6 Tips to Create Family History Books They Can’t Put Down
I started creating family history books a decade ago. These 6 strategies helped me share my genealogy research findings in books that made fascinating, affordable and easy-to-mail gifts.
My Dilemma: How to Share My Family History
Several years ago, I began sharing my family history research with my relatives. We don’t live close to them, so I had to mail whatever I shared.
Initially, I sent CDs full of digitized photos and documents, but they just didn’t get looked at like I had hoped. Individual items on CDs didn’t easily or smoothly tell a story.
Also, I think some of my relatives found the technology a bit intimidating back then. And many people just don’t care for viewing photos, documents or stories on a computer screen.
I found that the solution to sharing with all family members was a good old fashioned book!
Books are still hard to beat for telling a story in words and pictures in an extremely easy to use way. Self-publishing little hardbound family history books helped me break up my research sharing into digestible chunks. And the best part? My family actually opened and read them them cover to cover.
But where to begin the family story, and where to end it? It’s tempting to tell the story of one generation in each book. But even this can become an overwhelming project, with an end product that is not as meaningful for your readers (lots of dates and names, without a lot of room for stories or photos).
I wanted my family to get to know our ancestors intimately. For me, that meant focusing on one person or one event instead of entire generations or families.
Where to Start
I started with my favorite ancestor: my grandmother.
I’ve transcribed many years of her diaries, which are full of her stories about years spent in nurse’s training. Those journal entries taught me so much and led me to some great discoveries about her life. They also dovetail beautifully with my collection of photos from that period.
So I decided that my starting point would be her graduation from high school and her decision to enter the nursing field.
By the time I had pulled everything together from 1930 to 1933, I had more than enough for a nice size book: “A Nurse in Training.”
Tips to Create Family History Books
It’s really important to create your book with your “customer” in mind: your family member who will be reading the book. So here are my top tips for making your book fascinating to your reader:
#1. Convey an overall theme
Review all the available material that you have. That will give you a sense of what stories you can tell and, hopefully, a sense of your ancestors’ goals, experiences and emotions.
In the case of “A Nurse In Training,” I wanted to communicate my grandmother as a young woman, taking on a new adventure away from home. Both funny times and deeply challenging times formed the foundation of this warm, caring woman’s successful career. And she just happened to meet her husband at the same time!
You don’t need every scrap of research and every photo to get this theme across. It’s your job to be a sharp editor to pick out the critical pieces.
#2. Make it readable in one sitting.
Like it or not, if the book takes too long read, your relatives won’t. Strive to create a book that doesn’t look intimidating.
I create books that are 20 double-sided pages. People will be willing to pick up a thinner book off the coffee table. And if it’s well done, they’ll find that they’ve suddenly finished the entire book without once thinking of putting it down! Hopefully they’ll walk away with a real sense of having gotten to know that ancestor.
#3. Fill it with the best of what you have.
This goes back to conveying the theme and being a tough editor.
My grandma had many funny stories, but there just wasn’t room for all of them. I picked only the best of the best. Anyone who reads the book should hopefully come away with the fact that my grandma had a sense of humor and could laugh at herself.
I made sure some of the most compelling stories were at the beginning: if you can capture their interest in the first three pages, you’ll have them hooked for the entire book.
#4. Pack it with photos and graphics.
A picture is definitely worth a thousand words. And since words in a small book will be limited, photographs will be your best friend.
If you’re lacking in family photos, consult my Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes for countless ideas for finding appropriate images.
In A Nurse In Training, I included scanned images of skating rink tickets, programs and announcements from my grandma’s scrapbook and journal pages in my grandmother’s own hand. These types of items really add texture and interest to a book, and help the reader to see that you’ve really done your homework.
#5. Keep it in chronological order.
This seems obvious, but it’s easy to get side-tracked and start going back and forth in time. Believe me, for the reader’s sake, use dates and keep things in chronological order.
You as the researcher know this information backwards and forwards, but this is probably your reader’s first exposure to it. Be gentle with them and keep it straightforward and simple. Your reader will thank you.
#6. Choose quality!
High-quality glossy pages, good image quality and a hard cover binding all shout to the reader, “I’m worth your time! Read me!”
