I just made my lodging reservation for the 2018 Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) conference in August in Fort Wayne, Indiana because I know the hotel will sell out early, and I am already a little too excited about the event. The Allen County Public Library there is the second largest in the U.S. in terms of the breadth and depth of its genealogical holdings, so I will definitely make new discoveries there.
Also I know I will enjoy the lectures and other events because I have enjoyed every national and regional genealogy conference I have ever attended, even the one where I had to drag our sons along, then 15 and 13, because my husband had to take a work-related trip at the last minute.
These are the top reasons I love them:
The lectures improve your research whether you are a beginner or an expert. My first conference was the 2006 FGS conference in Boston. I went partly because several experts in Irish research were speaking, but I had barely begun researching my father-in-law’s Irish ancestors. It was there that I learned the basics, and there that a gentleman from the South Mayo Family History Research Centre told me that the Willises were probably from the parish of Robeen, which turned out to be true.
The class schedule will indicate whether a talk is at the beginner, intermediate or advanced level, and there will be several tracks for different areas of interest–different ethnicities, places, periods, records. There is usually something for everyone. In fact there is often more than one thing going on at the same time that appeals, so that it is hard to choose between them. Conferences are for all researchers, not just professionals, so don’t be intimidated or think you will feel out of place if you are a beginner.
Everyone there has been bitten by the bug. I don’t have any genealogy buddies living nearby, and most people’s eyes glaze over if you talk about it unless you are helping them with their family. But if you strike up a conversation with a person at a conference, it is likely to become animated on both sides and you are likely to learn something and/or help someone. I am fairly reserved but I become outgoing and ready to talk to strangers (including genealogy “stars”) at a conference.
There is usually an amazing library or other repository nearby. Often the problem at a conference is figuring out how much time to spend in the library and how much time to spend going to lectures. When you can roll out of bed and be at either in a few minutes on foot, as is the case in Fort Wayne, it’s a tough decision. Usually research facilities will have extended hours, sometimes late into the night. This doesn’t help me because I am an extreme morning person, so by 6 PM I am ready for a nice dinner and some Law & Order, but if you are able to focus at night it would be great.
The keynote. These vary of course, but are often both inspiring and entertaining. The most inspiring one I have heard was “The Healing Power of Genealogy” by Dr. Andy Anderson. The most entertaining was at the 2010 FGS conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, sponsored by both the Kentucky Historical Society and the East Tennessee Historical Society. For the keynote, J. Mark Lowe and Kent Wentworth argued over which was better, Kentucky or Tennessee. It was as funny as a good special by a talented comedian. (I have to say the Knoxville conference really stands out in my memory, especially the special events which included a shape note singing demonstration and a trip to the Museum of Appalachia.)
The exhibit hall. Here is where you have to try to keep a grip on yourself–a sea of vendors selling things you “need.” Right before the hall opens a large and impatient crowd forms at the door. There is usually a chance to win prizes from the vendors using tickets you get free with your registration. Many of the booths are staffed by experts who are more than happy to answer your questions, so you can learn there too.
The SWAG. Not only do you get a big identification badge, lanyard, and some sort of tote bag, there are always useful freebies that come with your registration. The most important thing is the syllabus on a thumb drive, which contains key information from every talk, so that if you missed one you can still learn something about the topic. Obviously you can make use of the syllabus at home, long after the conference is, sadly, over.