Monday, May 16, 2011

National Genealogical Society family history conference Charleston 2011: an overview of a first-timer's experience

Going to this conference was pretty much what I expected. The grand scale of it was what I didn't expect. There were 1,700 participants from all across the country, and when you counted volunteers and exhibitors, that number rose to about 2,000 people at this thing, which was held at the Charleston Area Convention Center. Workshops started at 8 in the morning and ran for about an hour each. Classes ended by 5, but then there were social activities which were both an opportunity to network, socialize with other family historians (the only people you can talk to about this stuff who are sincere when they say it all sounds so interesting! :)) as well as experience a little bit of the city of Charleston and its culture. In between lectures you could visit the exhibit hall, where there were all sorts of vendors - historical and/or genealogical societies, genealogy websites, genealogy software companies, photo restorers, book vendors, scanner companies, genealogy classes, DNA companies, anybody or anything with even a tangential relation to family history research. It really hit home for me from the exhibit hall just how intertwined technology and genealogy have become and are continuing to become, and while I hate how easy the Internet has made it to do shoddy genealogy, it was refreshing and reassuring to see how committed websites such as Ancestry, FamilySearch and Archives are to making it easier to do reliable and good genealogy.

Buzzy Jackson, author of "Shaking the Family Tree" gave a nice keynote talk about how her interest in genealogy was piqued and her family history journey, and David Ferriero, the archivist at the National Archives, also gave a nice talk about the work they're doing (less than a year to go until the 1940 U.S. census becomes public!!). I took classes on specific topics like using city directories and obituaries in conjunction with the census to locate family, the types of Irish land valuation records that are available besides Griffith's, how church records are so important to tracing your German heritage, how to read probate records. I took more general ones on the importance of historical context to telling your ancestors' full story, using siblings and/or associates to try to work backward when you hit a brick wall with a particular ancestor, why and how to narrow your focus when planning field research, how to go about resolving conflicting evidence.

We got to wander the Charleston Museum, the oldest museum in the country, after hours, which was kind of cool and not at all scary (I kept thinking of that Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum, where all the displays come alive after dark - nothing like that here)! We ate barbecue at the Charleston Rifle Club (weaponry not included), hosted by the South Carolina Genealogical Society. We attended a luncheon hosted by the New England Historic Genealogical Society (as seen on "Who Do You Think You Are?") and learned more about them and the work they do and Cousin April and I were both convinced that because of our New York and New England family history, it would be beneficial to join.

We met people from all over the country - even as a genealogist it was kind of crazy to see just how many people take this hobby seriously (is it still a hobby then? Who knows...) The majority of people were seniors - I guess there's more time for this stuff in retirement, but there were more people in their 40s and 30s than I anticipated. One of the most interesting people I met was Candace, a fifth generation Montanan, who now works at FamilySearch in Utah. She was intrigued to hear Cousin April and I are from the Hempstead area of Long Island because she was in Hempstead last year researching her colonial Long Island roots at, of all places, St. George's Episcopal Church, which is where many people in my tree were baptized and married. She didn't appear to be related to us, but her family, the Lotts and the Hewletts, are both names that I recognize and come across all the time. It's just funny to realize how small the world can really be, and I think genealogy magnifies that a lot.

The whole week was an amazing experience. Definitely the location was part of the draw, but the chance to network and learn from genealogists with so much more experience and so many more credentials than myself was awesome - being in that environment was a real shot in the arm, rejuvenating my family history research spirit. I don't know that the classes change often enough that I would go to this thing every year, but technology changes so quickly and new records and resources are coming to light every day that I would definitely consider doing this again in the future. Maybe I'll see y'all there! (My boyfriend says that yes, the Southern accent is there. For real.)

:)

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