Is This the End of Genealogy Conferences as We Have Known Them?

Warning: This article contains personal opinions.
A newsletter reader wrote to me a few days ago and asked some questions that I suspect other genealogists are wondering about. Here is an excerpt from her message:

“Every time I look at a genealogy website these days I see lists of events which are cancelled or postponed. Some societies have adjusted to this by offering webinars or remote sessions via Zoom. We are left wondering if we will ever meet in groups, or go to our local Family History Center again. Or is this the end of genealogy as we have known it?”

I wrote an answer to her but decided to also publish my answer in this newsletter in case others have similar questions:

—> Or is this the end of genealogy as we have known it?

I believe the opposite is true. I believe we are seeing the new opportunities being offered to many more genealogists, opportunities we never had before. Of course, these new opportunities require change, and some people are not comfortable with changes. They want everything to keep working exactly the same way as it has always worked before. However, anyone who can adjust to changes will benefit from many of the new methods.

In the past (up until about 3 months ago), attending conferences, presentations, workshops, and similar events usually meant you had to live within an area near the event or else you had to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars to attend more distant events. (For instance, going to a 4-day national conference in a distant city may cost more than $1,000 US for airfare, hotels, restaurant meals, and admission to the event.) As a result, thousands of genealogists were unable to attend because of personal finance issues or simply because of the lack of time available.

I speak from experience. I have attended genealogy conferences all over the U.S. and Canada as well as some other conferences in New Zealand, Norway, Israel, England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. For instance, if your ancestors were mostly from Norway, attending a conference where the Norwegian genealogy experts are speaking in Oslo is very expensive! (I can show you my receipts!)

Next, even local events often have time constraints. They are not always held at a time when you can attend. The location also may not be convenient for you. Even local events sometimes require parking fees, admission fees to the event, and similar expenses. In my case, I enjoy not having to “dress up” instead of wearing my normal uniform: a t-shirt, blue jeans, and flip-flops.

The “Brave New World” we all are now facing solves many such problems. You can now easily attend online webinars where the speaker(s) may be anywhere in the world. You don’t even need to dress up!

For instance, about 10 days ago, I presented an online webinar hosted by MyHeritage. I was in my home in Orlando; the lady who ran the webinar and was the master of ceremonies was in her home in the Tel Aviv suburbs; and we had attendees from all over Europe, North America, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand (where it was around 2 AM local time!), Singapore, one from Jamaica, and I don’t know where else. I could never attract that kind of an audience if I gave only in-person presentations!

Next, for those who could not attend at that time of day or night, the entire presentation was recorded and is available as an online video file that anyone can watch at any time. It probably will remain available to everyone, for years.

Undoubtedly the biggest advantage of virtual conferences, presentations, and so-called “webinars” is economics: you no longer have to spend exorbitant sums of money to “attend” such conferences. The most prohibitive costs – for travel, hotels, and restaurants – disappear with online “virtual” conferences. Anyone with an internet connection can attend. For some online webinars there may be a modest charge. However, even that expense is trivial when compared to what we have paid in the past for airfares, hotel rooms, and meals. The result is that expert genealogy information is now available to thousands of people who could never afford the expense of attending a traditional physical event.

So is this a perfect solution? No, not at all. There will always be some disadvantages. However, I do believe online conferencing offers many advantages over the old-fashioned requirements of attending conferences in person. Best of all, more people can attend an online presentation and learn from the presenter(s). I hope online virtual conferences will become more and more popular in the future, even after the present pandemic fades away.

So what conference are you going to attend (virtually) next?

10 Comments

I agree that online genealogy conferences are here to stay; but I think there is also a place for fewer live conferences. I miss the exhibit halls where you can see the latest in technological developments and interact with the vendors and fellow attendees, and I don’t think I am alone with that desire.

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I very much agree with Del. My experiences at in-person conferences have been very rewarding. I’ve met new cousins I would not have met in a virtual setting. I’ve learned tips and tricks from fellow attendees whom I’ve interacted with. Visiting exhibit halls is one of my favorite experiences. My society had to cancel it’s annual March conference, but we are making plans for an in-person conference in 2021.

