Monday, May 30, 2011

Decoration Day 2011. Grave 10467, Now in Zip Code 31711, Etched Forever In Memory

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name . . .
- Five lines from William Butler Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916

Today is Memorial Day 2011.  That’s what they officially call it now. In some parts, it’s usually prefaced by the word “Huge” and followed by the word “Sale.”

My mother, born during the Great War, still calls it “Decoration Day”, and remembers the elderly relatives – women, mostly – who faithfully visited cemeteries to tidy up after the ravages of winter and to place flowers on the graves of the dead.

My grandmother’s sister Mame was one of those women.  Every Decoration Day, Mame would gather her things together into a large brown paper bag and take the mid-morning city bus to the Catholic cemetery about four miles away from home.  The bag contained her lunch, and along with it, some flowers, her grass clippers, a paintbrush and a small can of paint.

Mame always went to the cemetery alone on Decoration Day.  She never asked for company, help or even a ride.  This was Her Job and everyone in the family knew and respected that. More than seventy years old, Mame had been doing her annual Decoration Day ritual longer than anyone could remember.

The bus stopped across the street from the cemetery’s great stone gates just long enough for Mame and her bag to get off.  From there she walked. First, there was the quarter mile stretch along Cemetery Avenue, past the monument company’s office, past the florist’s greenhouses and past the cemetery’s main office.  From there, her route took her past the old receiving vault that was used in earlier times when the ground was too frozen for men to dig winter graves by hand. Then she walked uphill for another half mile, along the winding roads to her two family plots far in the back.  

The Redmond plot was marked with a large granite stone that had been purchased shortly after her father’s death in 1901.  Mame’s mother Mary Ann Horan Redmond and her father Joseph Redmond were buried there, along with eight of her brothers and sisters.  A few hundred yards away was the Horan plot, where Mame’s mother’s parents, Martin Horan and Margaret Buckley Horan, were buried with some of their own children.

After placing a few cut flowers from her bag on top of the Redmond headstone, Mame set to work.  She clipped the grass around the stone where she knew the lawnmower men pushing their old-fashioned reel mowers would never try to reach.  She picked up the fallen twigs and branches and put them in neat piles along the cemetery’s back fence. 

Finally, she opened her can of paint.  It was silver-colored metal paint, and just the thing to give a fresh look to the small open-mesh metal bench that was part of the Redmond family plot. It was also just the thing to freshen up the metal planter urns that flanked the Redmond stone on either side.  In about six weeks’ time, Mame would return with geraniums for those planters.  

That bench and those urns are gone now, removed by the cemetery management as hazards to the men who operate the cemetery’s modern industrial-strength lawn mowing equipment.

Back in the 1950s, Decoration Day was about getting cemetery things fresh again, a kind of rebirth and resurrection of memories of dead men. 

When her painting was done, Mame sat down on the grass and ate her lunch.  Then, she moved on to the Horan plot and repeated the clipping and the tidying up.  The Horan plot took much less time, since the old marble stone was smaller and there was nothing to paint there.

In late afternoon, she began her trek down the hill to the bus stop for her return trip home, her Decoration Day job complete. 

Mindful of the origins of this day of remembrance, Mame would no doubt have wanted to tidy up and decorate the grave of her grandfather James Redmond, a black-haired man with grey eyes that she had never met.  However, she could not take the city bus to his grave; it was much too far away.

Her grandfather had been a Civil War soldier.  James Redmond joined the 43rd New York Volunteer Infantry as a private in 1861 and was assigned to Company C. His wife Ellen had died the year before, and he left his two young children, 11 year old Joseph and 4 year old Catherine, in the care of his brother-in-law Michael Conley until his return from the war.  At least that was his plan.

However, things rarely go as we hope or as we plan, and so it was with James Redmond. 

On May 6th 1864, James Redmond was captured while fighting in Virginia, at what is now known as the Battle of the Wilderness. From there, he was sent as a prisoner of war to Camp Sumter, Georgia.  Camp Sumter was its formal military name.   

History calls it by its more familiar one:  Andersonville. 

Andersonville was a prison built in a hurry, on the cheap and without actual barracks, the Union prisoners left largely to their own devices for shelter and clothing.  Although built to contain less than 10,000 men, it held nearly four times that number in the worst of times. Food was a luxury, and always in short supply. The only water came from a small stream that flowed through the camp. Medical care was virtually non-existent. The prisoners wore only the clothes they had on when they were captured.

During its short 14 month span as a prison camp, Andersonville held more than 9,000 New Yorkers.  Of those New Yorkers, nearly 2,500 men died, mostly of starvation and scorbutus, as scurvy was then called.  

James Redmond was one of those men, sick with scurvy and slowly starved to death. Whatever fitful and feverish dreams he might have had of his youth in County Kildare or of his own children, they all came to a sudden and painful end about four months after his arrival at Andersonville. This could not have been the end he had imagined when he left Ireland years earlier, having then survived the Great Hunger. How could a man starve to death in the land of plenty?

James Redmond died far from home surrounded by strangers on 6 October 1864 and was buried without ceremony in a trench grave shoulder to shoulder with others who died around the same time. Buried without coffins and reduced to little more than flesh-covered skeletons from lack of food, the Union dead took up little room in their makeshift Georgia cemetery. Years later, those trench graves became part of what is now a national cemetery, marked with row upon row of simple white markers, tightly set and almost touching, each bearing a name, a state abbreviation and a number.  

