With so much relating to genealogy on the Internet, and most of our correspondence being done via email, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is easy to forget how much fun it is to actually go out and meet our fellow family historians face-to-face. Genealogical conferences offer this unique opportunity, as well as the chance to learn new about new resources or methodology that can give you a real boost in your research.
Lectures and workshops present a unique learning environment for genealogists. Taught by professionals with years of experience, they provide valuable information on specific topics. Most speakers also allow for a “question and answer” session at the end of the lectures, which can give you the unique opportunity to address your questions to these experts on the topics covered. The lectures are also a great way to find out about new resources (or old ones that you may have been previously unaware of) in your area of research.
Conferences also feature banquets and luncheons where you may find yourself sitting at a table with other genealogists, who you may or may not know. It doesn’t matter. When you sit with a bunch of genealogists together at a table, you will leave with new friends. You already share a passion with these people and it is easy to bond. The banquets usually feature entertaining speakers too, so for those who don’t want to waste a minute of the valuable learning experience, it’s a great way to catch lunch or dinner and still absorb more information.
Back in the exhibit hall, you will find rows and rows of vendors and organizations, just dying to let you know what they have to offer for your research. If you are in the market for a new genealogical software program or service, this is a great place to shop and compare. You can demo software and services with their creators, and browse rows upon rows of books.
Preparing for a Conference
Attending a major conference is a special occasion. With a little preparation, you will be able to get the most from the opportunities that these events present. Here are a few things you may want to consider:
- Look over your research and pay particular attention to those “brick walls.” What record types, methodology, geographic regions, or ethnic research do you you need to learn more about in order to scale that brick wall? Nowadays, many major conferences have apps you can download to make planning and optimizing your class time a breeze. If you’re heading to the Federation of Genealogical Societies annual conference 27-30 August 2014 in San Antonio, Texas, like I am, you can download the FGS app. I downloaded it the other day and I can now view my schedule and update it if necessary, see maps of the venue, and learn about sessions and exhibitors. I found the app easily by searching for FGS app in the app store.
- Have you ever dreamed of working professionally in this fascinating field? Find out what it takes to make your dream come true.
- If you are involved in a society, determine what areas your organization needs to improve in. The Federation of Genealogical Societies sets aside the first day of its national conference to help educate society volunteers in the skills required to lead, organize, and manage a genealogical organization.
- Take inventory of your genealogical supplies. Do you need new genealogical software? If so, conferences are the ideal place to compare products and see demos. Before you go make a list of what you want from your software, then go and talk to the vendors and find out which product best suits your needs. What is missing from your genealogical library? Often the authors of your favorite publications are there and can autograph their books for you. Need a good historical map for the area where your ancestor lived? What kind of forms and supplies are you running low on? Or maybe your “I collect ancestors” t-shirt has a hole in it and you need a new one? Whatever your family history need is, there is probably a vendor that can help you with it.
- Bring business cards if you have them so you can share your contact information with new acquaintances. You are guaranteed to make new friends.
- If you’re planning on shopping, pack a bag that can be flattened in your suitcase. This way you can just load your purchase into that bag and check it for the trip home. Some conferences arrange to have companies there that will ship purchases home, so if you are a big shopper you might want to check out this option as well. (And let’s face it, we’re going to an exhibit hall full of historical books and maps, and a huge assortment of genealogical tools and toys. If you go home with no purchases, I admire your willpower!) Even if you don’t buy at the conference, it’s still a great time to window-shop and make your wish-list. Compare the products and see for yourself which ones will work for you. Then when you get home and things quiet down, you can purchase the products you want on your own terms.
- If you think you will still have some free time, or if you are bringing other family members who aren’t quite as passionate about family history, contact the local department of tourism or chamber of commerce for other attractions in the area.
Scheduling and Prioritizing
Once you have determined what you want to get from the conference, prioritize your needs. If you’re like me, there are a million things I want to know more about, and the list is too long to cover in one conference. Look at the schedule ahead of time. Most conference schedules are posted online well in advance, or can be requested by mail from the organization. Or again, the apps are fantastic for planning. If there is a conflict between two sessions you want to see, find out if one of the talks will be taped. Sessions are often recorded and offered for sale at the event and later online. That way even if the two most important lectures to you are scheduled at the same time, you may still get to hear both. You won’t get the visual, so you may want to keep that in mind, but it’s still a great way to enjoy the lecture after the fact. I typically walk away with a few recordings that I can listen to on road trips. (Yes, I realize this sounds a bit nerdy, but so be it. I’m a geek. I’m OK with that.)
You will also want to look at the area where the conference is being held. Most major conferences are held in areas where there are also major libraries or archival repositories. Do any of these facilities pose research opportunities for you? If so, you will want to make sure you schedule time in for some research. If you are not sure, check online, and look at catalogs. Also check to see if they are offering extended hours during the conference. If not you may want to tack a few extra days on to your trip. Conferences pack a lot into each day and you may be too tired to research at night. (OK, I’m laughing as I even type that. Too tired to research? Posh!) But do some preparing ahead of time using the online catalog so you can maximize your time at the facility.
You will also want to leave room in your bag for freebies. Many of the companies and organizations will have brochures, small gifts, magazines, and other items that you will want to take home with you. Not to mention the syllabus (often on CD or a USB stick nowadays), which contains overviews of all the scheduled talks and workshops, some examples and illustrations, glossaries, bibliographies for further information, and source lists.
Even though I like to fit in as much learning as I can, I try to leave time to walk around. After sitting for a while, it feels good to stretch my limbs, get some refreshment, and unwind a bit in between. Often you’ll find in-booth demos where you can learn more about products that are being offered and pick up new tips. The exhibit hall is a great place to mingle with other family historians. You will find yourself talking to total strangers like you have known them for years – sharing research stories, tips, and exchanging information.
If you can’t make it to one of the larger national conferences, don’t overlook your local society meeting or regional conference. Whether in a large conference, or a small local society meeting, there is something very special about being there and mingling with your fellow researchers that email, Twitter, and Facebook just can’t compete with.
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.