I just returned home a few minutes ago. I spent the past four days at the annual conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. I enjoyed myself. All was not perfect, however.
This year's event was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, a first-class facility. This convention center is huge. Several months ago, I attended a different convention with about 15,000 attendees in the same convention center. Those 15,000 people easily fit into this modern facility, so it was no surprise when the 800 or so genealogists who attended this week's conference found plenty of room. The seminar rooms were first-class with good seating, (mostly) adequate ventilation and excellent acoustics.
In fact, the size of the convention center was a problem for some folks: it was a long, long walk from the hotel to the seminars and the exhibits hall. Anyone with mobility problems soon learned of the difficulties.
Conversely, the fact that this facility was directly connected with the conference hotel was a major advantage when the heavy rains and high winds moved in on Saturday: those of us who stayed at the conference hotel were able to walk to the day's events without jackets or umbrellas. We stayed nice and dry. Meanwhile, those who stayed at other hotels or commuted from the suburbs had to deal with the elements.
The rain and wind were the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna. The storm lost ferocity long before it reached Philadelphia, but lots of rain and wind descended on the area. As the storm whipped through the streets of downtown Philadelphia's high-rise buildings, the winds appeared to be peaking at about 40 miles per hour or more. Sheets of rain were blowing horizontally through the streets.
The worst of the storm only lasted a few hours, but it did make for a miserable walk for those who had to venture outside. Luckily, I stayed at the conference hotel and was able to walk to everything I needed in very dry and calm indoor comfort. I only saw the storm through the large windows of the hotel and the convention center.
The conference itself was most everything I expected it to be. In short, I had a great time, and I think most of the other attendees enjoyed it also. I did have a few frustrations with the hotel, and I also have some thoughts about preventing such problems at future conferences. I'll write my thoughts on these issues in a separate article.
This year's conference featured more than 200 presentations, lectures, luncheons, and workshops. The presentations covered almost every conceivable genealogy-related topic: Italian, Irish, German, Czech, Slovak, Black American, and other ethnic groups; computers; DNA; Revolutionary War; and much more. (You can find a complete list at http://www.fgsconference.org/program.)
The presenters included a “Who's Who in American Genealogy:” Deborah A Abbott, Dennis Ahern, Janet A. Alpert, James M. Beidler, Pamela K. Boyer, Jana Sloan Broglin, Tony Burroughs, Amy Johnson Crow, Wendy Bebout Elliott, Henry B. Hoff, John T. Humphrey, Dr. Thomas Jones, Susan D. Kaufman, “Bobbi” King, Barbara Vines Little, J. Mark Lowe, Marie Varrelman Melchiori, Julie Miller, Elizabeth Shown Mills, Paul Milner, Gary Mokotoff, Steve Morse, Elissa Scalise Powell, Christine Rose, Dr. George K. Schweitzer, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, Paula Stuart-Warren, Maureen A. Taylor, Curt B. Witcher, and many others.
I suspect that most everyone who attended this year's conference benefited from these many first-class presentations.
Most of the presentations went well. There was one exception, however. If you have read this newsletter on a regular basis, you know that I often advise everyone to make regular backups of all computer files. One of this year's presenters apparently did not follow my advice. When she booted her laptop about thirty minutes before the beginning of her presentation, she found her hard drive was unreadable. The computer would not boot. Sadly, her only copy of the required PowerPoint slides was on that hard drive. She had no backup of any sort. I am told that she gave the presentation but without the slides she had planned to use. If she had a copy available on a jump drive, she could have borrowed someone else's computer at the last minute and proceeded as planned.
The exhibit hall was huge, and the number of vendors appeared to be less than that of recent years. The number of attendees also was significantly less than usual. As a result, the hall looked like a ghost town much of the time. I talked with several vendors on the last day and can report that most were disappointed with their sales figures.
