August 30, 2019
Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Federation of Genealogical Societies annual conference in Washington, D.C. The week was filled with classes, chats with genealogists from all over the country and visits to a large exhibit hall. The days passed all too quickly with little time to reflect as one experience quickly followed another. It took being home for a few days to be able to put the whole experience in some kind of context.
One of the things I learned is that attending a national conference is a great experience, but it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Since most national conferences are not held locally (although next year’s National Genealogical Society conference will be held in relatively nearby Salt Lake City), the conference experience began with a cross country flight from Denver to Washington. My own trip was far from routine involving a four hour delay in Denver followed by a weather caused diversion to Pittsburgh, which resulted in our arriving in Washington in the wee hours of the night instead of at lunchtime as originally planned. Glitches like this are not unusual, and if it’s not the flight, there might be other problems with the hotel, the local restaurants or even the organization of the conference itself. Luckily for me, the flight delays were really the only problem I faced. The hotel had elegant public spaces, nice rooms and everyone there was very helpful with any requests we made. Within walking distance restaurants also were a bonus, allowing us to stretch our legs and enjoy a variety of tasty meals during lunch breaks and at dinnertime.
The conference itself was well organized with a great variety of presentations on a wide range of topics with lectures on everything from various aspects of DNA research to church records to how to get help with translating documents, all presented by well-prepared speakers. My only problem with large conferences is that there are so many topics covered in so many lectures that I often feel a little schizophrenic jumping from subject to subject in such a short period. However, I think conferences are more of a chance to immerse yourself in what’s available and an opportunity to hear what’s new in genealogy, rather than a real hands-on time to actually put into use all of the ideas presented.
I especially love visiting the exhibit hall at conferences since it’s informative to talk to representatives of almost all the big name genealogy companies and ask questions in person instead of trying to frame an email that explains them clearly. This year FGS had a great group of exhibitors, and I took advantage of a chance to speak with reps from a couple of groups that I haven’t often seen before such as the Ontario Genealogical Society. I spent quite a while talking with them and figuring out ways that they might help me advance my research into my Loyalist ancestor. While I visited at various booths, I even had a chance to beg for a few door prizes for our upcoming C4aC. These are groups who haven’t responded to our emails but who were interested in our conference and gave me contact information that will hopefully result in some great door prizes next month.
For me one of the best parts of being at a big conference is the atmosphere. It’s exciting to be around so many dedicated genealogists and to realize that I’m not the only person who can spend a whole dinner hour talking about her quest to find that elusive 4th great grandfather. At home it’s easy to get distracted by the day-to-day requirements of life, but at a conference, everything is all about genealogy, and real life is on hold for the duration. Non-stop genealogy talk – need I say more?
Sadly, it appears that opportunities to attend large conferences will soon be shrinking. FGS announced at the conference that it will be merging with the National Genealogical Society. That may prove to be a good thing in the long run, but it will mean that instead of two national conferences each year, there will only be one. It is true that many of the lectures that are presented at the conferences are recorded or are presented as webinars online, and many genealogists prefer to avoid the hassles of airline flights and extended hotel stays, but I still don’t think that a virtual conference, excellent as it may be, can fully substitute for an up close and personal experience. Next year there will still be two conferences, one in Salt Lake City and one in Kansas City. If you’ve always thought that you’d like to go to a big conference just to see what it’s like, 2020 may be the year to attend. Even if you’re not up for a multi-day extravaganza, those of us in Northern Colorado can experience some of the excitement of a live conference, albeit on a smaller scale, by attending some of the day-long seminars in Denver and here in Fort Collins. It just may whet your appetite for a bigger conference as it did for me. Attend once, and I think you’ll be hooked.
Researcher/Director at Large