Monthly Archives: September 2014

Keynotes are infotainment at its worst

 I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us. – Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Let’s talk about keynotes. Thought Leaders ™, Social Media Gurus, Librarian Rockstars. Or … whatever the heck you want to call the folks who tend to pop up at what seems to be every bloody library conference. How did they get to be on that stage? Because, my friends. We put them there.


Conference planning is a sticky wicket. There’s constant pressure to change things up, do things a little bit differently, but very little consensus about what, exactly, that should look like. The folks who are tasked with actually putting it all together are constantly dealing with tight deadlines, dwindling resources and apathy in leadership. Despite all great intention to radically shake things up, so often the status quo is maintained out of necessity. The show must go on, right? So, we fall back on what works.

Sometimes there’s a pleasant surprise and the audience is delighted by an unconventional (read: non-librarian) choice and everyone goes home happy. But… what’s it all for? I was a Superconference planner the year that Chris Hadfield came to speak. I felt like the only person in the room who was completely underwhelmed by what he had to say. He told a room full of librarians to sweat the small stuff or else shit will explode and cracked a couple fat jokes. Ok, the dude sang with the Barenaked Ladies from space and was super famous and stuff, but he just churned out the same damn speech he had delivered a zillion freaking times that year. I left early, no better or worse a person than I was before, though slightly bloated from lunch.

But then there are times when there is no budget for the Chris Hadfields of the world. Sometimes there is profit to be made. Here’s a dirty little secret – almost all conferences are “for-profit”, not just the ones that are pretty blatant about it, but you can bet that pretty much any association conference is keeping that organization afloat for another year. Sometimes, the coffers are pretty paltry and they call on the people they know who will show up or who they can afford. And… lots of the time, they really aren’t that great and we’ve heard their schtick before. Sure, they’ve got a command of the stage, have access to flashy stock photography and know how to turn a catch phrase like nobody’s buzzness (see what I did there?), but generally speaking, they aren’t changing people’s lives. They aren’t even really making a dent (unless you include offending them … zing!). But hey – if we predictably give them a platform and an honorarium, why the heck wouldn’t they keep coming?

In my history of conference attendance, the only keynote that actually left a lasting impression on me was Daniel Caron (CLA 2012). It was relevant and outrageous, and boy did it give us a cause to rally around. And it was free. Do you know how expensive it is to book a speaker? Have a look-see (browse by fee range). Go ahead. I’ll wait. You’re back? Are you appalled? I was. Who the hell thinks that paying some blowhard twenty large is a good idea? This is not money well spent, my friends.

So, we should stop.

From the conference planning perspective, start with scrapping keynotes as we know them. We know that they don’t make or break a conference, so why bother at all? Save the money and the time for something that people actually come to conferences for – to learn from their colleagues in order to do their work better. If they want to be “inspired” by a sage on the stage, have a laptop in the corner looping Ted Talks. It’d be cheaper and would likely fulfill the same number of people who are genuinely inspired by keynotes. Or, if we must have them, pluck from within our community of practitioners who have talent, skills and great ideas that could use the exposure.

From the attendee perspective, stop going. Seriously … just stop. Let’s stop feeding the fire. Even if you aren’t going to boycott the entire conference, at least skip the keynote (I’ve skipped more than I’ve attended) and leave feedback about why you did. Planners will never be able to make meaningful change if we all keep filling the aisles, clapping politely and laughing on cue.

Choose your conferences wisely. Try to pick the grassroots ones or those that support an association you really care about. The awesome PLG-GTA is working on a tool to help you pick. Still in progress, it will scrape the programs of popular library conferences to help us understand similarities and differences. Notice that one organization invites the same swath of white dudes year after year? Don’t go. Pick the one that seems to speak to you. Volunteer to help plan conferences, and submit proposals. Support diversity by speaking out for it. We don’t go to conferences for entertainment, we go to grow and develop as professionals.

P.S. Joe Murphy, if you are reading this … drop the fucking lawsuit. Damage is done, bro. #teamharpy*

*UPDATE: it has come to my attention that this lawsuit has been settled and the accusation that led to it retracted. I firmly believe in dialogue to discuss problems and not lawsuits, but I also retract my statement in accordance with what has been requested.

Further reading:

Against shiny | Free Range Librarian

How did we get here? The rise and fall of rockstar librarians | bossladywrites