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.