Monday, May 4, 2015

Pondering Pauleen's Posers - Another Perspective

My genealogy time was pretty well-booked in April with the #AtoZChallenge and a Legacy Webinar presentation, however Pauleen Cass wrote a thoughtful post for WorldWide Genealogy To Conference or not to Conference and I made a note in my bullet journal to "get back to within the next 30 days" and comment. Here is my response and hopefully it is not too late. I appropriated Jill Ball's title (and encourage you to read her thoughts as well) to extend the theme and agree with Jill that it would be a great geneameme or Saturday Night Genealogy Fun topic.

1. During a final-day Congress panel session led by GeniAus, Josh Taylor mentioned that perhaps the term “society” is out of date for younger potential genealogists. Do you agree? Are you a member of a family history/genealogy/local history society?
I pay more attention to the aims, goals and activities of a group than to what it calls itself. That is not to say that you should not pay attention to names - certainly if the initials will be confusing or embarrassing (so be sure to check the Urban Dictionary, a standard dictionary, and give some thought to history).

Whether we use the term group, society, guild, association, gaggle, or pride - my main concern is who are you, what are you doing, why are you doing it, are you innovating or reinventing a wheel, is this a vanity project or something that is well thought out and going to impress me, what services and benefits do you offer and are you good value for the money, how invested are the administrators and the volunteers in the group, are you open to discussion and group decision-making or is this more of a top down group or clique, do you offer benefits to distance members, and am I made to feel welcome or are you simply looking for a yearly subscription/renewal.

I belong to 3 groups that address my interest in specialized studies (the Guild of One-Name Studies, the Society for One-Place Studies, and the Register of One-Place Studies). I belong to 4 national or regional/local groups (Federated Genealogical Societies, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Southern California Genealogical Society, and the Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador). I don't live near any of these groups and only 1 has location information that addresses my research needs, but I am impressed with all 4 groups, want to support their activities (video tutorials, webinars, online research data sets, member benefits, and publications) and I appreciate their quality newsletters and journals.

I prefer a "no drama" group and I agree with Jill that there should be term limits for officer and volunteer positions because without new blood or regular changes in posts (think of it as musical chairs for these groups and their volunteers) there seems to be a lack of member involvement, a sense of entitlement or ownership by some volunteers, a narrowing of focus or an unwillingness to try something new or look to the membership for ideas. I also think members need to be encouraged to step up and be more active in a group. If members know that someone else will always do the heavy lifting, many don't volunteer. At RootsTech/FGS, Josh Taylor gave an excellent presentation at FGS Society Day on the care and feeding of volunteers (my title not his - I think his title was New Kid on the Block) and Diane Coutant gave a brilliant talk during the morning general session on how societies were like gardens (results could be for good or ill depending on the plants, the garden, the gardeners and forces outside your control). Both of these talks should be required viewing by every administrator and postholder in any genealogy group.

2. Also I wonder if the word “genealogy” continues to fully reflect how we refer to what we do. What is your preferred term when you tell people about your hobby obsession? Is it genealogy or family history?
I get the difference in terminology. Genealogy is considered the study of direct line ancestors/descendants and a bit of just the facts (or vital statistics). Family History on the other hand is taking your genealogy research as a starting point and studying culture, language, economics, statistics, local history, world history and many other subjects to tell the stories of our ancestors (often called "putting meat on the bones").

I think most people consider themselves family historians whether they use the term genealogy or family history. With everything at our disposal today (both online and offline), we have all gone beyond the vital statistics. I don't give much thought to labels - again I agree with Jill, but do recall it being a subject of great debate (much to my surprise) in one of the groups I belong to.

3. What other things do you consider when you make a choice about attending a family history conference?
For me it is a combination of program, location, and cost. I attend a conference to learn from both the presenter and the attendees. I want a thoughtful program with enough content choices, as well as enough time in the schedule so I can meet up with attendees and do a bit of research. I am not all that interested in luncheon or dinner speakers - give us time to chat among ourselves. I want a variety of sessions (beginner, intermediate and advanced) so we also have a variety of attendees - I am always learning from others, whatever their level is. In fact, some of my most interesting "takeaways" from a conference have been those conversations in the hotel lobby or over a meal.

I would really appreciate it if the American market for conferences and seminars took advantage of poster sessions, experts' tables, and unconferencing. I would like the exhibit halls at any of the large conferences to spread the big players to each of the four corners (and make it worth their while and dollars to be there) for better flow. I would also like a more active approach to booths/stands rather than just having materials at a table (I really think that we need to step up our game in this regard, many other fields are farther along than genealogy in this area). That said I realize how expensive booths are for the average exhibitor and applaud those who make the effort. It would be great if organizers gave exhibitors enough time between sessions and perhaps a half day without sessions so that attendees don't have to make the choice between attending sessions and prowling the exhibit hall (and perhaps close down the exhibit hall at certain times so exhibitors could get a break or attend sessions).