His grave number is, and will forever be, Number 10467, in the Andersonville National Cemetery in Andersonville, Macon County, Georgia, now Zip Code 31711. For some folks, those last three digits – 711- is a “lucky” number combination.  Not so for James Redmond.

Had Mame been able to travel to Andersonville by bus, she would have surely decorated her grandfather James Redmond’s grave on Decoration Day. 

For Mame, Decoration Day would have been Private James Redmond’s special day, and, after all, Decoration Day was Her Special Job.

When they ended their late-night newscasts last night with a cheery “Have a great Memorial Day holiday tomorrow, everyone!”, the perky young newsreaders on the local TV station demonstrated that they don’t quite get it. Memorial Day is not about mattress sales, cookouts and the start of lazy, hazy summer.  It’s not even about parades.

It’s a day about dead men, many of whose lives came to a sudden, brutal and unplanned end in horrific circumstances that, even a few years earlier, they could have scarcely imagined. 

On this Decoration Day 2011, and in particular in memory of my grandmother’s grandfather James Redmond, and all the men who suffered fates like his – I offer the lines from Yeats above and this simple Irish remembrance:  

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.  (“May his soul be on God’s right side”)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Quiz: What Does Sex, the IRS and Bristol Palin Have to Do With Genealogy?

It's All Adam & Eve's Fault!
When it comes down to basics, genealogy is all about sex.  

Not just any old garden-variety, backseat-of- Dad’s-Chevy sex, but that highly successful reproductive sex that results in brand-new human people being born.  

Generally, that’s how our ancestors got their descendants.  

Society likes to regulate sex, deciding who can have it, with whom, when and under what circumstances.  Religion also likes to get into the act, so to speak. 

According to the logic, regulated sex makes for stable families, which in turn makes for stable societies.  Or at least that's how the story goes. 

 In case you hadn’t noticed, stable societies tend to have pretty stable political systems.  And stable political systems are much, much easier for political elites to control than political systems that are, well, unstable.  

Still, it all comes down to sex.

Good, highly regulated sex – at least the kind that society and religion have determined is “good” – gets a big thumbs up from our modern post-industrial societies.  Bad sex – the kind that is unregulated - well, that’s a horse of a different color.  

Which is why the Candie’s Foundation hired Bristol Palin way back in 2009.

You may vaguely remember Bristol Palin.  She’s Sarah What’s Her Name’s oldest daughter.  She and her high-school friend Levi had highly productive sex together and produced a cute little kid named Tripp.  They’re not married and have no current intention of doing the marriage thing.  Neither Bristol nor Levi have finished high school.

In general, society says that this is not a “good thing.”

As far as society is concerned, the highly successful reproductive sex that Levi and Bristol had was “bad sex.”  Bad sex – the kind that results in unmarried teen pregnancy, for example – will, according to common societal wisdom – have drastically negative consequences for its participants.  

 Just look at Bristol.

Bristol dropped out of high school.  Bristol is a “single mom.”  The current societal narrative would strongly suggest that Bristol’s life is ruined, both socially and economically.

Well, maybe not so much.

Bristol landed one of those “do as I say, not as I did” jobs with the Candie’s Foundation, whose purpose, according to their IRS 990 form,  is “To educate America’s youth about the devastating consequences of teen pregnancy.”  

Bristol’s own “devastating consequences” of her unplanned teen pregnancy are pretty interesting.  According to the Candie’s Foundation’s 990 form (Schedule O, page 27), Bristol – who was born in 1990 - made a cool $262,500 to preach the message of the devastating consequences of teen pregnancy in series of TV commercials for the foundation.

Apparently, the Foundation couldn’t find any other teen-aged single mom in the United States who could successfully convey that message for any amount of money less that that somewhat north of a quarter million dollars amount.  Good thing Bristol was available and agreed to work for such a piddling amount.

I’m not making this up.  The information is easily available via Guidestar.  Here’s the relevant section from the Candie’s Foundation 990 form:

So, what or who is Guidestar, you ask?  Guidestar is an organization that provides information about not-for-profit organizations. Here's the link to the Guidestar website.     Guidestar provides “one-stop-shopping” for all those 990 forms that the IRS requires to be filed annually by all not-for-profit organizations, including your favorite genealogical and historical societies, large and small.  

To peruse the actual forms, you’ll need to register, but there’s no charge to register for the “basic” level of information – i.e., to look at the publicly available IRS 990s.

What can you learn from an organization’s 990 form?  Well, for one thing, you can learn how much money they received from all sources in a given year.  And how much money they spent. And what they spent it on.  And how much they have in the bank. And who their 5 highest paid employees earning more than $100,000 are.  And how much those folks make.

Just to whet your appetite – Guidestar has a search engine where you can search for organizations by name.  If you enter “genealogy”, you’ll get 312 hits.  If you try “genealogical”, you’ll get 1,256 hits.  How about “historical”?   A whopping 24,612 hits.

These are the organizations that we all know and love.

Genealogists are by nature nosy.  That’s why we’re good at what we do.

With that “nosy” quality in mind, here’s the link to the Guidestar registration page.  

So, go ahead.  Go sign up and poke around. 

It’s free and you know you want to.

And, by the way, the “sex and Bristol Palin” thing was just the "bait" to get you to read about Guidestar, which you probably didn’t know much about until now.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Mirror Is Clear Again - With An Example of Why History Is Rarely Simple

As I indicated in my last post on May 19th, I had just arrived to exhibit (as Jonathan Sheppard Books) at the Virginia Genealogical Society’s Spring Conference at the Library of Virginia in Richmond which took place a week ago today. 

