Thursday, February 27, 2014

"A Conference Manifesto" for the Genealogy World

"If you want to see where the genealogy field will be in five years, look at what the library field is doing today."  --Me

I get a lot of raised eyebrows and blank stares when I say this. Some people are even offended. I stand by it, however, because this has been my observation as I straddle both worlds.

Genealogists deal in information and research. They want the highest quality, the most current and the most accurate stuff. Guess what? The library field does, too. We all have the same interests and value the same things.

The difference is that both fields incorporate new ideas at different speeds. The issues the library field is talking about right now are what the genealogy field will be talking about down the road. That's not an insult, just an observation.

One of the issues where I've noticed different speeds is conference planning. Trends are changing overall, but they haven't trickled down to the genealogy world yet.

Recently I read a piece that mirrored my current feelings about genealogy conferences. I've grown tired of the standard lecture session format, many of the same subjects covered over and over again, and those horrible connected convention center chairs.

A Conference Manifesto was written by Mary Ellen Bates, one of the premier names in the information world. She speaks of the recent demise of a large conference (Online Information) and the changing ways in which we seek learning experiences. She comments:

"The traditional conference is going away, because it is no longer serving its purpose. We are no longer willing to shuffle zombie-like from one conference session to the next, passively listening to speakers talk about what they know."

Do you feel this way? I'm honestly and sincerely saying that I do. You might not, and that's ok. Keep in mind though that as the library world goes, eventually so will the genealogy world. It's only a matter of time before you tire of the zombie-like shuffle.

Many of Bates' points are spot-on and too important for the genealogy community to ignore. "How can a conference be relevant when its topics were set a year and a half ago?" Even in genealogy where we're used to looking backwards, developments are happening at a rapid pace, but scheduling is not. "Expect more from your speakers." Yes, yes and yes.

My blog post is now at the point where people are forming their rebuttals in their heads. I know conference planning is harder than it looks. The sit-and-stare-at-a-speaker format is still widely accepted and expected. If that's what the registrants desire--and you're sure of it--then by all means keep at it as you see fit. But you better be sure you know what people want because once they stop attending your conference, it's very difficult to get them back.

However, as you can see from Bates' article, the library world is getting tired of this conference format right now. At some point, genealogists will also be weary of this traditional style. The clock has started, conference planners. Be ready when it happens.


24 comments:

  1. One of the things I learned from going to SLIG this year is that institutes are a way better use of my time and money than conferences (although there need to be shorter ones...seven days away is too much for many people). It's hard to learn anything really valuable in an hour, and it's even harder in a noisy, overcrowded room.

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    1. SLIG is on my radar, but as you said the time frame is just too much. Maybe I can fit it in during 2017 when my kid is out of school for good. SLIG isn't just lectures, right? Is there collaboration and group work?

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    2. No, there's tons of collaboration and group work. It's like your best college courses, but with cleaner bathrooms. I was blown away by how much I learned. It was a huge family burden (my kids are too young to be at home alone, so my husband had to take off work every single day to get them too school and meet the bus when it came). But in terms of education, it was the best money I've spent since college.

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  2. Well said, it's good to cross-fertilize ideas from similar disciplines.

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  3. there are lots of great ideas and examples on the MOOC article on Wikipedia too.

    I can see on-demand genealogy video in 20-30 minute segments paid for by the students, taught by CG level teachers. I can see local societies selecting a course (say 5 or 10 segments) on a topic (say, probate research), and then have a monthly meeting to discuss what students learned, and perhaps with a demonstration of research techniques or online access by a leader.

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  4. Amy, I agree. In this time of Technolpgy there is no reason why I can pay a fee and be gratnted access to a Live conference in any city in the world and be able to participate form my home.

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  5. Rebuttal?! I'm wanting room on your soapbox! One thing that is frustrating to me as a speaker is having to (1) propose my topics nearly a year in advance for some conferences and (2) turn in my syllabus 4 months or so ahead. (And then the syllabus is usually limited to 4 pages. 4?! Hello! You're publishing most of it electronically now?! Why is there a 4-page limit?!) Having been on the conference planning side for local, state, and national conferences, however, I know all too well that change is slow. It's coming, but at a snail's pace. Where you and I would like them to be now is where they will be.... in about 5 years ;-)

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  6. Another librarian in complete agreement. . .

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  7. I have seen some "un-conference" concepts in Australia also Barcamp and Pbcamp which seem to address the more dynamic material that cannot wait 18 months in planning or a year in peer review - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconference

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  8. Another in agreement. Not complaining about the speakers, but I get more from the conversations with attendees. And most of those take place at the hotel bar - not the conference center.

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  9. I've been on this bandwagon since I attended my first national conference in 2012. The lecture format is stale. Many of the *elite* speakers were clearly on auto-pilot. The inability to meaningfully engage the speaker on their topic seems a conference feature rather than a bug. The sessions billed as intermediate/advanced were slightly beyond basic. The sessions billed as beginner were shockingly so. Are people THAT new to genealogy really plunking down conference level cash? I don't think so. I've been contemplating getting into speaking on the conference circuit but feel stifled by the format.

    On the other hand, putting on an event in a niche such as genealogy cannot be easy. When our national events barely draw in the tens of thousands compared to a regional ComicCon which draws over a hundred thousand, it is hard to expect more than 'tried and true' out of event organizers. The typical demographics issue is at play here too but that is a topic for another post.