Speakers are important - please consider a healthy combination of new speakers and seasoned speakers. More workshops and interactive sessions would be a big plus. Please realize that many of us are taking our vacation, spending our hard earned money and want to learn what you say you will be teaching. I appreciate speakers who follow through and speak/teach to their clever title or short description. I also appreciate those who take the time to prepare and update their slides (there is nothing worse than seeing someone has thrown together a few slides with clip art or a screen captures that we can't read or don't know why you have included - and when you are simply reading your slides, I have to wonder why you have so little respect for your audience). Please have a syllabus or handout that adds something to your presentation and gives me direction on how to take advantage of what you just taught me.

4. Have you been to conferences locally or nationally? Were they of benefit?
I attended RootsTech/FGS 2015 and commented about it over at my other blog The Keough Corner. I enjoyed the experience although I would have enjoyed a bit more down time between sessions. I attended a seminar put on by the Oregon Genealogy Forum a few years ago and was impressed with the sessions and the speakers (my first experience hearing Elizabeth Shown Mills - a brilliant speaker and educator). They had signups for 15 minutes with an expert on various topics and I did take advantage of it for some Swedish research. For in-depth learning, the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy is excellent - a week's worth of focused learning and the Family History Library is quite the value for your money. Again a bit more down time for conversations among attendees would be nice.

I have attended the Lower Columbia Genealogical Society's monthly meetings when visiting my sister and that group puts on excellent presentations and their members are friendly and welcoming. I did attend a one-day seminar (location will not be named) - the group was great and their members were very friendly. Their nationally known guest speaker (at a not insignificant cost) was a huge disappointment. This speaker is an expert in his field and no doubt very accomplished. He was also completely dismissive of the attendees' questions, his presentation slides had not been updated in over 10 years, and he ignored the attendees over the lunch break - one of those moments when you realize that a big name get is not necessarily a good thing. Fairfax Genealogical Society and  the Minnesota Genealogical Society always do a great job with their seminars and conferences (in fact MNGS does pretty much everything really well).

Well, those are my thoughts on Pauleen's Posers - what are yours?


  1. Tessa thanks for your thoughts on this turn to go ponder what you've raised but they all seem sensible to me.

  2. Tessa, It's very interesting to read your perspective on this issue. Like you, I judge by actions rather than names. Sometimes there are transatlantic differences. In the UK we have family history societies whereas in the US you have genealogical societies yet from what I can gather they are all serving the same purpose. For me the best part of attending any conference or seminar is the opportunity to meet fellow enthusiasts and compare notes and experiences. I would also like to see more events building "unconferencing" time into their programmes. If you are organising a conference it can actually be quite a difficult task finding appropriate speakers, and often you have to take speakers on trust because it would be impossible to get the opportunity to hear them all speak before you book them. Someone who on paper has good knowledge of subject doesn't always turn out to be the best speaker. You also get people who are very good at promoting themselves but who actually turn out to know little about their subjects and give very superficial presentations. We have to take the rough with the smooth, but the gems definitely outweigh the few bad apples.

  3. Tessa, Thank you for adding to this important conversation. I think you raise an important point with "a big name get is not necessarily a good thing". I noticed at our recent Congress in Australia that generally the more unknown/local/grassroots speakers had put a lot of effort into their presentations and had tried to tailor them to the particular audience at Congress. Many of these presentations were new.

    Several of the overseas speakers (Josh Taylor an exception) were presenting old stuff that they wheel out on the speaking circuit. I thought it interesting that another attendee said of a US presenter "He doesn't really want to be here" and suggested that Congress was the means to get a free airfare to do some touristing in Australia. Another US speaker recycled the same presentations she had given three years ago at the same Conference. Surely she could have dredged up some new stories after three years.

    Paul Milner in his lunchtime session suggested that speakers must display passion for their topics. He didn't mean that they have to be tap-dancing show people but that they needed to show interest in their topic and audience. I agree with Debbie that " the gems definitely outweigh the few bad apples" but also with her statement "You also get people who are very good at promoting themselves but who actually turn out to know little about their subjects and give very superficial presentations".

    I don't envy anyone who takes on the role of Program Chaiar/Coordinator at a major conference. I hope that anyone who is in such a role takes notice of the excellent points raised in this conversation.


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