We timed our trip so as to guarantee a full day of library/archives research on the Friday before the conference, some Library/Archives time on Saturday during the conference and also two full days of research following the event.

There are many great reasons to like researching at the Library of Virginia.  There’s the friendly and helpful staff.  There are open local history stacks and easy access to microfilmed county level records.  Plus, there’s also free visitor parking, which almost makes up for the 75 cents a page charge to make copies of microfilm images.  (Truth be told, they now have a half-dozen or so of those neat digital reader/printers if you don’t want paper copies.)

We planned our research day arrivals so that we could get to the Library at least 15 minutes early to take advantage of the parking and also to insure being able to get a microfilm reader with left-hand workspace.

Every day, as we waited for the Library to open, we spent our wait-time examining the fascinating Union or Secession: Virginians Decide exhibit in the display cases of the Library’s main floor lobby. 

Kudos to the Library/Archives staff for a job well done!

(By the way, just in case you were wondering, “kudos” is not a countable noun, as in “one kudo, two kudos…” It’s a Greek word - κῦδος -  that means “praise” and it’s singular.  I didn’t spend a year in a classical Greek class at university for nothin’)

Anyway, back to the exhibit…

Maps, broadsides, and a variety of documents from the Library’s collection had been faithfully digitized and put on display.  One part of the display focused on the abolitionist John Brown and his October 1859 raid on the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Brown’s capture and subsequent trial stirred strong emotions in both north and south alike, resulting in a barrage of letters to the Virginia governor’s office. 

The then-Governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, was flooded with correspondence about the fate of John Brown.  One of the letters on display in the Union or Secession exhibit was signed by Maria Brown of Rock Island, Illinois.  The letter was written after the trial and shortly before Brown’s scheduled execution on December 2.

We transcribed the letter on our last day at the Library.  Our transcription of the letter follows:

                                                                        Rock Island
Novr 30th '59
Gov'r Wise
Dear Sir
My two daughters have left with a party of young women who purpose to effect the rescue of John Brown.  They number about sixteen & wear large petticoats filled with powder, having slow matches attached.  If caught they intend to set themselves off & (so effective is the inflammable material about them) the consequence will be awful.  In fact, Virginia will be blown sky high.  My anxiety about my two children aforesaid & my affectionate concern for your welfare induce me to forewarn you of the imminent peril that awaits you.  If you find the girls, send them back before the blow up & send some chivalry along.  There is none of your kind up north.
                                                                                    Truly yrs
                                                                                 Maria Black

[Note: the “slow matches” referred to in the second sentence are synonymous with what we would today call “fuses.”]

While interesting in its own right (especially Mrs. Black’s sarcastic observation about Southern “chivalry” in the last two lines), my first thought upon reading this was not about the events of 1859 leading up to the Civil War, but rather about the events a century later.

In fact, the day after we transcribed Maria Black’s letter was the day the USA Patriot Act was renewed by the United States Congress and autopenned into law by the President. 

Food for thought:  if Mrs. Black had sent her letter to the Virginia governor today, would the sixteen young women from Rock Island whose petticoats were filled with explosives and fuses simply be sent back home by the authorities, as Mrs. Black requested? 

Or would the young women be treated today as domestic terrorists?

That’s the thing about history – nothing is ever quite as simple as it first appears.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why Mnemosyne's Mirror Is Fogged Over Tonight

We headed south on our research trip/ conference this morning at around 8 AM after making two strategic decisions.  First decision:  Drive the Coast Road (I-95) or the Valley Road (I-81) south to Richmond?  The Valley Road's more scenic and less truck-y, but a lot longer in miles and time;  the Coast Road's shorter  and faster but can be a harrowing drive unless your vehicle weighs 4 or 5 tons and looks like an armored personnel carrier (I'm talkin' to you, Jersey and Delaware drivers... sheesh!).

Second decision: (a.) stop at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast close to home or (b.) stop at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast on the road farther south?

Strategic choices made:  Coast Road and (a.) close to home.  The second part was a good choice - the first part, not so much.

The car air conditioner must have decided it was almost summer, so it took its own vacation and shut down in central New Jersey.  Seems it didn't much like where it went because it came back on in northern Virginia.  The GPS suggested that it was a Good Idea to drive east on the Beltway around Washington, so I followed the nice lady's directions.   It worked pretty well until we got to that southern part of the Beltway, where it joins back up with I-95.  By then it was around 4 PM.

It appears that rather a lot of people work in the greater DC area.  A very high percentage of them seem to have decided that the areas south of the city offer superior residential opportunities.  Most of them also decided - at least today - that 4 PM was a great time to get the heck outa DC.  Via I-95.

No one seems to know any other way home.

So, we sat.  And crawled.  And sat and crawled some more.  We crawled south and about two hours later we reached Lorton, which is, in some folks' mind, a bicycle's ride away from the White House, barring rain.  I decided to bail and try Route One, the original Coast Highway in the days before interstates.

That too was Not A Good Idea, since Route One is now the epicenter of American chain stores, chain restaurants and fast food places, give or take a muffler shop as well.  Also, Route One is home to more Mexican restaurants in a five mile stretch than can be found in all of upstate New York.  (Note to self:  Google "pupusa" and find out what the heck it is and why it's on all the Mexican restaurant signs. See, when you can only drive 8 miles an hour, it's pretty easy to read all the stuff on their business signs.).

