With the arrival of spring comes a wide variety of genealogical conferences
and workshops to tempt you with new learning possibilities. However, getting
the most out of your conference or workshop experience requires more preparation
than simply paying your fee, making your hotel reservation, and showing
up. Take a few moments to read this article and take the words to heart.
You'll find that with just a little bit of advanced planning, your conference
experience can be greatly enhanced.
Find a Conference Suited to Your Needs and Research Interests
There are many genealogical conferences held throughout the year. In
the next six months, there will be two national conferences, the National
Genealogical Society's annual conference and the Federation
of Genealogical Societies' annual conference. There will also be a
large regional conference in Ft. Wayne Indiana in July. These are in addition
to the ever-increasing number of local and regional workshops.
When you find a conference that you are potentially interested in attending,
get a flyer or visit the Web site. Either of these resources should provide
you with registration details, such as local accommodations, maps, and
deadlines, as well as overviews of lecture content, which will help you
determine if the conference is indeed what you are looking for. One other
benefit of visiting the Web site is that it may provide additional details
or last-minute corrections or additions.
Assess Your Skill Level Honestly
While looking over the conference materials, you will note that some
workshop sessions require a certain prerequisite level of knowledge. While
experienced researchers can learn from a beginning-level lecture, you
should consider carefully attending a session geared for a level "beyond"
you. A lecture on analyzing complete court cases may reasonably assume
that you are familiar with certain procedures and terminology. You will
miss the nuances of the lecture if your knowledge of basic terminology
is lacking. And, other attendees will be justifiably irritated if the
lecturer is asked too many questions that are a part of the prerequisite
material for the lecture. After all, it reduces the amount of time that
the lecturer can spend answering questions about the lecture itself. Assessing
your skill level is extremely important if you plan to attend any computer-based
lectures. If you have yet to open your Family Tree Maker box, attending
a lecture on "Advanced Family Tree Maker Topics" might be a
Determine Which Sessions You Will Attend
At larger conferences, there frequently are a variety of simultaneous
sessions from which to choose. The conference registration brochure normally
has a place for you to mark the sessions you plan to attend. Do this.
It helps the conference planning committee to schedule rooms and speakers,
reducing the chance that a popular lecture is held in a room that can
only hold half the number of desired participants. You wouldn't want to
miss out on a lecture that you'd been looking forward to just because
the room was already overflowing.
Consider Attending a Lecture Not Related to Your Own Research
As you plan your conference day, consider that once in a while attending
a lecture totally unrelated to your own interests may be in order. I have
sometimes gotten ideas for my own research when listening to lectures
on other areas or topics, even ones not remotely related to my own research.
This is especially true for lectures that are based upon case studies
of specific families or records. Methodology in genealogy does not vary
that much from one locale to another.
A conference can be a great place to ask questions, and hopefully, to
get answers. Remember that at a conference you may be able to ask questions
of individuals to whom you don't have regular access, so it is important
to be prepared. If a speaker is presenting a lecture related to a question
that you have, attend that session. The answer might be in their lecture,
but even if it is not, the lecture might provide insight to your specific
problem and might allow you to ask a better question than the one you
When preparing your questions, remember to include only the relevant
details necessary to answer the question. If the question is about great-great-grandfather's
birth record in Germany, details about his son-in-law shooting him in
the back are interesting, but not relevant. Bear in mind that you are
not the only person who might want to ask the speaker a question. Do you
want to be in line behind the person who tells their ancestor's entire
life story in order to ask where the speaker got the map she used as one
of her overheads?
Determine If Others Are Going
Do you have relatives or acquaintances who will also be attending the
conference? If not, you may want to encourage them to do so. It might
be an excellent time to meet and discuss your current research interests
and problems. E-mail and online chatting are great, but face to face interaction
is also helpful and perhaps more practical when coordinated with another
At a recent computer workshop I gave, one attendee from Ohio and another
from Iowa were researching the same family from Ohio and met at the workshop
to share notes. Ironically, they are likely related to me, but we just
can't prove it yet.
Look for Opportunities to Network
In addition to meeting up with people you already know, a conference
is an excellent opportunity to network with other researchers whom you
haven't yet met. A great deal of networking can be done online, but bear
in mind that at any conference (especially at lunch and dinner) a great
number of real time, face to face, "chat rooms" are in operation.
This can be an excellent time to make new acquaintances and friends and
to share research experiences. Make note of the social hours listed in
the conference materials and plan to attend as many as possible. Frankly,
I learned a lot just riding the shuttle bus at last year's Federation
of Genealogical Societies' conference in St. Louis.
Familiarize Yourself with Local Research Facilities
Knowing more about what research facilities are located in close proximity
to the conference may help you with your initial decision to attend the
conference. Better yet, learning about their collections before you go
will make on-site research easier. If you plan to use records facilities,
decide what you want to research and get it organized before you get there.
During national conferences, facilities may be swamped with more people
than usual. Even if they are not, there are likely a higher proportion
of users unfamiliar with the collection. This may make getting answers
at the facility a little more difficult than usual. Preplanning may come
in handy in more ways than one.
Locate Research Facilities En Route
Are there research facilities on your trip route that you might want
to include as a part of your search? I recently used MapQuest
to create driving directions for an Ohio conference and then compared
these directions to a map that shows areas where I have ancestral interests.
Looking at the route on my U.S. road atlas, I saw that Interstate 74 passed
just 5 miles from where my 4th great-grandparents are buried in Indiana.
Needless to say I made a little stop along the way. Using other maps along
with MapQuest results may be necessary, as MapQuest currently does not
have a feature to "show ancestral cemeteries en route."
Locate Activities for Non-genealogists Who May Be Going with You
Last, but not least, if a non-genealogist is your travel companion, it
may take some convincing to get them to go along with you on your trip.
And, once you are there, you want to make sure they are happily occupied.
Conference literature may not provide adequate information regarding places
to see and visit, especially if your traveling companion has no interest
in history or genealogy whatsoever. Be sure to call the Convention and
Visitors' Bureau or visit Web sites for tourist information so you aren't
scrambling at the last minute.
If you are able to attend a conference it can be a wonderful experience.
A little planning will help you in choosing a conference that best matches
your ability level, your research interests and your budget. Also bear
in mind that there's likely not one conference that will match all these
items perfectly. Just like anything else, a little give and take is necessary.