July 1, 2011

Review of Eric Hellman’s Talk at ALA Annual 2011

At ALA Annual in New Orleans in June, 2011, I attended a LITA-sponsored presentation entitled “Linked In: Library Data and the Semantic Web,” with speakers Eric Hellman and Ross Singer. This is a critical review of the Hellman segment of the meeting.

Hellman’s talk was among the most arrogant and flippant I had ever attended at an ALA conference. His talk was supposed to be about linked data, but he exploited his position as speaker to unwarrantedly trash libraries, library standards, and librarians. 

For example, he merely talked about libraries in terms of spaces, people, and community. In the first half of his talk, he played the sociologist and tried to explain why libraries were so behind and how library standards and practices are so out of touch with the rest of the developed world.

Referring to metadata records, he insisted, “We don’t need surrogates.” He boasted that full-text searching is sufficient for all information seeking and retrieval needs. But when asked by an attendee about things in other languages and things like images that lack language content, he just blew her off and stated, “We have to manage abundance,” in a way that made it seem like he had heard the phrase elsewhere and was just parroting it back as his defense against the very valid question.

One of his slides stated, “The #1 purpose of library data in the digital information age is SEO.” This was a revealing statement because it shows how little he actually knows about library data and the functions of libraries. He ignores information organization, mediation, and preservation, still vital functions of libraries. He appeared completely ignorant of the weaknesses of full-text searching.

Hellman praised what he called microdata and schema.org, even though earlier in the talk he’d flippantly dismissed all metadata in favor of full text searching. He gushed over these two inchoate technologies, revealing the typical techie weakness of liking things just because they are new and rejecting things just because they are old.

Moreover, by promoting these metadata standards, he completely contradicted his earlier statements that full-text searching was sufficient for all information finding. 

There is a logical fallacy called “appeal to the people” that Hellman tried to use to convince his audience that libraries are all wrong on metadata. The fallacy is described like this:

"If you suggest too strongly that someone’s claim or argument is correct simply because it’s what most everyone believes, then you’ve committed the fallacy of appeal to the people."

This is the approach Hellman used to the extreme. And not only did he employ the logical fallacy, he also used disrespect, derision, and sarcasm to make his points. For instance, at one point, seeking laughs, he said that after nuclear Armageddon there would only be left cockroaches and MARC records.

When OPACs began to replace card catalogs, there were no fools giving poisonous talks about the older technology. Over time, libraries recognized the newer and better technology and migrated to it. Hellman would insult people for taking trains instead of going by air. If he were truly confident in the new technologies he believes in so strongly, then he would not reveal his insecurities by mocking the earlier ones.

Epilogue: In contrast, the talk by Ross Singer was excellent. He gave an upbeat and positive presentation about the benefits of linked data and the Semantic Web and how libraries might effectively use them. Suzanne Graham did an excellent job organizing and moderating the talks. 

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  Eric Hellman.
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