Saturday, September 16, 2017

Oh, No! Whatever Has Befallen Us?

Just as the last of the conference-goers were returning home from the Federation of Genealogical Societies event at the beginning of September, I was revving up for presenting another series of classes for the fall semester. A new-to-me library system had requested I teach a workshop series on family history for their patrons. Along with a repeat performance at another library system, I had also been invited back to instruct a ten week series for a program hosted at a nearby community college.

Perhaps thanks to the big pockets and production capabilities of powerhouse genealogical corporations spreading the word, an ever-expanding number of people want to learn this stuff. They're turning out for local, in-person events where they can learn what they've always wondered about: how to trace their family's history.

With all this activity, lately, I've been somewhat preoccupied—enough, at least, to not dwell on the fact that I wish I could have been at that FGS conference, too.

Apparently, what I also missed, at the beginning of that same week, was the deconstruction of the FGS event by the number of social media participants who harangued each other on a topic which could be roughly described as "Why Conferences Are Now Pronounced Dead."

This topic, you may note, is a variation on a similar theme, "Why Genealogical Societies Are Now Pronounced Dead."

I've been oblivious of both of these facts, myself. Two respected analysts in the field, however, took on the issue and provided their assessment of the situation in blog posts of their own.

The first of the two to post was Christine Woodcock of Scottish Genealogy Tips and Tidbits, who mentioned the online chatter revealing a sense that the FGS conference attendance was down. This observation led her to "wonder if large conferences are going the way of microfiche." Citing the prohibitive cost of registration, travel and hotel stays, she compared conferences to the "more convenient and less costly" options for learning, such as webinars.

Almost as if to underscore her point, just a week later, Legacy Family Tree Webinars decided to celebrate their business' seventh anniversary with a week of free access to their most popular webinars. Why, indeed, go through all the trouble and expense of travel when you can curl up at home and learn from the likes of Tom Jones, Lisa Louise Cooke or Diahan Southard?

Just one day after Christine Woodcock published her analysis, another genealogist weighed in with her take on the subject. Amy Johnson Crow reached back into her blog's archives, picked up an old post and spruced it up for a second appearance to address the subject once again. In a cordial rebuttal of her colleague's post, Amy focused on the attendance track records at a number of successful genealogical events to conclude, "Genealogy conferences and seminars are not dead."

Amy Johnson Crow laid the blame for this cyclical discussion at the feet of what she classified as two myths: first, that webinars and other online events are "killing conferences," and secondly, that in-person learning is an outmoded approach. She reminded her readers, "different people learn in different ways" and "there is room for all types of learning models in the genealogy world."

Thankfully, both writers proposed ways to follow up on this issue. I particularly appreciate Christine Woodcock's conclusion that we need to "adjust our thinking," based on an observation she made over interactions on a genealogical society's Facebook page:
Just as we have gone from thinking that the only way to do genealogy research was by writing letters, scouring microfiche and transcribing directories to being comfortable with researching online databases, we need to readjust our understanding of what constitutes membership. Those people [part of the society's Facebook page] do feel that they belong. That they are members. Even if they haven’t paid a fee or attended a meeting. This group is their tribe. We can’t overlook that.

More than that, though, I feel Amy Johnson Crow hit the core of the issue with her comment, "Let's stop the handwringing and do something about it." The angst that seems to be part of these incessant conversations reveals a certain circling-the-drain sense of doom. No, our society's events aren't going to grow up to become RootsTech. But that doesn't signal the demise of in-person events nor of the groups that host them.

There is something about the focus a group nurtures in its outlook. If societies begin harboring these opinions of shrinking return on their efforts, they may well reap what they sow in their mental outlook. On the other hand, for organization which realize that to grow, they need to expand their offerings to meet the needs of their potential as well as current constituents, they likely will set themselves on a path to success that will include the type of in-person events people vote with their feet and their pocketbook to attend.

Above all, to just bemoan a perceived changing tide of event hosting becomes a nonproductive stance. To adopt a proactive approach in developing and providing events that people will want to attend would by far be a more effective way to address the issue.


  1. I am personally not interested in attending a conference and I belong to NEHGS and NGS - so no monthly meetings but great journals and fabulous tools. Based on my experience of watching "Dear Myrtle" I've signed up for two genealogy classes to meet other genealogist that are interested in research. I am looking forward to getting to know others as we coach each other in solving our respective brick walls.

    1. Access to the Internet has been a game changer for so many organizations and "business as usual." As more of the general public learns how to adapt new technology to use for everyday purposes, organizations can have a ready-made audience of people who would otherwise never set foot inside a meeting room, office, or conference venue. And that makes sense. The key is to be quick to adapt, to use tools at hand, to "re-invent" ourselves as genealogical organizations to meet current needs.

      I'm glad that technology is not only being used for the more solitary aspects of genealogical research, but is also enabling those of us otherwise isolated to "come together"--at least in a virtual sense--to work on issues together, to network, and to connect with the like-minded. Your examples from your experience of watching "Dear Myrtle" are encouraging to see.

  2. Personally, I like smaller conferences as it gives you a chance to meet and talk with others. I think that people worry with low attendance that the conferences might decide it's not worth doing anymore. For us on the west coast, it's a big expense to attend a national conference, and if the conferences are in the west, the attendance is lower.

    1. I'm a west-coast type like you are, Lisa, and the cost of always having to head out to those east-coast-centric events can be wearing on the pocketbook. Perhaps that's why the Southern California Jamboree event has been such a happening place to be for those of us in that situation. And yes, connecting with other attendees is a prime motivator for me, too--and maybe why I hesitate to jump on the RootsTech bandwagon, even though it is close enough to be a reasonable travel expense. It's the people factor that counts for me, too.

  3. You have been busy! At least there are classes close enough for your people to attend! I have not seen a class listed since I worked at the museum :(

    1. Sad to hear there aren't any classes offered at the museum since you left there, Far Side. Hosting classes at historical museums or libraries seems to be a natural partnership--a way to get people more involved in your organization. But not only does it take having the room at the facility and having the interest in the local community, it does require having someone serve as spark plug to get the program rolling. I guess we are fortunate to have energetic, committed staff at our local libraries and historical society. They really do make a difference.


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