Saturday, June 6, 2015

For Some, It's All About the People

It's genealogical conference time again, and for people around my corner of the country, that means attending Jamboree, the annual Southern California Genealogical Society event held in Burbank.

This is my third year attending. By now, everything—and, in many cases, everyone—has settled into the realm of the familiar. In one way, that's good. Attending Jamboree has become like a homecoming, meeting up with friends, snatching face time with fellow geneabloggers—all the while being sure not to miss getting a good seat to hear favorite speakers.

Somehow, though, the familiarity seems to have escorted me around an unforeseen corner. Unsuspecting, I've found myself lulled into the familiar malaise I've stumbled upon in repeat attendance at other types of conferences. At some point—and this can be deceptive in nature—a regular conference-attendee can find herself feeling like she's seen it all, heard it all. This can roughly be translated into thinking that seen-all and heard-all is the equivalent of know-all. And, of course, that is such a misleading assessment.

It sometimes seems as if conferences—despite being excellent venues for learning—are geared toward addressing an audience of beginners. That, of course, would be a reasonable starting point. After all, there are more people "out there" who have yet to learn the basics than there are people "in here" still wishing to learn more. The more we specialize in our learning "shopping" preferences, the more difficult it is for those specialized needs to be met in a macro learning setting like conferences.

When I was deep in the midst of the homeschooling movement, I had found that to be true of conferences in that arena. At first, it seemed like a delightful smorgasbord of choices: how to learn more about an endless array of topics. There were always more choices available than time slots to take advantage of them. By about the third year of attendance, though, I started to look down that wonderful list of session choices and realize, "No, done that...nope, doesn't apply to my, beyond that stage." Attending the event with friends, I'd find myself wandering the exhibit hall (buying more books and supplies than I should), waiting for the rest of my party to call it quits for the day so we could head for dinner.

One day, I sat down in a quiet nook of the conference center, curled up with a cup of coffee and a new-found book, and wondered what could be different. After all, I still wanted to learn more about this subject area. I had questions I'd like to see answered. But more than that, I realized it would be so much more helpful, rather than sitting classroom-style, all facing forward to hear "the expert," to be able to glean hints from other participants as well. Though the term had not yet been coined, I suppose what I was looking for, back then, was a way to turn educational sessions into crowdsourced learning experiences. After all, we can learn from each other, too.

Interactive learning—under the guidance of an adept moderator—would have been my dream presentation modality. A hybrid of input from a well-respected expert in the field, coupled with a chance to assimilate that knowledge via discussion or hands-on application would have been my optimal conference event in this in-between state where I had settled. Perhaps it was the best design for someone at my stage in the learning process: no longer a beginner, but certainly not an expert. Someone who had already tested the waters and found all the cracks, warts, loopholes and ugly spots in the party lines. Someone who had tired of re-runs, but didn't want to leave the party. Someone who wanted to learn more.

I've heard it said that conferences are best suited to those who want to learn a bit about a breadth of subjects. For those wishing to dig deeper into the aspects of one specialty, though, rather than conferences, the place to go for that type of learning would be the genealogical institutes—like the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, for instance.

Perhaps that is the route I'll need to consider.

Or perhaps, there is more to be gleaned from this observation than can be seen from the surface.

Just before attending this conference, I completed a survey distributed by the conference organizers. Among other questions was this one:
What are your goals in attending Jamboree?

My instant reply: to meet people. I wanted to network, for various reasons, and what better place to accomplish that than here?

I found I was not alone. One regular attendee, whom I met up with after the day's sessions, mentioned that she had yet to attend one class. For her, it was all about the people. It was a wonderful opportunity to engage specific individuals in meaningful conversation. The conference setting brought those people together at one time—customizing, for her, the perfect opportunity to do so.

Indeed, I had had the same type of experience—not only snagging the chance to chat with people from the other side of the state (hey, it took me six hours to drive here, and there's an entire other half of the state north of my home), but to talk with people from the other side of the country.

Then, too, there was the opportunity to attend a class modeled after the very scenario I had envisioned, back in my homeschool conference days—someone did design a class session with an interactive element, presenting the very type of engaging learning environment I like to champion.

What really clinched the people angle for me, though, was the reminder I received at the tail end of a very long day, yesterday. Exhausted, I had decided to take some reading material to the hotel's lovely outdoor sitting area to enjoy the early evening breeze. (Truth be told, too tired to continue the day's marathon, I had cut out of the very last session of the day.)

As the last session dismissed, people began streaming out of meeting rooms, through the lobby and past me in the patio area. One woman came to the table next to mine, dropped her bags and landed with a sigh into her chair. Though she was by herself, she just started talking, exclaiming to anyone who would listen how excited she was for the day's revelation.

I listened. And heard her story of how she, for the first time, had seen with her own eyes the documents that named her relatives, back for three generations. She was in awe at the discovery. Goose bump awe. She confessed, "I teared up."

That little confession created the electric field that jolted me out of my third-conference-so-what-else-is-new malaise and reminded me of what was really important. I think we've all experienced that: the awe at holding a "historic" document and realizing that that was not just any name on the paper we were seeing—it was actually our family member.

That is the hook that got us going on this genealogical research journey. That is the thrill we seek to recreate with every search we subsequently jump into. We crave those discoveries. We want more of them. Yeah, we'd like to learn how to do it better, do it faster, do it in German or Italian or in Japan or from Africa. But mostly, it's not the learning we're after. It's the doing.

And it's people who are doing that doing. If we can't just do it ourselves, what more could we ask to hear about how others are doing their research? To share their excitement. To pick up hints of what worked for them. To celebrate what worked. But mostly, to remember that incredible feeling of awe that we, too, once discovered, the first time we encountered signs of our own ancestor. That, at first, and always afterwards, was real.

And that, actually, may be the real reason why people attend conferences: to re-enact that kernel, the key memory, that got us started researching in the first place.


  1. This is one of many of your beautifully written posts!

    It is all about people - living and dead. :)

    1. Thank you, Iggy! That is very kind.

      I've always thought this family history stuff was all about the stories. I've learned to amend that to include this realization: it's really all about the people. We wouldn't have the stories if it weren't for the people.

  2. Well you should go to Utah! That Conference sounds like it should be high on your list! Have fun tomorrow...everyday we learn something is a great day:)

    1. Today turned out to be a great day, Far Side! I thought of you during one session on using manuscripts and archival collections. The speaker reminded us that sometimes, it's the small collections tucked away in local historical society museums which house the very details we'd love to find.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Sheri! I can't tell you how many times I hesitated over putting these thoughts out there. I love Jamboree, but think I'm approaching a turning point. At the same time, it always helps to go back and refocus.

  4. Great post! The one time I attended, I was exhausted from attending a class every class period (to get my money's worth). I think a good balance of classes, exhibit hall, and networking with others. Even though sometimes I feel I've heard it all before, I find I can learn something I didn't know, especially from a speaker I've never heard before. I do recommend SLIG. It is great to focus on one subject for a whole week and have great conversations with the same people in your class.

    1. Right. It's like a smorgasbord: you can't eat it all! At least, not in one sitting ;)

      Thanks for the input on SLIG. After some of the projects I've been involved in locally, I'm feeling the need to focus on one subject in depth and gain some mastery in it. But, like that ol' smorgasbord dilemma, I want to learn it all!


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