making learners aware of who is included and what is excluded in datasets, encouraging exploratory data analysis as a critical and reflexive process, and raising questions about people, bodies, and power. I think libraries have a unique perspective to contribute to learning in digital scholarship, and I am thrilled to have opportunities to encourage learners in this way.

Where they’re from: I’m kind of from all over. I consider Cambridge, MA, my more-or-less home.

Background: I very much grew up on computers and the Internet (I lurked on Usenet as a six- year-old), but I originally thought I would be an anthropologist or therapist. I took an AmeriCorps position as a digital literacy instructor in the Saint Paul Public Library after my undergrad studies. I worked mostly with adult learners from immigrant communities, folks who were precariously housed and unemployed, and adults with disabilities. Even though I tried out a number of things in the subsequent years, I kept coming back to how fun and challenging it is to help folks feel comfortable with computing. (I know computer classes sound dry to many people, but they make for lots of funny and warm-hearted moments!)

Education: I studied cultural anthropology at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN, for my B.A. I later received my Master of Science in Information (M.S.I.) from the University of Michigan School of Information, specializing in data science and library and information science.

How long at Cornell: I started in May 2018, so about a year.

Best part of their job: I love working one-on-one with students, whether in a very techy research consultation or catching up with reference assistants on the desk. I also appreciate how my colleagues encourage me to try out new workshops and ways of introducing concepts—even when a workshop falls flat on its face, I always learn something for next time!

In their spare time: I am way, way too into pinball. (For context, at my last professional conference, I made cross-city trips TWICE to visit the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame and even received a brief hands-on diagnostic tutorial from a pinball mechanic). I also enjoy recharge time hanging out with my cat, Jane, playing pickup basketball, playing video games (especially by queer and trans creators), and visiting with friends and family. My goal for the summer is to land a kickflip.