What Will the Future Bring for National Conferences?

08 Feb 2013

I have a number of friends who work in various capacities in higher education, from resident directors to deans. I myself am on the faculty of Boston University’s Center for Professional Education. I am a teaching assistant in BU’s online genealogical research program. One of my friends, who is assistant dean of students for residence life at a local college, recently shared an interesting piece with me by Jeffrey Selingo.

Selingo is editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education. His book College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it means for Students will be released in May. During the course of his research he came to a decisive conclusion, that in 20 years “the Hollywood vision of college—four years on a residential campus—will still exist in thousands of places around the country.”

He believes that online education and other alternaive methods of receiving credentials will certainly be there. But the crux is that the traditional experience will still play a critical role. Three of his points in particular struck me: Access to mentors, experiential learning, and networking.


Anniversary Dinner at the Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in Springfield, Illinois, in 2012.


I have been attending genealogical conferences on a national, regional, state, and local level for two decades. Over the course of the last few years I have heard a growing chorus of people calling for NGS and FGS to cease holding national conferences and replace them with online conferences.  In my opinion, this would be a tremendous mistake.

Just as Selingo found that traditional colleges have a place in education, so, too, do traditional conferences have a place in genealogical education.  The opportunities afforded by in-person conferences are invaluable. And, remarkably enough, three of the biggest are the same as Selingo’s college benefits.

National conferences allow people to interact face to face and get to know one another. It is an opportunity for participants to meet and talk with more experienced researchers, and get advice from and build relationships with them. The presentations and workshops allow genealogists to dig in and work with records and methodology.

Interpersonal communication is vitally important in the growth of any field of endeavor. This is accomplished in far better ways in person than online. Now some have said that maintaining state and regional conferences will fulfill this need. Unfortunately, this is only partially true. Part of how we learn and grow is by sharing our experiences from different regions of the country. Only by coming together in a national environment can we continue to grow.

Now this does not mean that U.S. national genealogical conferences shouldn’t undergo some change. Great strides have been made towards managing the conferences like a business, and congratulations should be made to all those who have worked so hard to make those changes. But more changes need to be made, especially in the areas of marketing and pricing. For some reason, attendance seems to be locked at 1-2,000 attendees, despite the tremendous interest in family history. Finding ways to bring in additional revenue to drop costs for attendees while increasing outreach are the biggest avenues that can be taken to increase participation. I look forward to seeing what the national conferences are like in another decade or two.