Sunday, April 3, 2016

Family History (Genealogy) Conferences

For the past 2 years I've been asked by my ecclesiastical leaders to chair a committee to put together an annual family history conference, Naturally that has lead me to ponder these sorts of gatherings. What is the best format? What is the best mix of class offerings? Do you have everybody go to all the classes, or have them pick and choose? Who will teach? Given the limitations of wifi with large gatherings, how do you keep folks engaged when they can't really "try it out" during a class? How do you make the event helpful to both the LDS audience and the general public? What about meals or refreshments if the event lasts more than a couple of hours? How do you do it up right with a very limited budget?....

I still have more questions than answers,but I learn a bit more each year. And, I think I've learned a few things by attending or participating in events that I was (thankfully) not in charge of.

Twice I have been the sole presenter at large conferences sponsored by genealogical societies. In both cases, the organization wanted an all day presentation about FamilySearch.org. The first time I was asked to do one of these events, I felt "Oh my!! Just me?? All day???" BUT, both events went very well and I got glowing evaluations. Well, guess what? I KNOW FamilySearch.org cold. I've worked with the website in the capacity of a support agent and now as an author of help documents since June 2007. Would I do that sort of event again, given the opportunity? Absolutely. The good thing about that sort of a focused conference is that you can really dig into the topic. I could cover many, many aspects of the site and help people understand how to really use it to find much more than they had any idea they could find. Yes. I love that kind of event that has a focus.

BUT, it can be too focused to draw a wide audience. Just yesterday I attended a conference put on by a genealogical and historical society not too far from where I live. This event had multiple speakers speaking on multiple topics. Everybody heard every speaker. It lasted all day. But the focus was on a smallish geographical area. Two of the presentations had a slightly broader reach, but not much. That was great for those people who were researching family from this particular area. And the vast majority of attendees did in fact fall into that category, which is probably why the numbers in attendance were relative small. For example, when one presenter asked what the most common surname is in the county of focus, a large number of folks called out a surname I have never even heard of. So, for these folks, this was a great conference. But, does this organization want to grow? Do they want to reach others living in their area but without ancestry in the area? Maybe they don't. Maybe they like the comradery of the "we're all cousins" feel of their group. And that's fine. But I won't be going back, and I am a person who enjoys getting to know others who are interested in family history and in learning more about how to be an effective researcher.

Sometimes the group sponsoring an event makes assumptions about who might be interested that might not be true. Before moving to our current home, we lived in a small town. The local public library had a genealogy group that met once a month. Each month someone made a presentation to the group. Mostly the topics were general and good for most anybody. I frequently presented to them as most of the attendees came to learn and didn't feel enough confidence to present. It was a nice little group and we enjoyed getting together. BUT, I think the group could have easily been twice the size, even in this small town. They met on a weekday afternoon. Well, that limits attendees rather significantly. Who came? Just who you'd expect. Retirees and me. Why assume that only old folks are interested? I know from working with the youth in our church that young folks really enjoy this stuff. I tried repeatedly to get them to consider an evening meeting. But those who came liked the current time and didn't want to change it. I was disappointed that they were closing out such a large part of the community simply by not thinking about what might work better for others.

What do we do for our church events? Last year and this we have chosen to have 6 classes in groups of 3. Each class is 1 hour and folks choose which class to attend. We ask people in our church to present classes and I meet with each to provide them resources to use as they prepare. We try to have a mix of topics: some for the beginner, others for those who have been involved for a while. One hour on a topic does have the limitation of not being able to really dig into a topic like those all day one topic events do. But folks get a taste and hopefully find a desire to keep at it after the event. We try to keep our topics general in nature for the most part. And we include a lab during the entire event for those who just want to sit down with someone and get one-on-one help with a problem. I'm less thrilled with our class selections this year than last. But I work with a committee. And I feel I should respect the feelings of that committee. So, they win a few and I win a few.

I'm sure I still have much to learn about putting together good events. But I'm learning and I'm having fun.

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