This post is part of our Curators’ Corner series. Every so often we’ll feature a different DCN Curator. The series grew out of a community-building activity wherein curators at our partner organizations interview each other “chain-letter style” in order to get to know each other and their work outside of the DCN better. We hope you enjoy these posts!
Sandi Caldrone is a Research Data Librarian at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Sandi was interviewed by Nicholas Wolf in February 2022.
How did you come to your current position?
This is kind of like a career second act for me. I originally studied cultural anthropology and was really interested in applied anthropology, which uses social-science methodology to approach practical social problems. After I finished my masters, I decided I wanted to go see how people were solving those actual social problems. I went to work in Chicago in the nonprofit sector for about ten years. Nonprofits are a great place to work if you want to learn how to do everything, because they tend not to have specialists, they have people who swap hats all day and try out different things. I was working in fundraising for a nonprofit that did children’s programming. We had attendance, enrollment, and donor records, and all those data were presented in spreadsheets. We had a database donated to us, but it didn’t work at all–it really just wasn’t designed very well for our needs. And I volunteered to take a look at it and see what I could do.
That’s how I got interested in data. I found that I really enjoyed not only working with the data itself, but also working with people to help them use the database. I wanted to help them move from data to knowledge to practical implementation–that was the part of the job I enjoyed the most. So I went back to school to get my library degree at the University of Illinois. I did their remote program so I could continue to work. And I did my masters with an emphasis on data curation.
After I graduated, I got a job at Purdue University with its data repository doing outreach and education. I was there for about five years when the opening came up at University of Illinois, which was super great for me because I grew up in Illinois and attended school here. It was really lucky timing that the Research Data Librarian position opened when it did.
Tell me what you do as a Research Data Librarian at Illinois.
I work for our Research Data Service (RDS) in the libraries. This department consists of a small core team of four that work full time. We also work with a bunch of other folks in libraries and libraries IT that dedicate one slice of their job to working with the Research Data Service. We provide support and consultation for researchers, faculty, and students on research data management and our repository service, the Illinois Data Bank. We curate datasets, and some of those are sent out to the DCN for curation help. And in my position I’m mostly focused on outreach and education, including designing workshops. In the age of Zoom and Zoom fatigue, we need to figure out how to deliver workshop content in a nontraditional way. One of the things that I’m working on now is trying to transform workshops into self-guided learning tools people can turn to whenever they need them. I also do consultations on data management and data management plans for funding applications.
How much of your job involves Data Curation?
Data curation was a really big part of my job at Purdue, and it’s a small part of my job here. My colleague Hoa, who is also in the DCN, handles almost all of our data curation. But because we’re a small team, we try to cross train so that we can fill in for each other as needed. I’ve worked with Hoa curating a few datasets here just to get kind of a feel for how it works with the Illinois Data Bank.
My approach, and this has meshed really well with Hoa and the RDS, is to try to guide people toward better practices, not best practices. I think sometimes getting people to “best” best practices is too much of a push. We try to focus on a handful of suggestions for really meaningful changes rather than nitpicking every little possible thing. That’s been guided by this idea that the data is curated for reuse, and we should be cognizant of how people are reusing data. They don’t need it to be perfect in order to reuse it or for it to have value, especially within the same field as the researcher who publishes it. I try to keep in mind that I am not the audience for the data that is going to be reused, so it doesn’t have to meet every single best practice that I’ve ever encountered. You can sink so much time into curation if you’re perfecting it.
Why is curation important to you?
I think it again comes back to reuse. I think a lot of curation is about the context and the documentation rather than the data itself. And most people don’t think about things like readme files. Even though they’ve seen a million of them, they’ve also ignored a million of them. Helping people see the potential value in those things is really important. Sometimes it’s easiest to get across to people if you encourage them to think about not data reuse by somebody else, but your own reuse. We’ve all had experiences where you look back on work you’ve done a few years ago and have very little memory of ever doing it. You’re not going to remember what an abbreviation means or what color-coding in your spreadsheet meant. At the time, you thought it was important enough to include it. But in order for it to have any meaning you have to write down that context as well. If we’re not doing that contextual documenting, why are we saving these things if we can’t actually use them again? There are a lot of wonderful purposes for reuse. But it has to be possible, and having that curator in between the researcher and the reuser is really key because at the end of a project, when you’re ready to publish data, it is hard to imagine not knowing what you know about its data. Having a third party as a curator come in without all of that context and ask the right questions is really important. If you leave it until the first person tries to reuse the data, by then it is too late and it may have been forgotten by that point.
Why is the Data Curation Network important to you?
One of the things I always find interesting in working with other folks in the library and memory institution spaces is that most people have one specialty that’s related to information science and one that’s related to another subject. It makes good sense to have a network of people with a lot of different disciplinary expertise to help each other curate data. It’s possible to curate data across multiple disciplines, and I have certainly curated a lot of data outside of the social sciences, where I’m more comfortable. You can, if you have some experience with the discipline, bring another level of knowledge, and it makes it easier to be sure you’re asking the right questions if you have some grounding in the field. But there’s no way we’re all going to have the grounding in all of them, so it makes perfect sense to come together and share our strengths in that way.
If you weren’t doing data curation, what would you be doing?
It is hard to imagine not doing something with data. I suppose I would probably be in cultural anthropology, my first home. It is the study of human culture so I like to think that it can be broadened to include almost anything such as library science. I would likely be doing an academic track in anthropology with research and teaching.
What do you like to do outside of work?
That’s an easy one. When I moved to Illinois in October for this job, my fiancé and I bought our first house. For the past few months that has completely taken over our personalities–painting and cleaning and fixing and repairing. It’s a lot of fun for us. But the work expands to fill all the time that you give it. We have a little old house that was built in 1908 that we are exploring and repairing. We both do a bit of every type of repair work. Luckily, my fiancé worked in construction for a few years, so at least he has some knowledge of codes and standards. But it’s funny, you never thought you’d be the kind of person who’s watching old episodes of Bob Vila’s This Old House!
To learn more about Sandi, and the datasets she has curated for the DCN, see her curator page!