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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.
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Dos and Don'ts for Attending a National Genealogy Conference

I LOVE attending the national genealogy conferences. Essentially there are two general national conferences and one specialty national conference. However, don't overlook the large regional conferences, I'm not mentioning them because this post is specifically about the Dos and Don'ts for the two general conferences.
Dos and Don'ts for National Genealogy Conferences

No RootsTech Today

Let's get the specialty conference out of the way since this post isn't about it, specifically. The specialty conference is RootsTech. If you couldn't guess by the name, it's a technology conference. This is one of the two main differences between it and the two general conferences.

The other difference, which is why I'm not including it in this post, is it does not travel. It is held in Salt Lake City each winter/early spring (the date sometimes varies a bit and since I don't know when you're reading this, I don't want to quote you the wrong date). These issues would make my Dos and Don'ts for RootsTech different than for general national conferences.

So let's get into THIS post.


The two general national conferences are the NGS Conference and FGS Conference. They are very similar in structure, being hosted by two different national genealogy societies (the "National Genealogical Society" and the "Federation of Genealogical Societies").

The 2017 NGS Conference starts in less than a month and I'm super excited because it's in the southeast. I'm going to use it for my specific examples since it starts soon. You'll see, location relates to the Dos and Don'ts but you need to think about how that affects you.

If you're completing unfamiliar with a national genealogy conference, you can read my post about conferences versus institute, here. Obviously, if you attend conferences for work or other hobbies, you may already be familiar with some of the general conference concepts. I haven't attended many (if any) non-genealogy conferences of the same scale so I'm not exactly sure how similar a genealogy conference is to other conferences.

Location Matters

I'll start with a broad Do/Don't that will affect how you read the rest of this post.

Do consider where the conference is being held.

My sister-in-law is a dentist and she attends a conference every year. I don't know the details but I get the impression the location does not matter as far as whether she should attend, other than how it relates to travel.

This is NOT how it works with a genealogy conference. Location makes a huge difference to the lectures offered at the NGS and FGS conferences each year. That is the primary reason I am only discussing them in this post. If it was just about your travel distance, I could write about a whole bunch of different large conferences.

Each year NGS and FGS put out a "call for papers" telling prospective speakers what they are looking for and then they pick a unique collection of lectures. A local society is always host for the conference. The volunteers they provide have a major roll in selecting the lectures.

That means the selection for each conference is unique, not just by design, but because different people select the lectures each year. If you are used to conferences where the same panel makes the choices, you might find this different.

So for this year's NGS Conference, which is being held in Raleigh, North Carolina, there is obviously a focus on North Carolina topics. However, a conference never focuses solely on the host state. You can think of it sort of like the host state is the "hub" of the topics.

Surrounding geographical areas are always included. How many lectures specific to these locations varies by the submitted proposals. The selection committee can't choose a lecture that isn't proposed. Areas prominent in migration in and out of the state will also be featured.

It goes beyond geography, though. I think the selections for Raleigh this May (2017) really highlights this. You will find lectures about researching the prominent and the poor; Mormons, Methodists, and Catholics; migration through this region---covered in several different ways; military research in the south---not just the Civil War; and Native Americans, mostly Cherokee because of the conference location. These are all lecture topics requested or related to this conference. In a moment I'll talk about the more general topics.

The reason I think North Carolina is a good example is it includes topics that apply to much of the surrounding area. Although I'm still working on my Georgia ancestors (some will eventually trace back to North Carolina), most of the topics "unique" to this conference apply to my research. This brings me to a don't.

Don't assume topics based on location.

This is really only an issue if you are deciding how to spend a limited budget. Remember how I said the lectures are selected? You can't assume what will be selected.

You are dealing with a one-time collection of people and they may see the best focus of the conference slightly different than you. If you are deciding where to spend your money, and you can only spend it one place, decide after you check the conference program.

[Note: normally you can book a hotel room and cancel it for free. Do book a room ASAP if you're considering going. The hotels are often full by the time the list of lectures is published. Be kind and cancel as soon as you decide you're not going].

Usually, NGS and FGS conferences offer an excellent selection of generally applicable topics. This varies and it may not be a broad a selection that is applicable to your situation.

This could be because you are very new to genealogy or very educated. Obviously actually sitting through a lecture that is too advanced or that you've heard before isn't a bad thing in itself. I often attend a lecture a second (or third) time on purpose to reinforce a tricky concept.

