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Genealogy Education Unplugged: part 1

Part I: Intro and Local Societies


One of the easiest ways to improve your genealogical skills is through lectures, classes, seminars, institutes, and other "taught" mediums. Being directed by a "teacher" is certainly simpler than having to find the information yourself. I'd also consider listening easier than reading. A live teacher, online or offline, also gives you the chance to ask questions.

In the last decade, a lot of quality lectures have been coming online. Initially, these were mainly for less experienced genealogists but today you can find a lot more advanced topics and also specialty topics.

This is great for genealogists who can't travel. And even if you can travel, it gives you more options. Some of these online options are free. The more in-depth or advanced ones usually cost money.
If you've been taking advantage of these options, great! But have you overlooked the traditional educational opportunities? That is, offline lectures, classes, institutes, and conferences?

This is a short series of articles about offline education. The online choices are getting better each day and change so fast, it's pretty hard to give an overview of them.

To maximize your education, you should find a combination of online and offline education that works for you.
Why should you spend your limited time on genealogy education? | The Occasional Genealogist

Why Education for Occasional Genealogists

Originally, this series appeared on my blog for my research business, so it was not aimed at Occasional Genealogists. I suspect lots of blog readers consider themselves Occasional Genealogists. I think it's extremely important to encourage them (that's you) to take advantage of offline education.

If you're short on time (an Occasional Genealogist) why should you spend some of your very limited time on education, including the travel time for an in-person event?

If you neglect your education, I can guarantee you are wasting a lot more time than it would take to get a useful amount of education. You won't realize this until you learn more. Unfortunately, genealogy isn't a pursuit where we can easily see we are lacking knowledge.

For one thing, genealogy can just be hard. That doesn't automatically mean we've neglected to learn something important. It could, but you can't tell that until you've reached a pretty high level of education.

To give you another way to think about this, consider this alternative hobby. If you decide to learn to sew, you can see how your first project compares to a purchased item. You have sufficient experience with sewn items (clothing and home furnishings, for example). You know what they should look like.
While sewing, you can't know if what you are doing should be as hard as it is, but you can tell if your finished project looks right.

If you take a sewing class, you can see how hard a skill is for the instructor when it is demonstrated. It might take her one minute and you an hour. It's obvious in those situations that you need a lot more experience and/or education.

If you take a genealogy class, you can't tell how long it took the instructor to do something. Really, it doesn't matter. Every task in genealogy is so unique, there's no hard and fast rules about how hard/easy and fast/slow something is (this is why you rarely ever find a genealogist charging for research in a way other than hourly, it takes how long it takes).

How are you supposed to tell if the research you just did was equivalent to what an experienced researcher would have done?

Education and experience. That's the only way you will start to tell and it will be a while before you can tell.

There's a terrifying stage for genealogists where it feels like you're doing "advanced" research but it's actually intermediate research. If you have a firm educational background and follow "the rules" (citing sources, keep a log, good notes, reporting), this doesn't matter. If you make a mistake or overlook something, it will be obvious to you later when your skills have improved.

Everyone has to pass through being an intermediate genealogist to get to being advanced. It would be great to never make a mistake but that is one way we learn. Hence, if you have the "paperwork" to back up your research, it's OK if you make a mistake.

The problem is when you do sloppy work. If you make a mistake or overlook something and you don't have the paperwork to back up what you did, you will be in one of two situations.

  1. You will have to redo the research completely to correct the issue. This is a huge waste of time.
  2. You will have no clue there's a problem and you will build on this "cracked" foundation. You might be stuck at a brick wall until you discover your problem or worse, you might research the wrong family. Once again, a huge waste of time, potentially years or even decades.

So this brings me back to why you should spend your precious time on education. Although it takes time to get education, it's a lot less time than you will waste if you are uneducated.

Without proper skills, at best you'll flounder around wasting time being inefficient and missing the importance of clues. With the right skills, you will see when your clues add up to an answer, without them, you'll keep researching towards the same goal, possibly never reaching it because the answer only comes in clues, not a direct answer.

Without proper skills, at worst you will make mistakes (probably many). You will either have to redo research or you will be stuck or the worst fate a genealogist can face. You will be researching the wrong family (remember, if you identify the wrong person, just one person, all of his/her ancestors are the wrong family---unless you get lucky and identify a cousin of the same name as your ancestor).

Education is on-going for genealogists. You won't always need as time-consuming education as when you are less experienced. Education is the fastest way to speed up your research.

Today I want to highlight the educational options from local societies. The biggest advantage is the fact this is "local," your travel is minimal. Other than that, exactly what you will find locally will vary drastically from area to area.

But let's look at what local societies offer in general.

Local Societies

The best "economical" option for taught education, online or offline, is usually through a genealogical society. Larger societies often have both online and offline educational offerings. Nearly all societies, regardless of size, offer offline education.

There may be a few situations where a society only offers education through their publications. If the society's publications are relevant to your research, you should still take advantage of these. A journal with case studies, even if the case studies aren't directly related to your interests, is an educational publication. Journals are a topic for a different post.

Local genealogy societies may be at the state or county level or for an area or even specific topic. They usually have in-person meetings which include a lecture or several lectures.

County level society meetings are usually free and held monthly. There may also be more involved events such as conferences, seminars, or fairs which require paid registration. This is not a hard and fast rule. It varies from one society to another.

State or regional societies usually meet less often and their events often feature several lectures requiring a paid registration. Events with a paid registration also may feature one or more vendors, a great chance to pick up some genealogy books, maps, software, or charts.

Don't assume a local society only has lectures related to local genealogy. What is offered depends on the membership: what their interests are, how many members, and how active they are.

Also, all societies are looking for more volunteers. This is the primary limitation on what they can offer. It doesn't matter how many members there are if there aren't enough volunteers to handle running the society and its programs.

Consider volunteering with your local society regardless if their programs exactly fit your needs. You may find one more set of hands is all they need to add a program you love.

Check out the societies near you for convenience and also the societies for the locations where your ancestors lived. You may find events you are willing to travel to.

As an Occasional Genealogist, local society events may fit your limited time best. This also gives you a chance to meet other local genealogists. This can help you find research buddies for those times you do get to do research, whether locally or if you make a long distance trip.

Interacting with other genealogists will also help your education and experience. Since everyone has different experience, just talking about genealogy with others helps you learn about different situations.

You're an Occasional Genealogist, you can't research constantly. Interacting with fellow society members once a month (or even occasionally) can help you learn about aspects of genealogy you might not have thought of. You never know when you'll hear about something that makes a difference to your research.

Even if you don't learn from fellow members' actual research, you can still learn about respositories, techniques, new technology, or even mistakes to avoid!

Education from local societies has the advantage of travel convenience. It also can be more frequent than other live events. Personal interaction with your fellow genealogists can have advantages as well.

Part two of this series will cover National Conferences and their unique advantages.

Do you know of a great local (or regional) society event that involves multiple, high quality lectures in one day (or multi-day events)? Leave a comment. I'd like to compile these as a supplement to this post.
I know of:
  • Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference and Fall Fair
  • Cobb County (Georgia) Genealogical Society beginner class each winter
  • Virginia Genealogical Society meetings
  • Georgia Genealogical Society meetings
  • South Carolina Archives conference each summer
  • NERGC conference every other spring
  • Southern California Genealogy Jamboree
  • Many Family History Centers offer a part day or full-day event for free.
I especially want to hear about exceptional events from county societies (or societies covering an area smaller than a state). However, feel free to leave a comment telling about any event that is from a local group or society.
Why should you spend your limited time on genealogy education? | The Occasional Genealogist

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