Monday, July 28, 2014

IAJGS Conference Days 1 and 2

Here I am in beautiful Salt Lake City!  I have been told it was 100+ degrees the past two days, but it really is a dry heat, so it's much more comfortable than when I used to live in Florida.  On the other hand, I do appreciate the air conditioning at the Hilton Hotel, which is where the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy is being held this year.  We've already gone through two days of the conference, and this is the first chance I've had to write about it.

I was told several years ago by a former boss that if you go to a conference and learn one thing that you can take away and use in your work, that's a successful conference.  Going by that, I'm doing very well so far — I've had one session each day where I learned new techniques I could take away and use, plus I've had some great social get-togethers.

The biggest surprise for me so far has been the sessions I have found the most interesting.  On Sunday I went to a presentation by Crista Cowan of on search tips for the site.  Now, anyone who knows me has probably heard me rant about Ancestry and how they present records on the site (along with a lot of other things).  The main reasons I decided to attend the session were that there wasn't really anything else in that time slot I was interested in, and I thought it would be amusing to see what Cowan had to say.  I figured it was going to be nothing but a sales pitch.

Cowan opened by emphasizing that the presentation was only about search and that she wouldn't answer questions about any other topic.  She then asked attendees what burning questions they had about searching on Ancestry.  My contribution was to ask why entering terms in fields on search pages returned results that didn't match those fields when I specified exact matches only.

After noting several questions, she told us, "You know that Ancestry ad where they say you don't have to know what you're looking for, you just have to start looking?  Well, they're wrong.  That's for those people who are just starting, so they can find something and then they'll buy subscriptions."  That was an indication that the class was going to be more worthwhile than I thought!  She was refreshingly honest about how Ancestry markets.  She said you absolutely need to think about what you're looking for, which I've been saying for years.  She also agreed with what I tell people, which is that you should never search from the home page.  Just like me, she always goes to the advanced search page.

I already use most of the hints she told us about, such as going to the database you need when you are looking for specific information, marking "exact only", restricting by location, searching without names, and more.  And she told us the reason the search pages are not set on exact search by default (which someone asked about) is for new researchers, because otherwise they probably wouldn't find anything and then wouldn't want to pay.

Some technical aspects she discussed were also informative.  If the database is index only and has no images, Ancestry didn't create it, so it is licensed from someone else; Ancestry usually does not make corrections to those databases.  Most of the databases with images have indices that Ancestry created.  The reason a search term must have a minimum of three letters is because otherwise it takes too much processing time on their servers (something I had learned previously from Steve Morse, who has improved search pages for many Ancestry databases on his One-Step Webpages site).  At the bottom of the advanced search page, if you change the collection priority to Jewish, the Soundex search will be based on Daitch-Mokotoff instead of American Soundex (which could turn out to be very helpful to me).

At the end of the presentation, when she was doing her wrap-up, she had not addressed my question about receiving irrelevant results when I requested exact matches on a search page, so I asked again.  The specific example I cited was searches in the California voter registers, where I can specify a register year of 1946 and receive results from other years but that have street addresses of 1946.  I had long suspected that the cause was that the database of search terms was not mapped to the fields on the search page.  She confirmed this in a roundabout way by telling us that typed documents, such as those voter registers, are not transcribed by people but are OCR scanned.  That means that the terms are not coded in search fields, so when you search for anything, it's just a word in the database.  As far as I'm concerned, that means the search page shouldn't have fields such as first name, last name, or year, because it's misleading.  There should just be a line for keywords.  I have the same problem with newspaper databases such as

The other informative session I attended was on Monday, by Josh Taylor of FindMyPast/BrightSolid/DCThomson and the Federation of Genealogical Societies.  He spoke about ways to get members of the younger generations — "21sters" — interested in genealogy and active in genealogy societies.  This was essentially the same presentation of his I heard a couple of years ago, but he has updated it and refined some of his opinions.  I went to this primarily because I volunteered to introduce him and be the room monitor, but I hoped there might also be helpful information that could be applied in the societies I belong to.

His big message for attracting the younger generation is that you have to connect online and use technology.  You also have to abandon old-fashioned approaches such as pedigree charts and citations, because those don't appeal to this generation.  He did not say it directly, but the message was that people accustomed to instant gratification don't want to take the time to learn how to research, prove, and document information.  They just want to know the answers and then move on.  While I don't agree with trying to implement that part of what he said, he had some ideas about marketing and outreach that could be interesting to try.  One was reaching out and trying to build community partnerships, such as with schools and youth organizations, and maybe sponsoring a writing contest or scholarship.  Another was having some sort of table or event at a mall, where the younger generations hangs out.  He spoke about Reddit but admitted that answering a bunch of questions online for free didn't readily translate into someone becoming involved with a society.  Something that wouldn't necessarily apply to 21sters but could help attract more inquiries was to have your society listed at the local convention and visitors bureau.  There were a lot of ideas, which I'm going to have to type up and bring to my next couple of board meetings for discussion,.

The networking opportunities so far have been wonderful.  On Sunday several professional genealogists got together and talked about what kinds of research and other professional work we do and how we might be able to work together and help each other.  On Monday IAJGS President Marlis Humphrey held a media lunch for bloggers, writers, journalists, etc., apparently the first time this has been done at an IAJGS conference.  She discussed some of the marketing concepts IAJGS is considering and how outreach can be improved.  And Monday evening a bunch of us Jewish bloggers (and James Tanner, who is not Jewish) sat down for an informal bring-your-own-dinner meeting.  We talked about our blogs, why we started them, and what kinds of things we write about and generally schmoozed for a couple of hours.  It was really nice to meet a lot of people face to face and not just as e-mail addresses and URL's online.

There have been some significant disappointments at the conference, unfortunately.  One speaker just talked about personal anecdotes from his family; another mumbled and didn't project into the microphone; at three sessions the speakers read directly from their typed notes and didn't look at the audience.  (At one of those, I could see from the reverse side of the paper that text was formatted as from a journal, so I walked out and figured I'll search for the article and read it myself.)  Two talks gave no information about how to research the topic, just showed several examples of information with no context.  Another speaker started off by saying that there was a lot of material to cover so we had to get going, then spent the first ten minutes telling us what she wouldn't be discussing.  And the worst was an hour of excruciating, painfully executed English that was mostly not understandable, which ended with a shill to get money.  And to think the conference isn't giving us evaluation sheets for the talks!!

But tomorrow (Tuesday) is another day!  Which I really need to get some sleep for ....


  1. Nice to meet you at the bloggers' dinner, Janice!

  2. Nice to meet you also, Lara! I am impressed by the number of posts you have written about the conference!


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