Noteworthy or Not: Are Keynotes Worth Keeping | From the Bell Tower

Keynote talks are still fairly standard fare at library conferences. Librarians tend to have a love-hate relationship with keynotes. Do they still add value to our conferences or is there a better alternative?
Steven BellKeynote talks are still fairly standard fare at library conferences. Librarians tend to have a love-hate relationship with keynotes. Do they still add value to our conferences or is there a better alternative? Ask an academic librarian about keynote talks and the responses will range from “keep ’em coming” to “can’t stand ’em.” Where any librarian stands on this issue likely depends on the quality of the last few keynotes they heard. A great one can leave librarians inspired and enthusiastic for the rest of the conference. They get us thinking, challenging our assumptions or considering possibilities we never previously considered. If they also provide some entertainment value, so much the better. For all of the exact opposite reasons—boredom, banality, or repetitiveness—bad keynotes leave us feeling like an hour of our lives was just stolen. Some conferences are offering alternatives or dropping keynotes entirely. Is that the way to go? It could depend.

Bigger is Usually Better

Whatever their attitude toward keynote talks, if asked to name a memorable one, I suspect every academic librarian could readily do so. My experience is that the best keynotes are associated with our profession’s big-name conferences. The American Library Association (ALA) Annual and Midwinter conferences tend to feature an unforgettable keynote speaker, whether a politician, celebrity, or activist. Top notch keynoters are big attractions. From my days on the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) board I recall that conference surveys indicated the keynote talks were consistently ranked as a top reason for attending. Admittedly, national and state-level conferences are better resourced or get sponsorship to offer notable speakers, such as Roxane Gay or Ira Glass. That’s hardly the case for many specialty, regional, and local conferences. When academic librarians complain about lousy keynotes, they’re usually referring to their fellow librarians rather than celebrity speakers.

Pros and Cons

Polished keynoters know how to deliver an inspirational, well-paced, attention-grabbing talk. Librarian keynoters… not so much. Sure, there are librarians who keynote consistently well, but if they are the same old “white dudes,” that’s a source of keynote discontent. Some librarians simply question whether keynote talks are worth the time they take up. Why not just get right to the contributed papers and how-to-get-it-done presentations? I would argue that, done well, the keynote can establish the tone for the entire conference. A good leadoff keynote speaker should examine the big picture, connect the dots, and inspire attendees to ask questions—and question their own assumptions. My personal preference runs to keynoters who step out into the audience and tell their story. If the keynoter is fixed behind the lectern reading from a prepared set of remarks, or worse, just reading a paper verbatim or droning on about themselves, you can hardly blame attendees for complaining about dull keynote talks. Spontaneity makes a difference.

Still Worth It?

While at ALA Midwinter I asked colleagues what they thought of keynote talks. The consensus is that keynotes are still relevant, though not necessarily the primary reason to attend conferences. “I’ve never attended a conference because of the keynote speaker” is something I heard more than once, yet everyone could easily recall a memorable speaker or one they were looking forward to hearing. Joseph Thompson, director of public services at Carroll Country Public Libraries in Maryland, echoed some of the points in the “pro” column. “It’s really helpful to have someone set the tone with a dynamic, provocative talk. It can affirm why we are here.” Whitney Vitale, assistant head of access services at Oklahoma State University, shared a story about bringing a newer-to-the-profession colleague to a keynote talk and enjoying how inspired her colleague was to hear a “call to arms.” I also heard tales of horrible keynote speakers, but a point was made that those unify us as well because we all complain together about that bad experience. Colleagues attending an EveryLibrary pancake breakfast stressed that keynote speakers had to match the conference theme and get attendees connected to the topic before they head off to concurrent sessions. I heard that it’s not enough for librarian keynote speakers to have great ideas or content. They need to know how to keynote like a pro and deliver the goods. Remember, I was told, that we all learn differently and attend conferences for unique reasons. If keynotes work poorly for you, choose to make better use of the time.

