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

5 thoughts on “Keynotes are infotainment at its worst

  1. Alison

    I’ve been really dissatisfied with many keynotes too. Many hit the same points or are so high-level they are predictable. Or they are along the line of “why I liked my public library when I was a kid.” The best keynote I heard lately was at the ELUNA conference in Montreal because they asked one of the humanities professors at McGill to talk to us about digital humanities, their research needs and what they need from the library. This was useful and interesting!

  2. michelle

    I’m of two minds on this one.
    First I 100% agree that if people don’t like what’s being programmed – getting involved with the planning process and giving feedback/suggestions are instrumental in making a change. Walking away with your middle finger in the air will likely feel good, but in the end is pretty useless.
    And maybe this says more about me – but I actually have great memories of several keynotes. Hearing speakers like Daniel Pink and Nina Simon made real impacts on the way that I approach problems and I continue to read and be inspired by their writing.
    Also, I was a total fangirl when Jonathan Goldstein spoke one year. I don’t go to a ton of author events so I was really happy to have the opportunity to meet and speak with him.

    But perhaps the biggest point for me is this – I don’t know if anyone is training librarians how to present in a way that engages the room and communicates their message effectively. Speakers on the professional conference circuit are usually trained in their delivery. They’re tech savvy and they speak without a script.
    If you’re wildly pointing your mouse in the air and reading directly from your slides – you are not keynote material.
    Perhaps “School of Rock: Librarian edition” is the answer?

  3. Rochelle

    I understand what Michelle is saying: lots of librarians don’t present that well. But as Jane says, maybe an entertaining keynote isn’t what we’re there for in the first place, and maybe it wouldn’t be that terrible to lose them. But if we do want them, maybe we could spend the money and the time to train up the little group of librarians with this year’s great ideas so that they can present better, and work with them to make sure their presentations are ready for the kind of stage they’re about to take. The curated and carefully-crafted conference is a mind-blowing thing.

  4. Karen Coyle

    Having been a keynoter and on many panels, I’d go even further: stop the entire thing of one or more people speaking to a passive audience. It isn’t educational, and it doesn’t further anything. The value of getting people together f2f for a couple of days is in having them WORK together on something. Anything else could be done as a MOOC. Every meeting should PRODUCE something. Everyone in the meeting should be active. When I was asked to organize the first LITA conferences, I said I would as long as there would be NO PANELS. I insisted that every hour-long event be run as a seminar by someone with something to teach. When I left after a few years, it went back to the usual panel format. Panels are horrendous – get a group of people together who know something and give them each 15-20 minutes to speak, then it’s over, and what have got? What have you furthered? My suggestion: working groups, hackathons, tutorials (how-to). The rest is just a waste of time.

  5. Andy

    This is a great post!

    I’ve seen it go both ways where a keynoter just blew me away with their talk; on the other end, it was just a forty five minute commercial for their book. I have a feeling that keynote addresses are very much Your Mileage May Vary because of the subjectiveness of the audience: how they feel about the speaker, what they are looking to get out of it, their mood that day, the topic at hand, etc. Personally, I’d put myself more in your camp (not impressed overall) although I can think of a few notable exceptions (Nate Hill was great at NJLA).

    For my one and only keynote that I was invited to give, I really tried to give them something that was a reflection of myself as well as say something new, different, or give another approach to key library issues. Given the time and effort I spent on it, I would be hard pressed to give an original one every month or even every few months. It sucks that people just give the same speech over and over again, but it also depends on the message.

    Good luck with future keynotes… or sneaking in another session. 😀


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