It was getting late.  I realized it was time to get counter-intuitive, so I bailed again and drove northwest toward Manassas for about a half-hour, made a great arc, and an hour later was heading south again on back roads in Virginia horse country, where nobody commutes to DC.

At around 10 PM, we reached our Richmond destination. Four hours late.  Having driven about 100 miles out of our way.

It was actually a welcome sound when that nice GPS lady said, "Arriving. At Destination.  On Left."

And that's why Mnemosyne's Mirror is all fogged over tonight.  And that's the Truth.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

So, If it's The End Of The World, Who's Gonna Get My Tax Refund????

Direct From the Family Radio Website (see below)
Genealogists need to keep in mind – especially when talking with older relatives – that even the unlikeliest verbal references or the most casual of off-hand remarks can act as “memory triggers” for family stories. Here’s an example –

This afternoon, we picked up my mother (who will be 94 next Christmas) at her apartment for her weekly mid-day excursion to the grocery store, the pharmacy and to lunch.  As we drove down the road toward the shopping center where the grocery store is located, we came upon one of those temporary electronic road signs that highway departments put up alerting motorists to “coming events.”  The sign flashed three messages in rapid succession over and over again: 

SAT MAY 21 6 AM – 6 PM.

In an off-hand joking fashion, I remarked, “Why bother? After all, everybody knows that the world’s coming to an end on Saturday!

I then proceeded to tell her about the May 21 “End of the World” story that’s been making the rounds on the national news media and about which I blogged way back on March 28th.  (In case you missed it, you can catch up at the official Family Radio site here.  They’re a religious radio station and are promoting the” event” and have a countdown timetable on their website.  Apparently, all those “Gay Pride” events are the telltale signs that this is all coming to pass…

Anyway, back to the story:

That reminds me,” she said, “about when your grandmother called me on the telephone to say that the End of the World was coming, so we all needed to come to her house to be together as a family when it happened.

I nearly drove off the road. 

It was a story I had never heard, no matter how many times we had talked about the small, quirky things that she remembered about the woman who was her mother-in-law and who she always called “Mrs. Wolfgang.”

That “end of the world” phone call from her mother-in-law. As we talked, it slowly came into place.  She vaguely remembered that it was probably before my grandfather’s stroke and death in 1947. It was probably after she was married, so it was post-August 1943.  It was probably a radio program of some sort that my grandmother had been listening to, but it was too late for Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” which aired in 1938. 

She couldn’t remember the specific details, but remembers going with my father to her mother-in-law’s house because of that phone call.  So they could be together as a family when the End came.

For me, it’s more than just a story.  In a way, it’s more insight into my grandmother’s world view.  My grandmother grew up as one of the youngest of the five surviving siblings of her mother’s 13 children. She was an Irish Catholic with minimal education, and with an Irish peasant’s deep and abiding faith in magical things.  She faithfully put the statue of St. Anthony in the upstairs window every laundry day – you could be sure it wouldn’t rain, since St. Anthony wouldn’t let her down.  She had “relics” that had been touched to the garments of St. Therese of Lisieux that she fervently believed would bring my grandfather back to health.  She believed in curses and incantations and that if you did things in a certain way while saying certain things – just as night follows day, the thing you wanted to happen would happen.

Then something untoward happened.  Apparently it was a radio program, but I can’t be sure until I research the story in the newspapers of the time.  In any case, it generated a phone call from my grandmother to my mother with the message that the world was coming to an end and it happened sometime between 1943 and 1947.

A while later, after listening to my mother’s story, I asked another question.  I wanted to know about my father’s sister and her family – my grandmother’s only daughter. 

What about Mildred?” I wanted to know.  “Was she there?

I don’t think so,” my mother said.  “I don’t think she invited her.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Getting Ready For A Research Trip: On the Road to Nottamun Town

Woman With Dulcimer - 1917
As a researcher, I consider myself truly fortunate that I can work on my grandchildren’s New England and New York family lines and also on their ancestral families with deep roots in Virginia and West Virginia - roots that go back to Jamestown. 

First of all, the kinds of records that are available for colonial New England and colonial Virginia are vastly different, so it’s a challenge. Despite being on the same coast and continent, 18th century New England and 18th century Virginia were places worlds apart. Historian David Hackett Fischer described those worlds in exquisite detail in Albion’s Seed, a must-read for anyone working on 17th and 18th century families in either location.

I’m always on the lookout for things that can make the research experience easier or more fun.

A while back, I discovered that the Virginia Historical Society put up a great online exhibition loaded with information called “The Story of Virginia: An American Experience”  You can check it out here;  there are all kinds of things to see and if you don’t come away richer for the experience, I’d be greatly surprised.  

The neat thing about the site is all the material for teachers.  One of the things that caught my eye was a pdf file designed to be used to develop lessons about early Virginia history.  The file told the story of “Becoming Virginians” in language that even grade schoolers could understand. 

One of the things I zeroed in on was the quotation from 17th century Virginia Governor Sir William Berkeley that succinctly expresses one of the key differences between researching families in New England and in Virginia.  In 1671, Berkeley said:

But I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these for a hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.

On the last page of the pdf file, you will find a single page that summarizes these New England – Virginia differences.  It was adapted from Fischer's Albion's Seed mentioned above.  You can check it out here:

I always look forward to these research trips, and it’s not just in the anticipation of great new finds. 

