Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Offline Lectures and Courses Part II: National Conferences

Offline Lectures and Courses

for the Genealogist Who Doesn't Know Where to Go Next

This is a continuation, the introduction and part I are here.

Part II: National Conferences

At some point you will need to take your genealogical education to the next level. National level in-person events, national conferences or national institutes, may be the best choice for you. Online options are another choice or you may be fortunate enough to find the same quality and quantity of education locally. National conferences and institutes require multi-day time commitments. They have the associated expenses such as travel, lodging, and food in addition to the registration cost. Choosing to spend the extra money is a major consideration for most genealogists.This post and the next are designed to explain what to expect from a national conference or institute so you can decide which educational options will be best for you.

Budgeting for Conference Education

Once you are ready to start investing in your genealogical education beyond just attending a few local meetings, it's a good idea to create a budget for yourself. This can help you fit education in when you need it or when a particularly relevant topic is being offered. Remember, budget for the monetary cost and the time cost. And don't forget there are lots of educational options. This series is just about offline education. A Google search for "genealogy education" should bring up many other blogs and websites with information about other options you should consider in your budget.
For some genealogists budgeting for in-person events won't be very difficult. For others, they aren't familiar with this type of event so unexpected expenses may come up. Attending a national conference can easily be very expensive depending on how far you travel to attend. National conferences are usually hosted at a convention center which, of course, implies the expenses associated with staying nearby. When you consider your budget, don't forget all the costs such as a close hotel (walking distance) vs. renting a car and parking fees. If you aren't familiar with attending events at a convention center, make sure you do your homework before you decide to go. From a budgeting standpoint, considering a national conference is similar to budgeting for a vacation. The next post in this series is about institutes. Some of these offer room and board which rolls some of your expenses together making it a little easier to budget (using the vacation analogy, an institute could be thought of like a resort, once you are there you don't have to leave and it may be "all-inclusive").
Both national conferences and institutes offer a lot of genealogical education in a short amount of time. Because every genealogist has their own needs (genealogically and personally), a budget will give you better perspective whether you should aim for a conference or institute or stick with smaller educational opportunities.

Stretch the Budget to Add Some Research?

Most genealogists will attend a national conference when it is relatively close to them or at a location they already need to be in. If you don't live near where your ancestors lived, you may want to attend a national conference held near that area. Conference themes are almost always related to the host location and are a great way to take many lectures on related topics. You may also be able to research while on the same trip which may indirectly reduce your cost (one trip should be cheaper than attending the conference and making a separate research trip).
For the same reason, conferences held in Salt Lake City are very popular because you can visit the Family History Library (FHL) to do some research. Unlike most repositories, the FHL is open six days a week, usually until 9 p.m. This makes it possible to attend most lectures and still research.

Two National Conferences Plus Technology

So what are your national conference options? There are two general national conferences in the U.S. One is hosted by the National Genealogical Society and is officially titled "The National Genealogical Society Conference in the States" (NGS Conference) the other is the "Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference" (FGS Conference). There is also "RootsTech" hosted by FamilySearch. It does not travel but is hosted each winter in Salt Lake City. RootsTech focuses on using technology for genealogy but is not an advanced technology conference. It is appropriate for beginners, both in genealogical skill level and technology skill level.
The NGS and FGS Conferences usually feature three full days (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) of genealogy lectures plus a special day of lectures on Wednesday (Librarian's Day at NGS and Focus on Societies at FGS). This could change.
For both national conferences, a variety of lectures are offered. Before deciding to attend a national conference you should read through the list of lectures being offered. The conference dates, location, and lodging details will be announced before the list of lectures is released. If the conference is being held in an ancestral location of particular interest, you may want to book a hotel room early. Often the conference hotels fill up and this can make a major difference in your budget or your available time (you may pay more to stay nearby, need to rent a car, or spend more time travelling from you hotel to the conference via foot, car, or shuttle). But be kind, cancel your hotel as soon as you know you aren't going. I can guarantee there is another genealogist that wants your room!
Currently, there are online access options being added to the conferences. These are fairly new and so far have changed each year. Since they keep changing, you should investigate this option for each conference of interest.

Be Prepared to Talk

National conferences have a very social aspect. You aren't attending a class with a small group of people. Attending with a group of genealogists from your local area can be fun, even if you don't know them that well. It's a good chance to get to know them better. If you are travelling to a location of ancestral interest, you may want to try and meet local genealogists. This is a great chance to put a face with an online name, too. Networking is very important in genealogy, whether meeting new cousins, finding a research buddy, or identifying someone that can help with long-distance repositories.

Be Prepared to Walk 

You also need to consider the logistics of attending a national conference. I've already mentioned hotel cost and renting a car as considerations for your budget. There are also logistics inherent with attending multiple lectures. If you regularly attend conferences for work this won't be a new experience. If you don't, it can be tiring (or even exhausting).
There is a large vendor hall to peruse in addition to lectures. You may be staying farther away than you like, possibly lengthening your walk or making it impractical to go back to your room to rest. Don't underestimate how tiring it is to be super excited about genealogy for three straight days, either.
Most importantly, different conference centers require different amounts of walking. This affects how tired you are and how early you can get to a lecture. There is no way to determine this ahead of time. I've been to two conferences where hurricanes had an effect. I've been when the lecture rooms were so far apart there wasn't really time to do anything between lectures. I've been when the lecture rooms were very convenient, but there was always a long line for the bathroom. I've been where I couldn't get into multiple lectures because rooms were full. I've also been to conferences where everything was great. My experiences have been mostly positive. If you have different physical needs, you may have different experiences.
The physical work of attending a conference isn't appealing for some people or is just too tiring, especially if you have an 8-5 job on either side of the conference. However, this is the best way to take as many lectures, in as short amount of time as possible. You could also consider taking a genealogy cruise (really, you can).

Is a National Conference for You?

Personally I love attending national conferences. The reason I usually don't attend is money. Travel, lodging, and registration quickly adds up. If the location is too far or the topics aren't relevant enough to my research (personal or professional), I don't go. You need to make the same type of decision. Create a budget, see where the upcoming conferences are, and consider your personal commitments and preferences. There are plenty of other genealogical options to spend your time and money on. A national conference may be the best choice for you or it might be too much (too much time or money or walking or even too much education at once).
Remember, a conference is made up of lectures. For the most part you won't be able to get "in-depth" education just from lectures. Consider if lectures will meet your educational needs or if you need to take a cohesive course.

Other Options

I have only mentioned the two travelling national conferences and RootsTech because they are the most relevant to any U.S. based genealogist. There may be a great conference that is regional but in your area. The two that come to mind are the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree (held yearly) and the New England Regional Genealogy Conference (held every other year, next in 2017). You may also find a slightly smaller event like an "Ancestry Day" hosted by Ancestry.com and a local society (one is coming up in Raleigh, NC in November 2015) or a growing conference like the Fairfax (Virginia) Genealogical Society Spring Conference (2 days, lectures usually cover a variety of topics, this is the metro D.C. area so you can do some research in D.C. before attending).
Smaller and more specific conferences were covered in the post about local societies.

Part III will cover national institutes