One thing that caught my eye was the number of Macintosh systems spotted in vendors' booths. Five years ago, when I walked through the exhibits hall at any genealogy conference, I never saw Macs. This year I saw many. I had my Macintosh laptop in the EOGN booth and offered it to everyone for use in checking personal e-mail. Those who did not bring their own wi-fi equipped laptops could always use mine. Two big iMacs with twenty-three inch screens were prominently displayed in the Geni.com booth, and several other Macs with smaller screens were in use elsewhere in the exhibit hall. I didn't count the number of systems although it appears that Windows systems still outnumber the Macs. However, the gap seems to be narrowing.
I was also a bit surprised that very few new products or services were introduced at this year's conference. One announcement, however, was rather controversial. On Wednesday, The Generations Network, parent company of Ancestry.com, announced a new partnership with the Federation of Genealogical Societies. The two organizations, including many member societies of the Federation, plan to cooperate in creating indexes to many public records. You can read the full text of the announcement that posted to the newsletter on Wednesday at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2008/09/ancestrycom-and.html.
The new project would appear to be a near-clone of and a direct competitor to an indexing project announced some time ago by FamilySearch, the genealogy organization sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (You can read more about THAT project at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2008/01/familysearch-in.html.)
The benefits to FGS and its member organizations, if any, were not clearly defined in Wednesday's announcement. The announcement did state that “Ancestry.com will donate a digital copy of the sponsored index and images back to partnering organizations,” but the same is true of the earlier FamilySearch project that is already underway with tens of thousands of active indexers already in place and millions of records already indexed. Both projects are to include free access to the INDEXES created, but the Ancestry.com project clearly will lock the images up behind a “pay wall.” That is, most users will have to pay to view the original records. In contrast, FamilySearch typically provides free access to original records indexed although I don't remember any promises of that being true 100% of the time. In any case, the Ancestry.com project will provide free images zero percent of the time while the FamilySearch project will provide a much higher percentage.
After the announcement, the conference attendees were abuzz with “hallway conversations” questioning why FGS would want to be involved in a new, competitive project that seems to produce little, if any, additional benefits over a similar project that is already producing excellent results. While not mentioned in the original announcement, the project's web site does state, “Ancestry.com will provide free advertising to partnering genealogy societies.” However, that one sentence does not provide any further details nor any estimate of the value of future advertising. It would seem that the benefits to participating organizations, if any, have not yet been clearly defined.
You can read the details at http://community.ancestry.com/wap/download.aspx to see if I and a few hundred other conference attendees missed something significant.
My personal low point of the week was one of my own making. Last week I announced in this newsletter that I would be providing free wi-fi services in the exhibit hall of this conference. I encouraged conference attendees to connect and use the free networking service to check e-mail and perform other personal tasks as desired. Luckily, I also wrote a disclaimer: “The wireless network is offered 'as is.' It usually works, but there is always a chance of hardware failures. The service is free and is offered with no guarantees.”
I even briefly tested the several pieces of hardware used before traveling to Philadelphia. However, when I set everything up in the exhibit hall on Wednesday, I was appalled to find that it didn't work. Actually, it would work for a very few minutes but would always lock up and stop working within ten minutes or so. Sometimes it locked up within two minutes. My earlier brief test obviously wasn't long enough. I had hardware problems.
I'll skip over the details but can report that I ended up purchasing two different emergency replacement hardware devices, one of which was delivered to the hotel by FedEx on Friday morning. The original “air card” was defective and also is no longer manufactured. I had to purchase a newer model, which turned out to be incompatible with the two-year-old router I was using. I then purchased a brand-new router on the web and had it shipped overnight by FedEx. By mid-day Friday, the free wi-fi network was in operation, and it worked well for the rest of the conference.
I plan on sending the defective unit back for repair. At the next major genealogy conference, I hope to travel with both the new hardware and with backup hardware as well: my (repaired) older gear. Backups are a good thing.
All in all, I enjoyed the 2008 FGS conference, and I believe that most attendees did as well. If you would like to attend a future FGS conference, mark your calendar now for September 2 through 5, 2009. The conference will move to Little Rock, Arkansas, on those dates. A bit of information is already available at http://fgs.org/2009conference/index.php and I am sure that further details will be posted at that address in the coming months.
You can read my thoughts about convention centers and conference hotels in a separate article.