It’s because right about now, a day or so before we’re on the road, the music starts in my head, softly, incessantly, drawing me into the worlds of the backcountry Virginia and West Virginia counties I study.  It’s that clear, crisp sound of the mountain dulcimer (now you know the point of the picture above) and the story-ballads that were passed down through the generations of folks raised far from “free schools or printing.” 

These are the kinds of songs that singer-collector John Jacob Niles (1892 – 1980)   gathered in the hills of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee and in other parts of the rural mountain south as well.  These are  the songs and ballads with roots in the Middle Ages of the British Isles that crossed oceans and mountains -  songs never written down, that, committed to memory, carried the story of a people, their melodies hummed and whispered by generations of grandmothers shelling peas and rocking cradles. 

All over the world, people without “free schools or printing” transmit their fragile cultures this way  -  by word of mouth, by story and also by music. 

One of my favorite “transmitters” of this kind of music has always been Jean Ritchie, the remarkable voice from Viper, Kentucky who has been able to capture the essence of a people and culture unlike anyone else I’ve heard.

Here’s the link to an MP3 cut of Ms. Ritchie telling the story of, and performing, the song “Nottamun Town.”   It’s on the website of the Florida State Library and Archives – specifically, the music from the Florida Folklife Collection.  The song – its track number 16 – has its ancient roots in England and was recorded in 1976.  Even though it’s here on a Florida website, it’s the kind of ballad that can be found in Virginia and all over the mountain south. 

It’s well worth a listen.  Even if you have no Virginia or Appalachian roots. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Guess What’s On Tap for Next Weekend? A Conference! (Are You Surprised?)

After spending the last week writing about conferences, what do you think I’m doing at the end of the week? You guessed it – we’ll be exhibiting at a conference, wearing our “Jonathan Sheppard Books” hats.

This time, it’s the Annual Spring Conference hosted by the Virginia Genealogical Society in Richmond.  The conference is spread out over two days.  This year’s theme is:  "Civil War Confederate Records: Bringing the Gray Ghosts to Life."

The first day (Friday, May 20) will be a guided research day at the Library of Virginia in downtown Richmond along with a talk about the Museum of the Confederacy.  The following day – Saturday, May 21st – you can treat yourself to four top-notch talks from Sharon Hodges and Rick Sayre.  In the morning, Sharon will talk about the Southern Claims Commission records, plus present a talk titled “Ladies of the Civil War”, focusing on the varied – and sometimes surprising - roles that women played during the War. 

In the afternoon, Sharon will discuss Confederate records in the National Archives and Rick will talk about Civil War maps.  If you don’t come away from this event with lots of new information that you can use in your own research, I’d be greatly surprised.

And, by the way, the Library of Virginia is more than just a world-class library; it’s also the Virginia State Archives, charged with preserving the history of the Old Dominion and its records.  Perhaps you’ve never researched there.  If that’s the case, check out their website here to see what you’ve been missing.  (If you have Virginia ancestry, you KNOW you want to come to this event!)

There will also be a vendor area at the conference on Saturday. We (Jonathan Sheppard Books) will have related maps, and books about the Civil War, as well as a selection of highly worthwhile genealogical references. Other vendors will have goodies as well.

There's a reduced rate for members, of course.  if you do any Virginia research, and if you are NOT a member of the VGS, you need to re-think what you're doing.  Seriously.  

If you want to see real value for your dollar, check things out here.

You can register online until the close of business tomorrow, May 17th.  After that, you can register by phone or as a walk-in, but the Saturday lunch meal (included in the registration price) cannot be guaranteed. So, get a move on.  There’s still time. 

If you live near Richmond, drive in.  If you're some distance away, come anyway.  Hotels and motels are quite reasonable in Richmond.

Bring your "significant other" along;  you've heard the hype:  Virginia is for lovers.

You know you want to.  Life is short… come join us!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Conferences and Events: Getting It Right, Making It Great - The Last Post of the Series

“Just The Facts, Ma’am”

Lots of genealogists live and work in the fact-based world of evidence where information that is presented as being true needs a proper citation to a confirming source before it can be accepted.  Still, there are some things that they take on faith alone, like the oft-bandied-about statement that “Genealogy is the second most popular hobby after ______.”  Sometimes the Number One hobby is golf.  Other times, it’s stamp collecting. In any case, genealogists think that their hobby is pretty neat (it is) and also think that it’s pretty widely popular among the general population (it isn’t, despite the seeming success of WDYTYA).

For years, genealogy has been perceived as the "Avis of Hobbies".  We're Number Two.  Except we don't Try Harder.

Is genealogy growing?  Frankly, nobody really knows.  As far as I know, there’s lots of speculation, but no reliable statistics that you could actually hang your hat on.  

Size Matters

So, what does this have to do with conferences? Well, if the hobby is wildly popular and if it’s growing, then it follows that conferences should also be increasing proportionally in popularity and also growing.  

Problem is, they’re not.

Look at the numbers.  Years ago in 1983, The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) had a conference in Hartford, CT.  801 people attended. Several years later in 1991, there was an FGS conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  About 1600 people were there.  In other words, between 1983 and 1991 – a space of 8 years – the FGS conference attendance doubled. (By the way, the FGS statistics cited come from the FGS website – History section.

Now, let’s assume that 20 years after the Fort Wayne conference, the FGS had made a big push to increase its annual conference attendance by 9% or 10% each year.   After all, these were heady times. Internet genealogy got underway, lots of new software came on the market, Ancestry started (albeit as a book publisher, not a subscription database giant) and Everton’s The Genealogical Helper and other magazine publishers acquired lots of new subscribers. In the years that followed, even more stuff happened (think “internet”) to draw even more people into the fold.