The issue here is whether this is the best way to spend your money. That is a personal choice based on the lecture options and your options for how you will spend your money otherwise.

Do look beyond research locations

If a national conference is local to you or you can conveniently attend, do consider attending. Even if the location isn't related to your research, there is likely plenty for you to see and learn.

Travel and lodging are the biggest expenses for one of these conferences. If you can stay at home, with a relative, or farther way (because you have a car), it can be much cheaper. So that brings on the corresponding...

Don't assume topics based on location

Yes, the same don't. Don't assume a conference won't offer anything for you because you don't have ancestors anywhere near the location. If a national conference is conveniently close (whatever that means for you), check the offerings. You might not find enough to make it worth the cost (including your time). You should look, though.

Some of the non-geographic topics you might be interested in at the Raleigh conference include the following.
  • DNA, there's a good selection from beginning to specialty topics including two workshops (the workshops are sold out, if you're considering a future conference, you need to jump on registering for DNA workshops, they always sell out). 
  • Using the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). When you're new to using the GPS, you really can't hear about it enough. That's also one of the topics I routinely will listen to the same lecture again if I thought it was good the first time. You learn or remember something different each time. 
  • Cluster or FAN club research, I could say the same thing I did about the GPS. 
  • Records, this varies from records for beginners (broadly in one lecture) to progressively more specific types such as court house records, land records, military records, tax records, and probate records.
If you live in or near Raleigh, take a look and see what interests you.

Let's get specific---once you've decided to attend a national conference.

Do make a plan

I love national conferences because of all the choices. For a conference like this year's NGS conference, I will have a hard time selecting which lectures to attend. Nearly every single one is relevant since I specialize in southern research (personally and professionally).

I also haven't attended a conference since last year's NGS conference so I'll want to check out the vendor hall (and if I drive, I will want to buy books, I flew last year).

All those choices quickly result in overwhelm. Make a plan, you don't have to follow it to the letter.

Don't just "wing it" and think you'll get your money's worth

You might. Most likely, you'll realize after the fact that you would have preferred to attend a different lecture during one or more sessions. You might have totally missed something unique and valuable to you. You might just end up exhausted and wishing you had stayed home.

Do make a schedule for yourself

At least pick your top lecture choices. Realize that some but not all lectures will be recorded and you can purchase the recordings. This can get expensive (for me, southern conferences could cost more in recordings that actually attending because I want to attend 75% of the lectures, you can actually attend about 10%---that's one of the ten choices each session).

I don't buy all the lectures I want, I can't afford it. So, I can't even just choose based on what's being recorded or not. I've been to enough conferences that I have my own set of criteria.

If you don't have this experience, you really want a schedule to get you to your top choices. I like a schedule so I don't end up in the wrong room or so I can change my mind quickly. It takes time to review all the options for one session, and then you have to figure out where the room is! You need a schedule, even if it's because it's easier to change a schedule than make decisions on the fly.

Don't overschedule

It's easy to end up exhausted after a national conference. You want that euphoric exhaustion where you wish you could always do that (even though you physically couldn't). You don't want to call in sick on Monday because your feet are so swollen or you are just so tired.

You know your personal physical limitations. If genealogy events are exciting for you (or large crowds make you nervous!), that will play a roll in how you feel at the end.

I have been to national conferences while pregnant and while nursing. They were totally different experiences than my normal experience. Both times, I had a plan. I had to scrap the plan both times, but for different reasons.

Because I had a plan, I was able to adjust. I hadn't wasted time by overscheduling and I didn't have myself overscheduled.

Here's one last list of Dos and Don'ts which don't require a lot of explanation
Do socialize
Do check out the vendor hall
Do take a break, even if you miss a lecture (but you don't have to, the only time I've ever gone to every session was when I was pregnant, I just planned more breaks between lectures instead of running to the vendor hall)
Do take advantage of what's local (food, tourist sites, or research)

Don't forget to eat! (easier than you might think)
Don't forget to look at ALL the conference "amenities" highlighted on the website before the conference (vendors, vendor hall lectures, tours, meals, workshops, social events, local interests, etc.)
Don't think you do or don't have to stay in an official hotel. Staying close saves on your energy and makes it easier to socialize. Staying farther away can make a conference affordable. It's your choice.
Don't automatically exclude the option of national conferences in your education plan. There's so much you can learn in less than a week!

Dos and Don'ts for National Genealogy Conferences