    I don't have a broad solution just a personal one. I'll still attend national conferences as a 'cost of doing business' for the networking. I'll focus my genea-education to institutes. I'll submit proposals for alternative session formats even though they'll likely be rejected. I'll work with like minded genealogists locally to see if we can't produce a viable workshop model. And I'll clamber onto the soapbox with you and Amy arguing for a much needed change.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Rorey. It's glad to see I'm not alone. I'm not knocking the lecture format, I just want other options because I like interacting with others as part of the learning experience. Speaking of niche conferences, the International Quilt Festival in my city of Houston gets 60,000+ attendees each year.

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  10. One reason I haven't attended a library conference in years is because they do seem repetitive and I don't feel I've really learned anything new that I have been able to implement in my work. As was said above, I probably learn more from talking to others between and after the sessions.

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    1. Agreed, Daniel. I, too, prefer the interaction outside of class time. I learn a ton there.

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  11. Amy,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/02/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-february-28.html

    Have a fantastic weekend!

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  12. What I notice, and completely agree with, in the recaps of genealogy conferences is how many attendees state the best part of the conference was the networking. So, why does the conference committee have to go through the motions of getting speakers, topics and sessions set up when people just want to talk? Skip the conference and just have one big meet-up. Of course, that wouldn't fly either.

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  13. I am not ready to speak at the national level by any stretch of the imagination, but what would you want from a conference/workshop, etc? Let's be specific. What would what you want look like?

    We have an annual conference here in Iowa that is free and put on by my church's committee. I love speaking there but I'd love to do something more than lecture for 45 minutes as well. So... what would you suggest?

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  14. I was thinking about the TV shows where the audience can vote in real time about a question. Certainly that happens with webinars now, but may happen some day in a conference room, with our smart phones.

    The presenter has to make sure the questions really add to the presentation and are thought provoking.

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  15. Very interesting Amy. Can you tell us where the Library community is going with this? What have they developed?

    I think the quilting model is an excellent one--I've been looking at that for years. http://thechartchick.blogspot.com/2012/03/what-americans-need-to-learn-from.html The demographic is very similar. What are they doing that we aren't? We tried to shake things up a year or so ago at UGA and do some different things with our conference but that was our lowest attendance in years. The regular crowd didn't show up and we weren't able to attract a new crowd. http://thechartchick.blogspot.com/2012/10/spectacular-successes-learning-from.html. What can we learn from the quilting crowd and the library crowd? I think what we've learned from RootsTech is that if you throw enough money at advertising you can get the crowd there. Unfortunately the only entity in the genealogy space with the money to take that kind of risk and no need to make a profit is FamilySearch. But at least they are there. They are trying to straddle the regular genealogy conference model (to get the genealogists expectations met) and the home and garden model (to attract more people.)

    Which brings me to--if a conference is done right, a really important part of a conference is attracting beginners. But there are two major shifts that need to happen there. SHORTER lectures and lower PRICES. Again--risk. I agree that for advanced genealogists the really valuable stuff at the conferences is the networking--that's what we don't get with all the webinars and online learning. I think it is a real need still. But how do you engage that with the newcomers who have never been to a conference but want to start to network in this community?

    My main concern with changing, or giving up the conference format is--where does the vendors hall go? And that isn't just a selfish concern either. As it gets harder and harder to get above the crowd in social networking, and as traditional advertising methods continue to fail, how does any genealogy company with innovative products get their message out there so that they can become successful and have the money to continue to innovate? How can new companies get the recognition the need? How can small to medium companies get the customer feedback they need? Vendor halls are important so that we can have a vibrant genealogy industry where new products are developed to help genealogists do family history research more effectively. We've tried having vendors at SLIG and it didn't work. We are playing with some things there though. I'd love your input.

    And why aren't you on any conference planning committees Amy? :)

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    1. You're reading deeper into the article than I did. My takeaway was more about exploring learning formats other than the traditional lecture. The author's comment about walking zombie-like from session to session really resonated with me, as I'm getting tired of a conference day full of lectures. What if some of the sessions were Q&A or problem solving? Something where there is some interaction with the instructor or audience. *That* is what I was exploring, not all the other fancy/expensive things the author talks about.

      As for attracting beginners, I just don't know. Thomas MacEntee linked to my post via his Facebook account and the comments included several from people who explained why they quit going to conferences. So we're having trouble getting beginners to come to conferences and also having trouble retaining previous attendees. I don't know how to fix that.

      The reaction to my blog post tells me that there's a group of people who would like to see a variety of conference sessions, not just lectures. BUT going to the conferences and studying the crowd makes me think they expect lectures.

      While I would love a good session where the audience generates some of the content (through Q&A, problem solving, brainstorming, etc.) I honestly don't know how it would be received.

      I realize institutes probably give me the classroom interaction I want, but I also like the excitement of the vendor hall and all that comes with a "big" conference. Does it really have to be one or the other? That's what I'm mulling.

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    2. Hi, Janet:

      I agree with you that there is tremendous value in the face to face interactions and the opportunity to meet with vendors and industry partners that come with professional conferences.

      And I agree that the kinds of changes I'm talking about entail risk, and that's a hard sell to conference planners, who operate on sometimes-thin margins, particularly in the information industry.

      As with any systematic change, the ones who succeed are the ones willing to do some trial and error. They will find creative ways to bring in a virtual presence with meatspace, providing opportunities for meaningful conversations with speakers and vendors, and who bring in really good speakers (and dropping the speakers who don't engage their audience).

      I encourage all of you to engage your organizations' event planners to read through this discussion to see what their (potential) attendees value.

      -Mary Ellen


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  16. Amy, Keep mulling. I think your reaction is something I felt was needed at some local, small scale conferences. Not only a variety of topics, but also a variety of formats. Thanks for being willing to write a follow up post. I think that answers some of my questions.

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