So, IF conference attendance had increased by only 9% or 10% a year during those “gangbuster” years, how many people should be planning to attend this year’s FGS conference in Springfield, Illinois?

Conservatively – somewhere between 9,000 or 12,000.

That World Outside Genealogy

It’s hard to imagine that many folks assembling at a genealogy conference, since nothing even remotely close has ever happened.  Still, the New York Antiquarian Book Fair – where lots of rare and expensive books get sold for thousands of dollars each over three days or so – gates nearly 5,000 people every year.  Chances are, you don’t know many folks who regularly buy lots of books for thousands of dollars.  That’s because they’re few and far between.

Look elsewhere then.  Later this year, fans of the old “Star Trek” TV series will descend upon Las Vegas, fork over about $150 for a “full” admission and maybe catch a glance at 80 year old Bill (Captain Kirk) Shatner.  If they want to take Leonard Nimoy’s photography seminar while they’re there, that’ll cost an extra $199.00. How many “Trekkies” will live long and prosper enough to spend their weekend this way?  

The expected number is around 15,000.  How many of them do you know?

But . . . Things Are Supposed To Be Different in Genealogy, Right?

Of course, these are entirely different kinds of “events” than our large genealogy conferences, you might say.

Right.  That’s because many, many years ago, we borrowed the “academic/ professional” conference model from other fields. It seems, however, that people in other fields really seem to like “events.” 
So, let’s roll back time a bit and speculate what might have happened had another model been chosen.  Let’s look for another “hobbyist” field that may have some similarities to genealogy.  You might be surprised by the one I’ve settled upon.


Now, if you’re not a quilter – or like me, married to one – you may not immediately see the similarities.  So, to get you started, here are just a few. 

Comparing Two Worlds

One o' the Missus' fishes
Quilters have varying levels of expertise, like genealogists. A quilter can be quite happy doing relatively simple stuff for many years, just like a genealogist.  

Quilters read about their hobby in hobbyist magazines and on the internet, just like genealogists.  Quilters like to read about techniques and like to learn how to do new things, just like genealogists. 

Difference here is that there are lots more popular quilting magazines than popular genealogy magazines, and apparently no peer-reviewed academic-like quilting journals.  The other difference: far more people subscribe to quilting magazines than to genealogy magazines.

Some quilters work alone; others like to join local groups known as quilt guilds.  Some genealogists work alone; other like to join local genealogy societies.

Quilters often take classes, go to workshops and attend seminars, just like genealogists. There are also lots of gizmos and gadgets to use and learn about.

Within the world of professional quilting, there are professionals who take commissions, experienced quilters who are teachers and lecturers, conducting classes and workshops for a fee for local quilt guilds, and “certified” quilters with initials after their names who judge quilts at exhibitions and appraise them.  Quilters write and publish books and articles.  The world of genealogy is eerily similar.

Many – but not all – quilters join one or more of several national societies, like the American Quilter’s Society (AQS), kind of like it is in genealogy.

There are many other comparisons (age/gender demographics, regional interest, etc.) where quilters track right alongside (or very close to) genealogists (although not many guys quilt), but these are probably enough to make the point that, as hobbyists, quilters and genealogists aren’t that far apart.  In fact, sometimes they’re the same people. 

Meet the very talented genealogist-quilter Ann S. Lainhart.  You can see the exquisitely beautiful work of Ann S. Lainhart at her website here

Ann is a quilter’s quilter and also a genealogist’s genealogist; she’s the author of GPC’s State Census Records and NEHGS’s A Researcher’s Guide To Boston. Furthermore, Ann is the former Historian General of the Society of Mayflower Descendants.  Oh, did I mention that she was a quilter, too?

Events – Similar But Very Different

As you might expect, quilters have things to go to, much like our genealogy conferences.  They call ‘em Quilt Shows.

What’s the difference? 

Well, first – let’s talk about the similarities.  

Quilt shows have workshops and classes led by nationally known quilters.  Quilt shows have exhibit halls where they can buy supplies, fabric, sewing equipment and books from exhibiting vendors.  Quilt shows have side trips to quilting museums and textile arts centers.  Quilters who attend quilt shows go home with new ideas, new enthusiasm and new fat quarters for their fabric stashes.  Quilters get to meet their friends from around the country and see the latest trends in quilting which are on exhibit.  There are door prizes and cash prizes for the juried quilt exhibits.

So, like I said, what’s the difference? 

Quilt shows attract lots – I mean LOTS – of attendees.

How many is “LOTS?”

PADUCAH – Can You Hear Me Now?

In Paducah, Kentucky, the headquarters of the American Quilter’s Society, the annual Quilt Show attracts between 30,000 and 40,000 quilters for a 4-day event.  Nearly 50,000 folks attended the Paducah event in flush economic times. Smaller AQS events in places like Lancaster, PA, Knoxville, KY and Des Moines, IA gate many multiples of even the best genealogy conferences ever held. 

Consider that even a smaller, locally sponsored regional quilt event like the one in Lowell, MA gets about 5,000 paying quilters every year.  Here’s the link.

By the way, Paducah has a population of about 26,000 – hardly a major metropolis. Still, the Quilt Show attracts more people than the town’s entire population every year.

What makes quilt shows work so well?  While I don’t claim to know all the answers, here’s my considered opinion:

Quilt Shows are Events.  Events generate excitement, even among amateurs. 