Not Just Us

Librarianship is hardly the only profession that questions the value of the keynote talk. In her essay “Duly Keynoted,” Devoney Looser, on the faculty at Arizona State University, finds two-thirds of the keynotes she’s attended so poor that “if we can’t fix them, then we should seriously consider doing away with the custom.” According to Looser, a good keynote talk should “provide what we might think of as mood lighting for a meeting…to build community, gathering attendees in one big room to see themselves as part of a collective enterprise.” That, along with a mix of spectacle and enrichment, describes a successful keynote, but Looser claims too many keynotes are “disasters.” Her examples, however, speak only to the extreme cases of monotone bores, unprepared mumblers, and fast-talking know-it-alls. She does offer some useful advice for both keynote speakers (stick to the time limit; hang around after the talk) and organizers (be firm on expectations, deadlines, and talk limits). Bad keynotes are evident across academic association and professional conferences. Few are likely to give up on keynotes entirely, but it may be time to raise the expectations for much better attendee experiences—or, as Looser argues, to come up with better alternatives.

Disruption Could Make Sense

There will always be forgettable keynotes. Those present for them will grumble and wish for their wasted time back. Then there are librarians who believe conference organizers should select keynote speakers to promote race and gender diversity, or to give exposure to lesser known colleagues or particular issues. For whatever reason, we may be drawn to or disinterested in the conference keynote. Still, I favor keynotes for their unifying capacity. At many events, it is the one time we are all together to focus on what should be that “mood setting” talk that both unites us as a community and challenges us to think more deeply about the program. Keynote speakers can add to the expense of a conference, so organizations aiming to keep costs down may choose to forego it. Community could be achieved with roundtable or birds-of-a-feather activity. Alternately, attendees could participate in an unconference before heading off to concurrent sessions. There are any number of ways to disrupt the keynote. I’m open to trying new options beyond the traditional conference format, but when we go there let’s retain what’s special about keynotes.

What’s Next for Keynotes

High profile conferences such as those held by ALA, its divisions, or state library associations should continue to feature notable keynote speakers. These are great opportunities to hear authors, educators, advocates, and celebrities we’d otherwise miss. They represent the most memorable talks and librarians look forward to them. I’d personally miss those “What did you think of that speaker?” conversations. Our other small venue conferences are more likely to question the point of keynote talks, whether it is a monetary or value issue. Wherever the future of the keynote talk is headed, I’m confident we’ll continue to come up with good ones. Our profession is fortunate to include many creative, thoughtful, inspiring—and controversial—colleagues. That should ensure we have a steady supply of great keynoters to give us memorable talks. If you are one of them, keep Looser’s advice in mind and remember that the opportunity to deliver a keynote is a gift you have to give a great conference experience to the attendees. Start by making it about them, not you. Proceeding from that proposition is the road ahead to a future of memorable keynote talks.
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Maureen Perry

Hello! Your post inspired me to post the following on my library's blog Thank you very much.

Posted : Apr 14, 2018 06:40

Kathy Dempsey

Something nobody mentioned: Occasionally, people don't value keynotes b/c they simply do not understand how they differ from regular conference sessions. I've spoken to people after keynotes who said things like, "Talk was too vague; not enough info on how to achieve XYZ." They don't understand that keynotes are to set the stage (and the mood lighting!) and awaken the mind. They want every talk to spell out precise steps that they should take to achieve success, and that's not what keynotes are for.

Posted : Apr 03, 2018 09:45

Seismic Disturbance

"Are keynotes worth keeping?" No

Posted : Feb 23, 2018 02:23


I am currently coordinating a regional conference that for years has featured two keynotes - opening and closing - due to its nature. A joint conference between the Kentucky Library Association's Academic and Special Library Sections and the Kentucky Chapter of the Special Libraries Association, we have two keynotes to appeal to both sides of the group. However, this year, I recommended only one keynote as no one from any SLA or Special Libraries group ever responded to my request for serving as a keynote speaker. Instead, we are just going with a general closing session that will be informational and serve as a wrap up to the conference. I think this is better because of two reasons: 1) the monetary issue. Even though a small conference, speakers seek to get paid a decent amount of money, which can put strains on the group and 2) the time/wear issue. By the time the conference enters its second day, people are intellectually drained and ready to go home. At our closing keynote last year, I sat in the back and could barely keep count of the people on their iPads looking at Facebook, online shopping, etc. instead of listening to the keynote. Another reason to cancel the closing keynote. I do not know how this will be received from the larger group, but hopefully it sets up a new tradition where we open with a dynamic keynote to keep us going through the two days, rather than looking at the schedule and wondering if anyone will miss us if we don't go to the closing keynote.

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 06:12

Scott Pope

I've found that the notes I take from keynotes are never the ones I share with my colleagues when I return to my library. Keynotes seem to be more of a pump-up-the-crowd moment than a learning or informational time.

Posted : Feb 21, 2018 07:32

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