To conference we will go

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There are many opportunities for genealogists to expand their knowledge. You can “learn by doing” as some philosophers would say. So you trudge along and pick up new methods as you try them, but sometimes you miss records that you need because you didn’t think of other ways to look.

I have advocated many times that another way of learning genealogy is to join and attend genealogy groups in your community. Your local library may have genealogy presentations, even if they don’t have a regular group that meets there. Many of the groups that exist today are worth travelling some miles to visit. Those genealogy groups that have survived the decades have a solid base of knowledgeable leaders and members.

Sometimes, it is also good to try to learn from outside your local area. There are a number of large-scale conferences attended by thousands of eager genealogists, with presenters from all over the country and the world. These conferences feature many presenters who write the books and articles that many of us use to improve our research methods.

What are these conferences like? Well, I don’t attend many non-genealogy conferences to compare them to, but they seem to be similar to standard industry conferences in the business world. The conferences last just short of a week. They are held at a large hotel. There is a schedule of presentations during which you have 6-10 different ones to choose from at any given time. In room 1, there will be Dr. Thomas W. Jones discussing the Standard of Proof. At the same time in room 2, Jeanne Larzalere Bloom will be discussing Naturalization Records. Plus 6 other speakers to choose from!

Yes, you will end up wanting to see two different speakers/topics that are running concurrently. You will also find an hour where you have nothing you care to sit through. Let’s address the latter situation first.

If you are lucky, you will be staying at the same hotel as the conference, so if you have nothing worth seeing for an hour or two, you can always head up to your room and take a short nap. As someone who has attended a lot of these conferences, you will need the break! At our age, it is difficult to sit through 8 consecutive hours of presentations on the best of days! There is usually a lunch break for everyone to grab a bite. Most conferences have food and drink on site for convenience, but they also suggest local restaurants that out-of-towners would like to experience. How could I go to a conference in Toledo without grabbing a Tony Packo’s!

Just about any conference worth it’s salt also has an exhibit hall, and the genealogy conferences are no exception. There are vendors set up all around the room selling genealogy books (which you can probably get autographed by their authors who are at the conference!) and also selling artistic genealogy charts, scrapbooking items, funny genealogy t-shirts, occasional antiques, and vendors who demonstrate and sell genealogy software. I know people who are more interested in the exhibit hall than the lectures! I do suggest that you don’t want until the final day of the conference to do your shopping. Yes, there might be discounts, but there may also be items sold out that you really wanted.

However, I don’t want to suggest that you go to a conference and only attend a couple of presentations a day, just because the others don’t seem to fit in your research. Go to see something completely off base just to give yourself something new. “My ancestors didn’t migrate from West Virginia to St. Louis! Why should I go to that presentation?” You should go in order to understand how researchers determine ANY migration pattern. Then apply that knowledge to examining why the people from Termini Imerese ended up in Chicago, and other cities.

Among other advantages of these conferences, there is the chance to network with the speakers and with other attendees. I know that not everyone wants to chit chat with strangers, but you just might find someone else who is researching your ethnicity or even your surname! Just like a business conference, I suggest you bring business cards with you to make the exchange of contact data easier. You don’t have business cards? Well there are software programs that can create basic or elaborate ones and print them on business card perforated card stock you can buy at any office supply store. My card listed my e-mail, and login names, and my Facebook name. The back of the card listed my three Italian towns of origin and about 40 surnames. I printed them in the colors of the Italian flag. Yes, I was contacted by a number of people from outside Chicago who I never would have met otherwise.

By now, you have added up the costs of all this fun! “But Dan, how do I get off work for a week, pay for air fare, hotel plus conference registration, and I have a dog. How do I feed the dog while I’m off jetsetting?” I admit that attending these conferences is an expensive proposition, and since you’re going for yourself and not your company, you can’t expense it! For those of you for whom conference attending would be impractical, there are now ways to view conference lectures on-line at home. Go to the web site for each conference to learn how to attend the conference without leaving your home. You lose the networking and the shopping but you can at least see some of the presentations.

So where are all these conferences? Here is a neutral site that lists many national conferences:

The NGS lists a lot of conferences but not those of its competition:

This is a fairly good Illinois listing:


Write to Dan at and please put Fra Noi in the subject to tell me about your conference experience!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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