In October 2022 Gillian Hunt and Fintan Mullan delivered their second Irish research programme as part of the British Institute. Because of the practical issues of staging the event in-person in Salt Lake City UT (as is usually the case), caused by the effects of coming out of the Covid pandemic in 2022 the British Institute was a virtual event. Organised by the International Society of British Genealogy and Family History (ISBGFH) this prestigious annual event enables family historians to participate in a week-long programme comprising taught classes plus interactive Q&A sessions.

British Institute - class of 2022

British Institute Report by Fintan Mullan

Readers of the Directory of Irish Family History Research (one of the annual publications received by the Foundation's members) may recall in October 2018 Gillian Hunt and Fintan Mullan delivered their first Irish research programme in Salt Lake City as part of the annual ‘British Institute’ hosted by International Society for British Genealogy and Family History (ISBGFH). That pre-Covid, and thus in-person, event was a wonderful experience – for the speakers as much as the participants – as they got to enjoy this fascinating city, and explore the Family History Library, which for family historians has, in genealogical terms, riches beyond the dreams of avarice.

In October 2022 the format was a little different, but still a wonderful experience. The coronavirus lockdowns had meant the event in 2020 was postponed completely, was then held virtually in 2021, and it was hoped might be back to in-person again by 2022, but alas, the ongoing pandemic, and various waves of Covid – in Utah, across the continent, indeed the world, meant it was logistically a step too far, even for the indefatigable Megan (Heyl) to pull all the strands together to make a return visit to SLC feasible. Megan tried every which way to make it so, but there were too many practical difficulties.

So virtual it was. And for everyone involved the physical experience got no more exotic than a trip to their own home office, and sat plonked in front of the computer screen. But Zoom (or Teams or GotoWebinar) is a very effective medium for presenting and extremely efficient in terms of the use of everyone’s time.

Not only that, as we have come to learn over these past three years, virtual programmes have many other benefits and open up programmes like the British Institute for those who might otherwise not be able to participate. It meant people who could not commit to a full week because of family and work commitments could dip in and out. Or those worried about undertaking travel because of health issues – where they need to shield or need additional requirements when travelling – could participate where an in-person event would have ruled them out. Or those on fixed incomes and limited budgets who could not or did not want to incur the expense of a week-long stay away were able to enjoy the experience.

In addition, as the syllabus was presented live but also recorded, it meant anyone wily enough could multi-task, run errands, chat on the phone with friends or kick back with a cold ‘brewski’ unbeknownst to the ‘teachers’ and still revisit the recorded sessions for up to two months after the live programme had ended.

The old format in Salt Lake City was: lectures in the hotel in the morning, followed by one-on-one consultations with the participants in the Library in the afternoon. The Zoom British Institute was slightly different: a half day of presentations plus Q&A, with the morning devoted to the teaching element, meaning they could use the afternoon or evening to delve deeper into the materials provided, (while also enjoying family and home life).

Moreover, there was no cutting back on the programme content. A full syllabus was presented with each of the five days comprising at least four full length presentations (five on the Thursday), and ranging across the ‘greatest hits’ in terms of content: land divisions, archives and institutions, census, civil and church records (two sessions), Griffith’s Valuation, tithe and landed estate records, census substitutes and printed sources (two sessions each), gravestone inscriptions, wills and testamentary records, education records, Registry of Deeds, law and order records, Board of Guardian, workhouse registers and grand jury records, sources relating to the seventeenth century (and Ulster Plantation), and sources for finding emigrant ancestors.

There were 17 participants on this week-long programme, a number of them old friends from 2018, including Dan Poffenberger who works at the Family History Library and was on hand to keep us right as to which sources being discussed in the presentations were held in the Library’s collection. Dan was like our very own elf, or ‘fifth Beatle’, and was such a welcome font of knowledge to augment the information provided by the presenters. Whether new acquaintances or old timers from before, everyone listened attentively, asked many good intelligent questions, and contributed enthusiastically during the open Q&A sessions, so much so, that virtual or not, we felt a good esprit de corps built up with the class of ’22.

While maybe less exciting for all than a visit to ‘Genealogy Central’ the practicalities of delivering a virtual programme cannot be gainsaid. As presenters we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and are grateful to the ISBGFH team: Megan (Education Director), Sylvia Tracy-Doolos (President and moderator of the Irish course), Thomas MacEntee (Technology and Resources), Sue McNelly (Membership and Registrations), Barbara Scanlon (Treasurer) and all the Trustees of the ISBGFH board for inviting us back and looking after the logistics and technology with such efficiency, we recall not a single glitch the whole week.

We would like to thank everyone who signed up for the programme and hope they found it helpful to their research. As we all know, every day is a learning day in family history, and we, the presenters, learned a lot from those taking part in this year’s British Institute and are grateful to them for the shared experience. All we can say is best of luck to the tutors and attendees for BI 2023!