Sizzle, Excitement and Things A La Carte

Quilt Shows sell SIZZLE.  First, take a look at the AQS’s website here.  

The website draws you in and makes you want to go to Paducah for the excitement, even if you’re not a quilter. Of course, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t go to Paducah this year, because it was in April.  It’s over till 2012.  But you could still sign up for Knoxville in July. 

Remember, though, that quilt shows do things “a la carte.”  Buy what you want in advance on their state of their art website.  It looks inexpensive to start, but it all adds up.  On the other hand, genealogy conferences look expensive to start, but are actually bargains by comparison.  Like most things in life, appearance is everything.

In Knoxville, half day workshops are $45, full day workshops, $75 and one hour workshops $12.  There are river cruises.  There are talks.  Some stuff is free, most everything else costs something. You can sign up online and easily fill up three of the four days with learning experiences for about $250, which includes the initial cost of registration ($30).  You will, of course, leave the other day for your foray into the exhibit hall with hundreds of exhibitors, ready to sell you whatever you need and also to see the quilts on display.  It’s a quilt SHOW, remember?

You can also just spend $30 for the registration and spend four days wandering around, looking at quilts and visiting the exhibitors.  Whatever floats your boat.

Bottom Lining It All

Bottom line: quilters do it right.  First of all, they know that stuff isn’t free.  They also know that you spend money for stuff that you find interesting. Their events don’t purport to be scholarly and don’t start out by asking you to register with a large “all-inclusive” fee.  You want to learn something? Pay as you go.  You want to shop?  Have at it.  Need inspiration?  There are yards of it.

Would this work for genealogists?  Hard to say – it’s never been tried on a large scale within the genealogy market.  Generally, genealogists are a bit resistant to change, probably because so many of them come to the hobby late in life.

Will genealogy conferences survive by reusing the same model year after year?  Probably.

Is there room for improvement and innovation?  Absolutely.

Will it happen? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, when it comes to long-term success, smart money - including mine - is on the quilters.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

If I Had A Crystal Ball and a Magic Wand – What I Think About Conference Improvement

An Opinion Or Two Or Three

In the last post, I left the famous Gertrude Stein “What is the answer?” question hanging in mid-air.  Here’s what supposedly happened next with Miss Stein - 

Reportedly, after a moment of strained silence, and with no immediate reply coming from her friend Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude’s deathbed response to her own question was a groggy, “Well then, what is the question?

In this blog’s case, the question at hand is:  

What, if anything, needs to be done to improve, modify and/or expand large genealogy conferences? 

And, since I’ve never been one to shy away from an opinion, especially my own, I intend to offer a few observations, albeit in no particular order.

Those Cute Dolls – What’s With That?

First, let’s think “matryoshka dolls”.  Those are those neat hollow Russian dolls, ranging in size from large to tiny, that nest inside of each other.  In other words, think about a series of smaller conferences/ meetings within the main conference, so that the “conference” could unpack itself in a specific location and have a number of smaller “stand-alone” parts.  In some respects, this is already happening.  Groups like the Association of Professional Genealogists and the Board for Certification of Genealogists now use national conferences to hold their important meetings as well.  

But what about other groups with a core genealogy component?  Maybe reaching out to the educational arms of the DAR and SAR (to think of two very large groups) or perhaps to some of the Civil War groups or family heritage groups whose membership is based upon a provable line of descent and encouraging them to join in the conference activities with educational activities of their own.  Bottom line here: the more interesting activities that go on, the more people will come. Some of those activities could be “stand-alone” add-ons to the conference.  Think “three-ring circus.”

Posters & Panels

Second, think about having “poster sessions”, as they are called in academic/scientific/medical circles, added to a national conference. Poster sessions (where submitters construct an actual poster to display information about their topic of choice and then talk about it) are a great way for relatively new or inexperienced speakers to showcase their work and talents.  They’re also a great way to showcase really obscure topics for which the audience or “market” is very small. 

Let’s say Sally wants to speak at next year’s big conference, but nobody has ever heard of Sally.  Let’s say Sally wants to talk about Italian immigration to central New York in the 1870s, a topic she’s worked on for a dozen or so years or more.  She’s the expert, but nobody knows her.  It’s also not a topic that would likely attract a huge conference audience outside of central New York. 

Now let’s suppose there were “poster session” space and time available.  Sally could submit a poster proposal, much like a lecture proposal.  It would be reviewed by the same program committee.  Since the concept behind poster sessions usually is to showcase the work of newcomers and invite them into the larger community of seasoned researchers, her poster proposal would have a much greater chance of success.  At poster sessions, the folks who’ve designed their “posters” (a highly visual display – often as large as 4 by 8 feet – that “walks” the viewer through the topic) are available to talk about their work to whomever is interested.  In fields outside of genealogy, it’s a great way to get yourself known – and to let your peers know what’s going on in other dark corners of the research world where  not much light shines.

Poster sessions are common in scientific fields, but still new to fields like history and genealogy.  Here’s a link to this year’s “poster session” topics at the American Historical Association’s recent conference. 

While we’re at it, how about more topically focused panels of three or more presenters with diverse backgrounds?  This is often done in combination with poster sessions.  It’s also a great way to address controversial issues.  Imagine a panel discussion titled “If The Pols Don’t Get It – Get New Ones: Strategies For Reversing The Growing Trends Toward Library, Archives and Records Closures?” Chances are, that would attract a warm body or two.

Is It Like “Speed Dating” on Steroids?

