What to Expect at Your First Genealogy Conference

At my first genealogy conference--the Federation of Genealogical Societies' annual megaconference (my word)--I had no idea what to expect.

  • Sessions were alternately called "lectures" and "classes," which inspired fairly different mental images.

  • Were most of the sessions geared towards professionals or beginners?

  • Could you wander in and out of sessions, or were you expected to stay in your seat?

  • Did people take notes or pictures of slides?

  • And--once I got there--what was with the ribbons on everyone's name tags?

Some of these may seem minor, especially if you've attended a conference before. But sometimes lots of little things can add up to anxiety--enough that some might be dissuaded from attending. I hope that by passing along a few tips to first-time conference goers, I can help every newcomer feel like a pro :)

Getting there

When you first arrive at a conference, look for the Check-In booth or tent. Usually, these are marked with big signs or banners. Some conferences also offer same-day registration, like my local regional conference, the New York State Family History Conference. It’s wise to reserve your spot in advance, since registration can be unpredictable.

At the check-in booth, you'll receive a badge with your name and hometown, the conference schedule, your syllabus (if you purchased a print copy), and usually a swag bag of goodies from sponsors.

Your first session: Level Up!

Take a look at the conference schedule and pick whichever sessions look best to you. Most schedules include a level of difficulty next to sessions. For example, at the National Genealogical Society Conference, sessions are labeled:

  • Beginner (B)

  • Beginner/Intermediate (B/I)

  • Intermediate (I)

  • Intermediate/Advanced (I/A)

  • Advanced (A)

Is there a penalty for attending an advanced session as a beginner? Of course not. I'm a professional, but I'll attend a Beginner lecture if it's on a topic that I've never studied. You might find that an Advanced session on Sephardic ancestry is right up your alley, but an Intermediate session on DNA is a little too advanced. If you're attending your first conference, start with Beginner sessions and see how you feel. You can always level up later :)

Folks usually take their seats about five minutes before sessions begin, so be sure to visit the drinking fountain or restroom ahead of time. Sessions with big-name speakers tend to fill up, so if you need a seat near the front or on an aisle, grab a spot as soon as the room opens—usually about 15 minutes beforehand.

If you're not sure which sessions will be popular, look for ones in the largest rooms.

The session themselves most closely resemble lectures, not classes. Unless the session is designated as a workshop, for example, there is usually very little audience participation or discussion. (No Socratic method here.)

Do you know your conference etiquette?

Each conference has its own policies, but when in doubt:

  • Silence your cell phone ahead of time.

    • If you plan on taking notes on a phone or tablet, make sure the keyboard sounds are turned off as well.

  • Refrain from making conversation with your neighbor.

  • Some people take notes, while others like to follow along in the syllabus. It's up to you!

And the biggest one of all: unless instructed otherwise, do not take pictures.

I know what you're thinking—it's the 21st century! We take pictures of everything! Why not genealogy conference slides?

Simply put, slides are copyrighted. Genealogists take copyright very seriously. For one thing, a lot of genealogists are lawyers, so there's that. But more importantly, speakers put dozens or even hundreds of hours into the content of their presentations.

If there's a slide in the presentation that you found really helpful, you can always ask the presenter if you can take a picture during the Q&A. Most speakers are happy to oblige.

The Q&A

Most sessions leave about 10-15 minutes for a question and answer period at the end of the session. Personally, the Q&A portion is one of my favorites as a speaker. Generally, it’s a good idea to ask questions about the presentation, or general questions about the topic covered. It’s difficult for speakers like me to answer detailed questions about your ancestors in a Q&A, so best to save those for later.

If they aren't rushing to their next session, some speakers are available to chat with attendees afterwards. Don't be afraid to say hi!

The exhibit hall

I was pretty psyched. Like, this is a legit door prize.

I was pretty psyched. Like, this is a legit door prize.

In between sessions, don't forget to swing by the conference's exhibit hall! The exhibit hall is full of booths from your favorite family history and DNA testing companies, like AncestryDNA, FamilySearch.org, LivingDNA, and RootsMagic. Local genealogical societies and vendors also have booths, where you can purchase books, maps, and memberships.

Be sure to watch for door prizes and drawings! These may be offered by specific booths, or by the conference at large. At one conference, I won a free copy of RootsMagic family tree software AND the corresponding authorized guide!

DNA testing companies frequently raffle off test kits, while societies raffle discounted memberships or books. At smaller regional conferences, your odds of winning are even higher, so go for it!

When you're walking around the conference, you might notice that attendees have colored ribbons on their name badges. You can pick up ribbons at booths in the exhibit hall. Ribbons are completely optional—some people have loooong rows of ribbons, while others have none. Just a quirky personal style choice unique(?) to genealogy conferences.

The end of the day

Conferences are great places to meet new people who are interested in the same things you are. Some conferences offer evening sessions, mixers, or dinners. These are fantastic places to talk about sessions, compare interests, and make new friends.

Thinking about attending?

There are tons of genealogy conferences around the country, year-round. Some are truly massive, with thousands of attendees, while others are teeny-tiny.

Here's a list of a few of the big ones, in no particular order. If you have a favorite that isn't listed, be sure to leave it in the comments.

Note: All opinions are my own. I did not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning specific conferences, companies, and/or products.