Sunday, April 21, 2013

Where Do Questions Fit In At Genealogy Conferences

I know what I want and expect from a genealogy conference may be different from the person sitting next to me in a session. However, there is something we most likely have very much in common...questions. I have questions, the person beside me has questions, the person two rows up has questions as well. Do our questions have a place at conferences? If you have a question about German research then attend a session related to that topic. The same for Midwest research, or passenger lists questions, attend those types of sessions.

But what about MY question? I have a question that is specific to my research. I have a question that is specific to my research goal. I have a question that is specific to my family. Is a class on how to find parish records in Germany going to answer my question? No, because I already have the records, my question is much more specific.

I may be able to corner the speaker before or after their talk and ask my specific question. I would never do that though as I know they are on a time frame to get set up and then get to their next presentation. I may be able to make it to the exhibit hall and find an exhibitor with an "ask the expert" table. Theses are options but they seem limited to me and I would like to maximize my options when I am at a conference with potentially a dozen or two dozen people that could help with my specific question.

Some conferences have recognized this desire for attendees to discuss their topic of choice by offering "unconferencing" options and panel discussions where in the audience submits questions. I like both of those options but would like to take it a bit further. Round tables...literally. Have a room full of round tables, 8 to a table, with a discussion topic assigned and also have free-for-all tables.

So, if I see a sign on the table that says "German Church Records" that's where you will find me. Or perhaps I get that question answered and I want help with land records, then I will be looking for that table. The conversation begins with each person asking questions then flows into giving advise, examples or, even better, exchanging contact information to discuss more in depth later.

I attend an industry specific conference each March related to my career. This is a four-day conference that has round table sessions offered on three days. The round table sessions fill up every year.  People like to have the opportunity to discuss specifics and get specific answers. People like to share stories and simply talk with like-minded individuals.

Maybe it's because I'm in this limbo land of more than a beginner, somewhat advanced intermediate but not ready for an institute genealogist that round tables hold such appeal to me. Of course it could also be that I like to talk more than I like to listen to a presenter. Either way, I think round tables could be a powerfully, engaging experience for any and all genealogy conferences. I hope they begin appearing regularly in the future.


  1. I. Love. This.

    I would LOVE to see round table formats at conference. Nothing better for me than just "talking it through" (which is, of course, why I love genchat so much!). Great post, Jenna!
    ~ Jen

    1. I. KNOW. IT! :) Also, what better way to "advertise" that you are a thought leader in your area of expertise than by helping other people!! See, I think that professionals would want this opportunity for one-on-one with a captive audience!

  2. Jenna, good point--at least from my viewpoint of someone who has also attended work-related conferences in which I wished to be able to just get up and ask my specific question.

    On the other hand, we just tried a round table approach at our local genealogical society meeting. It was a first time experiment, so we really didn't know how well it would do. Actually, the people involved said they liked it--but maybe I wonder if more people would be needed to achieve "critical mass" (so to speak).

    I wonder if there is any way we could harness technology to glean questions, then group them into broader categories, as a way to prepare the speakers more pro-actively to zero in on felt research needs for conferences. Like: here's your registration confirmation go send your questions or hoped-for specific focus areas for the break out sessions you wish to attend.

    Anything to get researchers at a conference talking and sharing more with each other would be great. Blogging, tweeting, kaffeeklatsching--whatever it takes--in addition to round tabling it or leading discussion groups...the more learning modality styles we can reach in the teaching process, the more participants will feel like they've received a take-away that was tailor-made to their research needs...which is great.

    Of course, when you're dealing with numbers in the thousands, that might be challenging...

    1. Thanks Jacqi. Don't give up on the round table concept, but yes, it does work best with a diverse set up people and enough to fill several tables that seat 6-8 people. And absolutely, why not ask people when they turn in their registration what they are looking for. While by that point most of the speakers are booked, they could still be given a "heads up" as to what the audience is looking for and potentially adjust their content. The conference I attend each March has an attendance of 4-5k each year, the round table sessions are some of the first to fill up...lots of people with lots of questions and/or something to share!

  3. Great point, Jenna, and this is the ONE THING I noticed at WDYTYA-LIVE in London that is very different from U.S. conferences. The hall was filled with booths (stalls they called them) set up for the purpose of offering consultation services. People came with notebooks and questions, and they seemed to be finding ready help.

    I've seen this Expert assistance at SCGS Jamboree and NERGC and the tables were buzzing. I don't know if it is also a fixture at FGS (never attended) or NGS.

  4. Denise, I've seen the ask an expert at other conferences, a Rootstech vendor had it the year I went. But that is very limited, only so many people can take advantage of the service. But if multiple vendors did this, like you saw in London, that sure would help!

  5. The Association of Professional Genealogists holds a round table the night before their PMC Professional Management Conference

  6. This is an excellent suggestion, Jenna. It would be like a seminar, where the group kind of "workshops" each person's question. Everyone learns from that. This is so often the pattern when people have projects in college courses -- and in genealogy, each person's research is just that, a series of projects.

    In academia we would call presentations the "sage on the stage" model, and roundtable workshops the "guide by your side" model.

    I hope the powers that be (whoever they are) listen to your suggestions.

  7. Jenna,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!