For example, I found a drawing of Dameron Hospital, which was part of my grandma’s story, but it was a low quality image and didn’t look good in the book. As much as I wanted to include it, I ended up leaving it out, and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t critical to my theme, and there were other ways to illustrate the hospital setting for the reader.
From Book to Movie: Create Your Own Family History Videos
My “Nurse in Training” book eventually became the basis for my very first family history videos. Watch them here–and see how I turned her own words into an illustrated narrative:
Next Step: Turn Your Family History Book Into a Movie
I created these before do-it-yourself video services like Animoto made it so easy. (And I think that’s why I appreciate them so much!)
If you’d like to put an ancestor’s story into video format but you’re not sure how, try writing it up as a short book first. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have an excellent start on your “screenplay.” You’ll also have a great little book to send loved ones as a gift. (If you do eventually turn that story into a short video, they’ll love it even more, because they’ll already know the story that they will see come alive on the screen.)
Click here to learn step-by-step how to create your own family history video.
RootsWeb Is Down: Data Recovery Strategies for the Genealogist
RootsWeb is down! This important free genealogy platform hosts millions of names on hundreds of genealogy-related websites for locales, societies, and even individual family trees. Here’s what you should know about the situation–and how you may be able to access older versions of RootsWeb or other sites that are not currently available.
RootsWeb had a security issue
On December 23, 2017, Ancestry.com reported receiving a tip that thousands of RootsWeb usernames and passwords were publicly exposed. Affected accounts were users of the RootsWeb surname list, which Ancestry discontinued earlier in the year.
For those of you not familiar with RootsWeb, it’s a long-time free web platform where individuals and organizations can host their own genealogy-related websites. I often find sites there with information about counties I’m researching in and sites run by local genealogy societies. More than 11 million names are indexed or transcribed on RootsWeb sites–that’s in addition to the wealth of information you’ll find on local history, sources, and societies. Ancestry.com has been hosting RootsWeb since 2000.
Even if this particular security concern doesn’t affect you directly, I encourage you to keep reading. This scenario provides a perfect example of the kinds of data security, privacy, and loss issues we need to be aware of as genealogists. Even if you don’t have a site yourself on RootsWeb, it’s a common resource you will likely come across as you research your family tree. So here are a few take-home points for everyone, including advice on how to look at archived versions of any website that is temporarily down or no longer in service.
The extent of the problem
Ancestry did some quick reconnaissance and reported the following:
- No sensitive personal information such as credit card or Social Security numbers were exposed since RootsWeb doesn’t collect it.
- That said, about 55,000 customers have the same account info for both RootsWeb and an Ancestry.com site, which means that these Ancestry.com customers’ login data was potentially compromised. Most affected accounts are free trial accounts or they’re not currently in use. But Ancestry says, “We are currently contacting these customers. Any user whose account had its associated email/username and password included on the file has had their accounts locked and will need to create a new password the next time they visit…We have no reason to believe that any Ancestry systems were compromised. Further, we have not seen any activity indicating the compromise of any individual Ancestry accounts.”
- Ancestry found other RootsWeb login information that could have been potentially exposed, and they’re letting these account-holders know.
- They have temporarily taken RootsWeb offline to do a “deep analysis” of the site’s design. Ancestry says they “are working to ensure that all data is saved and preserved to the best of our ability. As RootsWeb is a free and open community that has been largely built by its users, we may not be able to salvage everything as we work to resolve this issue and enhance the RootsWeb infrastructure.”
- In the Comments section of the Ancestry.com announcement, Anne Gillespie Mitchell stated, “We do not have a specific timeline at this point. We hope it will take no more than a few weeks to resolve these issues. RootsWeb mailing lists will, however, remain active.”
Bottom line: Anyone whose account was potentially affected is receiving an email notice to change their password. For everyone else, Ancestry.com says, “There is nothing you need to do as a result of this incident. However, we always recommend that you take the time to evaluate your own security settings. Please, never use the same username and password for multiple services or sites. And it’s generally good practice to use longer passwords and to change them regularly.”
