An Educated Conference Consumer

Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly – December 2015

By Seema-Jayne Kenney

We know that genealogy is an expensive hobby or profession. So, what do you do to make sure you get the most out of the dollars you spend on a conference or the time you spend at presentations?

My husband is a big fan of Consumer Reports magazine.  I also understand the benefit of product reviews and comparisons.  Too bad there are just a few options for comparison shopping when it comes to Genealogical Conferences. Networking with other genealogists is the best way to get reviews of speakers and topics, but they offer no guarantee of success.  You need to know someone very well before determining whether to base your activities on their opinion, and you should ask many questions to learn the basis of their thoughts before making a decision.

For the past four years, I attended conferences large and small in New England and two small ones in Georgia and Virginia.  I listened to webinars and attended presentations at meetings of various groups to which I belong.  I collected magazine articles related to my research.

In those four years, I accumulated approximately four reams of paper of handouts, notes, and conference syllabuses.  That’s a stack of paper almost eight inches tall!  No wonder my cabinet was bulging and my carpet disappeared!

Whenever I began research in a new geographic area or document type, I reviewed the materials. Before giving presentations, I sometimes went through those syllabuses to review notes on a specific topic.  As someone who hires speakers, I used those same materials to locate people for upcoming events and meetings.  But, the pile was getting larger and that meant the time needed to review everything was growing longer.

I decided to do something about it, and the benefits far outweigh the time and money involved in my solution. Determined to rid my office of all that paper for which I had no storage space, I bought a stand-alone scanner that featured duplex (two sided) scanning. It took several sessions, but I now have the greatest learning resource ever right on my own computer! 

Here’s how I did it:

  1. Separate the pages of the syllabus or handout
  2. Sort the pages by single or double sided. (It’s easier to set the scanner for one type than change it back and forth.)
  3. Open the scanning program.
  4. Set your desired options for dots per inch (dpi) and single or double sided
  5. Start scanning – one topic at a time
  6. Let the program do its optical character recognition (OCR), then save the file. (Note: Not all scanners have a built-in OCR function that converts images into searchable text. If your scanner does not include this feature, scan the documents as images, then use one of many programs available – such as Adobe Acrobat – to convert imaged text into searchable data.)
  7. Create a naming convention. With a limit of 260 characters for the full file path and name, your naming convention for these files might include the speaker’s name, topic, venue, or date. The order of the naming components will determine how the files are sorted, but the entire file name is available for those systemized searches.  I chose to include the date on anything technical.  Technology changes quickly so something like ’10 Top Websites’ can become an outdated reference within a year, or less.
  8. Create a folder called “Genealogy Resources” with internal subfolders to separate business topics from research topics, or choose a folder name that makes the most sense to you.
  9. Recycle the original printed materials
  10. Repeat steps 4 through 8 until you get through the pile!

Here are some of the things I can do very quickly now that all this material is on my computer:

Search by topic – I can use the Windows Search feature to find all the presentation notes related to a given topic.  Gee, I just found that I have German ancestry.  Search the machine for ‘German’ and there are almost a dozen handouts related to various aspects of German research.  (Remember your naming convention – you might have to search more than once if the name of a state is sometimes spelled out and other times abbreviated.) If needed, I can also search within the PDF file itself. Searching within a PDF is done within Adobe Acrobat Reader (the free version of Adobe Acrobat) by the keystroke combination Ctrl-F to open the search box and hitting “Enter” to find what you entered.  You can continue hitting “Enter” to find additional repetitions of those same characters.

Search for speakers – I can search these same files for the names of speakers.  When a group advertises a special event, I can determine whether I have already heard the person speak, and perhaps my notes will remind me what I thought of their style, delivery, and ability to explain things. Also, when someone in my genealogy group asks about a specific topic, I have an automatic list of speakers who are expert on that area that I can contact about speaking to my group, or recommend to the requestor as potential webinar speakers.

Comparison shopping – I can now check the presentations at upcoming conferences to see which ones I already attended (notes on the handouts), which ones I have handouts for, and which ones are new, saving my education dollars by not attending repetitious events.

While scanning the syllabus for a recent regional conference, I actually read the handouts for several lectures that I didn’t attend – something that would be on my ‘bucket list’ if I was just filing the entire syllabus book in a cabinet.

Scanning works for paper documents, but what about those CDs or PDF files you now receive instead of a printed syllabus?  There are ways to separate those for easier reference on your machine as well.

Word 2013 lets you open a PDF and save it as a Word document.  If you have Adobe Acrobat software, you can do the same with that.  Even if you can’t split that huge syllabus into separate documents, storing the PDF in your research sources directory will at least remind you to open the syllabus and search within to find things relative to your topic.

I will probably find other items to be digitized as I attend more conferences and meetings, clean out bags, and move piles in my office, but the place is getting uncluttered!  I have a new system for finding the information I need.  And, I will be a more education consumer for the next conference.

Wait, that already happened.  I was going to go to the annual conference of the Maine Society of Genealogists.  Their agenda arrived, and I discovered I had already attended more than half of the presentations being offered.  Hardly made it seem worth the long round trip drive to go hear things I’ve already heard. Yes, it sometimes is good to hear things twice  (or more) for emphasis and because we listen based on different ideas or life events, but this educated conference consumer said, “No, the repetition and networking is not worth the time, gas, and 11 hours on the road.”  The cost of the scanner and the time spent organizing the files, however, were well worth every penny!