Third, Pecha-Kucha.  (it means “sound/casual chatter” in Japanese).  Pecha-Kucha is a PowerPoint presentation technique that’s been around for a few years now, but hasn’t seemed to have gotten much of a toe-hold in genealogy. It’s like a blend of PowerPoint on steroids and speed dating. 

How does it work?  It’s pretty simple. 

The presenter prepares exactly twenty slides for the presentation on a highly specific topic.  During the presentation, each slide remains on the screen for exactly twenty seconds while the presenter makes the relevant point(s) necessary. Each mini-presentation takes just under 7 minutes.  Bottom line: highly focused presenter, highly focused audience.  Nod off and you’ll miss it.  The other neat thing to consider is that, with proper scheduling, a presenter could give the same presentation a number of times at the same conference so that anyone wanting to hear it would not be disappointed.  

Think of it as the “haiku” of presentations.  It lends itself to topics that are concise, and they’re especially useful for “how-to” presentations on new technology. I know it can work because I’ve tried doing something similar.  There’s a part of my census talk that was written as a pecha-kucha presentation.  While it’s part of a larger presentation, it could also stand alone, since it addresses a very specific “stand-alone” topic within a larger topic.  Most experienced speakers could probably distill the essence of their fifty minute presentation down into 4 highly focused pecha-kucha modules that could be presented throughout the conference.  

How About More Quality Time?

Fourth, consider having one fewer Exhibit Hall day, but making up for it with more “unopposed” vendor time on the other days.  Why? First of all, there is no “Parkinson’s Law” of Money. Money simply does not expand to fill the time allotted if the conference attendees are the same people each day. Large department stores (Walmart excepted) know that, which is why shopping malls aren’t open round the clock. 

Lots of “new” exhibitors with only a conference or two under their belt think that the longer the Exhibit Hall is open, the more sales they will make.  It’s a nice idea, and it certainly sounds eminently logical, but the actual vendor sales numbers rarely support the hypothesis. People will set a budget for their conference purchases, then they will shop, and then . . . they will stop. It doesn’t really matter if the Exhibit Hall is up and functioning for three days or for four as long as there’s as much time to shop/browse/buy in three days as there are in four. From the vendor’s point of view, the big exhibit expenses are not racked up in the booth rental fees; in fact, they’re highly dependent upon the number of days that spent on the road and at the conference itself. 

We’ve exhibited in four-day, three-day and two and a half day Exhibit Halls.  Actual sales revenues, however, were much more reflective of (a.) the availability of “quality” shopping time and (b.) the number of attendees and (c.) the number of vendors in the room competing for the same spendable dollars.   The trick is to avoid diminishing returns.

Hint to conference organizers:  The larger the Exhibit Hall and the more vendors you sign up, the more unopposed browsing time will be required.  Otherwise, your attendees will complain about not having enough time. And yeah, I know you think you’re doing everybody a favor by opening the Exhibit Hall at 8 AM every day.  However, most of those days, there are 70 exhibit staffers and only 6 or so conferees in the room for at least the first 45 minutes. The rest are having breakfast, driving in and/or looking for parking or on their way to a conference session.  (I know you’ve arrived at this “early opening” idea through thorough committee discussion.  Problem is, you are rarely in the Hall at 8AM yourself, so you’re only guessing about what’s going on in there.)

8 AM till 9 AM is not “quality” exhibit hall time.  The best quality time is the block that’s tacked on before or after lunch.

Playing The Numbers Game: Talking It Up And Thinking Big

Fifth, there’s that small matter of attendance.  You know, the registrants. The conferees or whatever you want to call them. First, after the volunteers, speakers and exhibitors (remember: they’re all registered, so they’re counted in the final attendance figures), there are the conference “regulars”, a core group of professionals and conference groupies that will go pretty much anywhere anytime for a genealogy conference.  Middle of nowhere, accessible only by horse or mule? They’ll be there.  Then, there are the “almost” or “wannabe” professionals/ groupies who go as frequently as possible.  Next, the “serious genealogist/ casual conference goer” group; they’ll show up if enough stuff on the program looks interesting and if everything else (travel-wise) falls into place.  Finally, there are the folks who live locally or within a day’s drive of the conference and are willing to fork over the cost of a registration to check things out. This is actually a pretty large group.  Still, each of the last two or three groups could be larger.

Think about more promotion, more hype, more chatter, and a whole lot less preaching to those already on board – they already know what’s going on and have already made up their minds. Offer group discounts to any local genealogical society in North America who books 15 or more registrations at one time.  Blanket the local media – including radio and TV - with interesting leads for stories, not just press releases.  More sizzle and lots of it.  Encourage the local non-genealogy types who might think that genealogists are docs who deal exclusively with “lady parts” to come on down and surf the Exhibit Hall in person and take the new, constantly available 15 minute “mini-course” on starting your family history the right way.  Then, keep telling the conference story AFTER the conference.  Think of it as the conference “book review.”  

Review it for your own members IN GRAND AND GLORIOUS DETAIL in your newsletters and magazines, so that the members who didn’t go this year will want to go next time.  Then, highlight some of the “new” things that happened at the conference.  You’re having the Archivist of the United States speak?  Let the world know before and after the conference.  It’s a big deal.

I could go on and on, but I already have.  

There will be one more “forward-looking” post on this topic coming up next, with a comparison to what’s happening in an altogether different non-genealogical field conference-wise and how we in genealogy might “borrow” some ideas from other areas, and then I’ll move on.