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I agree that there are benefits to both in-person conferences and virtual conferences. I enjoy in-person conferences for the reasons mentioned—the ability to visit with vendors and having a discussion about favorite genealogy resources without eyes glazing over. But, I regretfully wasn’t planning to attend the NGS annual conference this year because I still am employed full-time, and May is a terrible time for me to take off from work. However, as soon as NGS offered the virtual conference, I jumped on “the works” package. Now, I’ll at least be able to listen to dozens of lectures on my schedule that I otherwise would have missed.

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As with so many other aspects of life and change, we encounter benefits and disadvantages. I will be able to “attend” several big genealogical events and a one-week-long institute this year, thanks to the virtual format. I could not have attended in person in any case. So this is a big plus for me personally. I acknowledge freely that many people are “used to” the huge in person conference, and cite many reasons. Again, many personal preferences.
But the real downside to the whole virtual conference format is the severe downstream damage being done to all the people who maintain and sustain the services used by those in person conferences: Legions of hoteliers, transportation purveyors, food service providers, etc., etc. True enough that for attendees those costs “disappear,” but so too does the benefit of revenue and jobs in the host communities.
I doubt that Virtual Conferences will supplant completely the In Person Conferences, but for the benefit of some who for one reason or another are unable to attend, the ADDED benefit of virtual attendance could surely be considered.

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Is there a handbook or guide to putting on a virtual conference? This is all good in theory, but without step-by-step instructions, it’s not going to happen for some of us. We’re not resistant to change. We just don’t have the knowledge, expertise, equipment, or software to do this. Seems like a good opportunity for someone to publish a book with all the latest technology. Any suggestions?

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    —> Is there a handbook or guide to putting on a virtual conference?

    None that I know. The sudden increase in virtual meetings and conference is so new that I don’t think the various authors have had much time to write a book, have it edited, find a publisher, and all that.

    HOWEVER, you might take a look at an article that I published several weeks ago, How to Quickly Pull Together an Online Streaming Event, at https://blog.eogn.com/2020/03/27/how-to-quickly-pull-together-an-online-streaming-event/

    It is a short article with a brief description that also provides a link to a much longer article in the NiemanLab web site that describes lessons learned from one organization’s with holding virtual conference. As stated in my article, “This article will not answer all your questions but it probably will provide some things to think about and, in some cases, will describe how someone else solved the problems.”

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Agree on all the pros and cons. I hope that after this is over the “big” conferences will continue as a “mixed” event — with both in-person and virtual opportunities. Or better, one year live, the next virtual. One week-long institute, however will always be best as an on-site event: Gen-Fed (formerly NIGR). Held in the National Archives (Washington, DC) building every summer, it gives attendees the unique opportunity to conduct hands-on research in original records. It focuses on records that are not microfilmed, digitized, or in any other way reproduced (many of which won’t be in our lifetimes, furthermore). Attendees hear presentations from archivists who work with the records and get personal guidance. No virtual experience can match the hands-on experience. Only 40-50 attendees can be accommodated each year. No vendors (except the National Archives book store itself) attend. But it is a golden opportunity that, I hope, many will be able to attend in coming years.

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I think the bigger disadvantage is lack of access to archives such as libraries, court houses, historical societies, etc. Not everything is online and we can’t even go to a local FHC to access what they don’t have online. THAT aspect of our research does remain indefinitely on hold.

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I do love in-person events, as they provide networking opportunities as well as the chance to build friendships with other people who “get” what I do. But as a work-at-home mom who can’t always travel to in-person events, I really appreciate the trend of virtual meetings and conferences. That said, I don’t believe virtual events will become the “new normal” for the conferences, but for now, they’re keeping us informed and “together” (as much as possible). And like others have said, I miss the exhibit halls! 🙂

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Not just for genealogical conferences, I believe this virus situation will simply accelerate trends that had already been developing. Like virtual meetings and conferences. Humans are social creatures, so in-person events will never be completely eliminated. Possibly just less frequently. They will be supplemented by virtual meetings and presentations that have the benefits that others have already described here.

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