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 little premature.
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 had prepared.
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 event.
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.
Michael John Neill is a regular columnist for the Ancestry Daily News and a math instructor at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. He was the Part I studies coordinator at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid America and conducts a weeklong series of genealogy computer workshops every year for Carl Sandburg College. He is currently on the Federation of Genealogical Societies' Board of Directors.