by John

Genealogical conferences are something that every researcher should experience at least once. They can be a great opportunity to learn new skills from professionals with a variety of expertise. The vendor hall can expose you to a variety of new books and software (and a fair warning, you may end up spending more than you had planned). You can meet many other genealogists with whom you can form networks and share experiences. And finally, you can get acquainted with the host city as a tourist, learning about its history and attractions and perhaps more about the idiosyncrasies of the record sources for that state. And if you are fortunate, conferences can also be a source of great amusement.

I have been attending national conferences off and on since the 1980s, and I still have memories of these rich experiences, both with my co-workers and with other genealogists. One of my favorites was the National Genealogical Society Conference in Baltimore in 1993. I was working on several Maryland and Virginia families at the time, and the sessions gave me an opportunity to understand several new record sources which greatly aided my research. I remember, as well, being able to visit the fabulous Baltimore aquarium, take a boat ride out on Chesapeake Bay to see Fort McHenry, and later being able to take a day trip down to Mount Vernon with an Irish colleague, an authority on the eighteenth century, to explore Washington’s house (a first visit for him). At another conference in Richmond, Virginia, I learned a great deal about English common law as it applied to Virginia sources, and then went to the Virginia State Library to apply my new knowledge to the study of 18th century Virginia court records. At that same conference I recall taking in a lecture by the renowned historian, Shelby Foote, who, a short time earlier, had appeared on Ken Burns’ acclaimed Civil War documentary. On still other occasions I was privileged to meet some of the giants of the genealogy world, including the late Rabbi Malcolm Stern and the late Milton Rubincam. What a great opportunity it was to meet these gentlemen!

As a genealogy librarian, I try to learn new things at conferences that help me in my work – to better understand not only my own research problems, but those of our patrons, by exploring areas that I know little about. They serve, in many ways, as professional training grounds. I hope to be able to be in Las Vegas for the NGS Conference in 2013, and I can assure you that whatever happens at this conference will not stay in Vegas.

So what do you get out of genealogy conferences? In short, expect the unexpected, the serendipitous. In the end, you will be glad you went.