RootsWeb is down: Why it matters and what to do
Contributing Editor Sunny Morton shared an email that was forwarded to her by her mother, a genealogy librarian at a public library in Northeast Ohio. I’m sharing it here with the permission of the author Cynthia, who helps manage several RootsWeb sites. Cynthia says:
“I put a couple of items on my websites the morning of the twenty-third. By that afternoon, RootsWeb was shut down. Almost the entire RootsWeb is down, probably for several weeks while they fix a security breach. This involves the Cleveland District Roundtable site, Cuyahoga GenWeb, Lake County GenWeb, and Lake County and East Cuyahoga County Genealogical Society sites. This feels even scarier than the last major outage. Fortunately, I have copies on my computer of my entire sites, so no panic for lost data. But [the data] is now not very accessible for most folks.”
Cynthia followed her message with this tip: “A workaround would be the WayBack Machine on Archive.org. You put in the URL and it shows you the dates they downloaded. You may need to look at several of them to find a more complete copy. Some are just a few front pages.”
I talked more extensively about the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (along with Google’s own backup copies, called caches) in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 145. Here’s how to use the Wayback Machine to find one of the downed websites Cynthia mentioned: the Cleveland District Roundtable, which is a fantastic collaborative directory and group calendar for all genealogical organizations in greater Cleveland, Ohio. If you run a Google search for that site now, you will find the site. But if you click on it, you’ll see a message that RootsWeb is currently unavailable:
When this happens, you can copy the URL from the top of the browser page and paste it into the Wayback Machine search box. You’ll then see a timeline showing that the Roundtable site has been captured (or archived) by the Wayback Machine 73 times since 2008, most recently (as shown by the arrow) on April 17, 2017:
Scroll down on the page a little to see a calendar, shown here, and you can click on highlighted dates on which updated captures were taken. Click on the most recent highlighted date.
Tips for everyone on avoiding genealogy data loss
A huge hat-tip to Cynthia for the work she does in her local genealogy community–and for sending out advice to those she knew would be affected by the temporary loss of RootsWeb. In addition to her tip on using the Wayback Machine, she says something else absolutely critical:
“Fortunately, I have copies on my computer of my entire sites, so no panic for lost data.”
The true and deep loss is when there is no backup copy of painstakingly-collected genealogy data, whether it’s a family tree, research files, or over 11 million names in RootsWeb’s online indexes and transcriptions. I’m not implying that RootsWeb is permanently lost: Ancestry.com does mention its plan to “resolve this issue and enhance the RootsWeb infrastructure.” But if they don’t bring all of RootsWeb back (they admit it’s possible there will be some loss), or if your genealogy data is lost from any website or computer, you always want to have a backup plan in place.
In this companion post, you’ll find a strategy for backing up your tree at Ancestry.com. It’s actually a template for something near and dear to my heart: a master plan for your genealogy data security. Things to think about in your master plan are:
- Saving digital copies of every document and artifact on your computer in organized, consistently labeled files. Listen to the free Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast episodes 32-33 for a tutorial on naming and organizing these files.
- Keeping your master family tree in software on your own computer rather than online. Click here to read why. I recommend RootsMagic software.
- Backing up everything on your computer with a reliable cloud-based backup service. Click here to read about the features you should look for in cloud-based backup; I myself use and recommend Backblaze.
Organize and secure your genealogy data once and for all
Genealogy Gems Premium Members can take genealogical organization and security to the next level with my how-to videos. I recommend these:
- “Take Control of Your Family Tree”
- “Hard Drive Organization, Parts 1 and 2”
- “Organize Your Research with Evernote”
- “Organizing Your DNA Matches”
Be sure to download the video class handouts on the video page. I can’t think of a better way to start the year off right than to take action to secure your hard-won data!
New and Updated Genealogy Records – United States
Though the United States is a relatively young country, its history is a rich source of genealogical information! This week we’re featuring new collections available for United States family history, from the big and exciting to the small and fascinating. Vital records will provide specific names and dates, while newspaper and quilt archives will give a glimpse of your ancestors’ lives in the U.S.
United States: Yearbooks, Freedman’s Bureau, & War of 1812 Pensions
Yearbooks. A brand new genealogy record collection is available at MyHeritage for U.S. Yearbooks 1890-1979. There are over 36 million pages from over a quarter of a million yearbooks from around the country. From the collection description: “Yearbooks are excellent genealogical records that include personal portraits and group photographs. These books can give a researcher insight into students, faculty, and staff who attended or worked at a school. The yearbooks in this huge compendium are primarily from high schools, which in the United States normally comprise grades 9 to 12 or 10 to 12.”
