09 May 2011

Attending Genealogy Conferences

Earlier this week I wrote about my experiences as a speaker and a vendor at genealogy conferences. Now I will explain why I love attending, how organisers can entice me to continue doing so, and how I find out about conferences, save money, etc.

Genealogy conferences are for everyone, including beginners. I have been to fifteen two-day conferences and ten major conferences of four days or more (six in Australia, two in New Zealand, one in Britain and one conference on a cruise) - and I have lost count of the one-day seminars. I have vivid memories of my first big conference in 1986. I was very shy, but people were friendly and helpful and I was soon having the time of my life! Now I always make a point of speaking to anyone standing alone and looking a bit lost, because I remember how that felt.

Why do I love conferences?
  1. I learn so much from the lectures, the questions afterwards, the trade displays, and my conversations with all and sundry
  2. I make new friends, and I catch up with friends whom I rarely see. No matter how often I am in contact with someone via email or social networking sites, speaking with them in person is so much better.
  3. Most of my favourite conferences are interstate, so they give me an excuse to travel and do local sightseeing or research.
  4. There is always a chance of meeting a 'lost cousin'. I did!
One of the main reasons for going to a conference is to learn. The quality of the lectures is therefore very important. Speakers at the Australasian Congress always include a few 'big names' from overseas, and some (eg, Michael Gandy and Sherry Irvine) are absolutely brilliant (informative, entertaining and approachable). Choosing local and international speakers is a big responsibility for conference organisers, who often use some sort of 'quality control'. For example, prospective lecturers may be asked for a recording of a recent lecture so that the committee can assess their suitability.

As well as being educational, conferences are about meeting people and having fun. Be sure to read Amy Coffin's Rock Star's Guide to Genealogy Conferences. Another 'must-read' is Sue Maxwell's Prepare Before Attending a Genealogy Conference, which has many excellent tips.

What makes a conference more appealing or more enjoyable?
  • Being able to book for the whole event or just one day.
  • Lectures for all levels (beginner to advanced), and (for multi-day events) a range of topics - including social history. I want to learn about sources and techniques, but I am also interested in historical context and the everyday life of my ancestors.
  • Lectures whose content matches the title and description in the programme.
  • A programme that identifies (at the time of booking and on the day) which talks are aimed at beginners.
  • Pin-on name tags in large bold type. (My eyes are not getting any younger.)
  • A brochure (on paper) with lecture details (time, room number, speaker, title, topic summary, 'beginner' if applicable) and a map of the venue.
  • Signs that clearly point to and identify lecture rooms, exhibit hall etc.
  • Lunch/tea breaks that are long enough to allow people to eat, chat and explore the exhibits without feeling rushed.
  • Exhibits halls and tea-break areas that are not cramped.
  • Healthy options for lunch/tea (salad, fruit, sandwiches on multigrain or wholemeal bread, jugs of water).
  • As a member of the audience and as a speaker, I appreciate it when computer users are asked to sit towards the back of the room as a courtesy to those who find them distracting.
  • A large corkboard (with plenty of pins) to leave notes for other attendees.
  • Pre-conference advice about parking and public transport.
  • Lecture rooms where I can put my notebook on something other than my lap (a desk, or a small swing-out table attached to the chair).
  • A conference banquet that is optional and not too expensive.
  • A feedback form in the conference satchel. (We need to praise what was good, give constructive criticism, and be honest in our assessment of speakers.)
  • A 'delegate's surname interests' form to be submitted at the time of registration, so that all data can be combined into one alphabetical list and displayed at the conference.
  • The option to purchase a copy of individual lectures (by download) or the entire conference proceedings (with a choice of book, CD or USB flash drive). (I have a Web page that lists titles of many published conference papers. If the books are out of print and your local Society does not have them, borrow them via interlibrary loan.)
  • Affordable registration, and affordable accommodation on site or nearby.
I particularly look for conferences that are held at a university, college or boarding school while students are on vacation. Registration costs are often lower. Lecture rooms and common rooms are well equipped. Cafeteria-style meals in the student dining hall are a great opportunity to meet people and chat. Attendees can (if they wish) stay in simple but affordable student bedrooms on campus. (At the last Congress I had a modern, comfortable, single ensuite room with lots of desk space.)

In other situations a friend and I sometimes share a two-bedroom apartment and save money by preparing our own breakfast and dinner. For one-day or two-day events away from my home town, I can often keep accommodation costs down by booking through Booking.com or Wotif or staying in a cabin in a caravan park.

Which conferences particularly interest me?
  • Australasian Congress on Genealogy and Heraldry (3 or 4 days) - held every third year.  (UPDATE: I've been to eleven of the last twelve Congresses. The next one will be on Norfolk Island in 2021.)
  • 'Lost In..' conference - held by the Society of Australian Genealogists in either Sydney or a country centre, usually the first weekend in November. Themes have included 'Lost in London', 'Lost in a Woman's World', 'Lost in Black Sheep' and 'Lost in the Internet'.
  • NSW & ACT State Conference - held every year, usually in September.
  • Queensland State Conference - held every second year.
  • Victorian State Conference - held every third year.

How to find out about conferences?

Sources of information vary from country to country, but examples include family history societies' newsletters, my Facebook page, the Unlock The Past Web site, and (for the United Kingdom) GENEVA. I also use a Google Alert, and I 'search blog posts' for 'conference' in the Genealogy Blog Finder.

What does the future hold?

I think 'live streaming' sessions by remote/overseas speakers will become more common (especially if that reduces conference costs and registration fees). And I sincerely hope that Australian conferences will introduce lectures and networking opportunities for genealogy bloggers!

Other people's thoughts on attending genealogy conferences?


  1. Thanks so much Judy! Some of us learned the hard way - attend a conference and figure it out after the fact! So any tips that can help others get the most out of their conference experience is worth it's weight!

  2. Great post. Thanks for the mention!

  3. Excellent post! I love conferences for all the reasons you state above.

    Thanks for the mention.

  4. Thanks for the mention, Judy! Glad you found my post helpful. I still find that I learn a lot just from talking to others outside the classes. Glad to see others agree!


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