Freedman’s Bureau. FamilySearch has two new Freedman’s Bureau databases available online. The first is the collection of Records of Freedmen’s Complaints, 1865-1872. The complaints consisted of problems which freedmen brought to the Bureau’s attention. Many registers give the names of freedmen and the nature of the complaint, but others give only a synopsis of the case without names. The second new collection is the Freedmen’s Bureau Ration Records,1865-1872. These records include letters and endorsements sent and received, account books, applications for rations, applications for relief, court records, and more.
War of 1812. In a massive effort by the entire genealogical community, the War of 1812 Pension Application Files are now available for the first time online, hosted online for free at Fold3.com. The project is about 2/3 complete with nearly 2 million documents online today. The files generally contain documentation submitted in support of a claim, such as the original application form, affidavits, and statements from witnesses.
California. All of the nearly 19,000 issues of The Stanford Daily (1892-2004) are available in a new online database. The collection is entirely searchable and provides a firsthand account of life at Stanford University from 1892 to today.
Another interesting new collection of California State Archives photos is also now available online. The archives digitized nearly 3,000 photos of early 20th century California taken by William and Grace McCarthy, who traveled throughout the state when automobiles were a new form of transportation, including images of long-gone North County landmarks.
Colorado. Ancestry recently added a new collection of Steelworks Employment Records, 1887-1979. Records may contain names, birth dates, spouses, parents, and more.
Georgia. 16,000 pages of the Walker County Messenger dating from 1880-1924 have been added to the Georgia Historic Newspapers (GHN) website. Also newly added to the GHN database are historic Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah publications, including the Bulletin (1920-1962) and the Savannah Bulletin (1958).
New Hampshire. Over at FamilySearch, a new collection of Vital and Town Records Index, 1656-1938 is now available. It includes birth, marriage, and death records.
New York. Reclaim the Records just announced that they’ve obtained and published the first-ever public copies of the death index for Buffalo, New York, for the years 1852-1944. Over 640,000 names are included, though be aware that the scanned copies may have some edges cut off.
Another unique collection now available is the New York Quilt Project, an archive of over 6,000 quilts and their histories. From the collection description: “Details were recorded like family background, religion, where a quiltmaker learned the craft, why they made the quilt, and where they obtained textiles, and a small tab was sewn into the back of each quilt for identification. These stories often chronicle immigration to New York, as some quilts were brought over from Germany or Italy, and visually show through their patterns and designs the influence of different populations from around the world in the state.”
North Carolina. A collection of 60 hand-drawn Civil War sketches have been added to Digital North Carolina, drawn by soldier Edwin Graves Champney. The original artwork includes scenes showing landmarks, landscapes, and Union military activity. From Wake Forest University also comes a collection of 19 newspaper titles dating from 1857 to 1925. They were written for Christian (primarily Baptist) communities across North Carolina. Finally, almost two decades of the newspaper The Carolina Indian Voice, from 1977-1996, have been added to the collection at DigitalNC.
South Dakota. From a recent press release: “Several Sioux Falls German titles have recently been added to Chronicling America: The Sud (Soot) Dakota Nachrichten (Knock-rick-ten), 1896-1900; the Sud-Dakota Nachrichten und Herold, 1900-1901; the Nachrichten-Herold, 1901-1907; and the Deutscher (Doit-shur) Herold, 1907-1913. To view these newspapers please visit the Chronicling America Website.”
Virginia. The Virginia Newspaper Project recently announced that they have digitized copies of Richmond Whig and Commercial Journal, a daily published by John Hampden Pleasants and Josiah Abbot from 1831-1832. Both are now available on Virginia Chronicle.
Dig deep into your American roots
If you want to dive into your American genealogy, you’ll definitely need the brand new 4th edition of The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood. This new 4th edition has been completely updated, incorporating all the latest developments, principles, and resources relevant to family history research. There are now two chapters about technology as it relates to family history research–one dealing with significant concepts and definitions and the other with specific resources and applications, including major family history websites and Internet resources. Click here to get it right now!
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