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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.

cant put down family history books

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.

The Solution

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.

 family history book I created about my Grandma.

Cover of the family history book I created about my Grandma.

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.

Photo from my family history book

Grandma was proud to be a nurse and I’m proud to tell her story.

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!

Tips for how to create a family history book

A page from “A Nurse in Training.”

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.

Photo from my book: Grandma as a nurse in the TB ward

Grandma working the TB ward at San Francisco Hospital in 1933

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:

animoto how a genealogy society can grow membershipNext 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.

4 Easy Steps to Preserving Old Letters

Preserving old family letters is one of the best things you can do to be sure their precious content is available to future generations. Follow these easy steps from The Archive Lady, Melissa Barker, to organize and preserve the old correspondence in your family history archive.

Writing letters has become a thing of the past! If you are fortunate enough to have a collection of old family letters, you have a true treasure.

In addition to digitizing them, physically preserving them is one of the best things you can do to save the genealogical information contained in those old family letters. Here are some simple steps to preserve the old letters that you may have.

Preserving Old Letters in 4 Easy Steps

1. Arrange letters chronologically.

You can go by the date on the letter itself or by the postmark date on the envelope.

It is important to put your old letters in chronological order because sometimes there is information in those letters that continue from letter to letter and you want to make sure you read them in the order originally written.

If you have groups of letters from different events such as WWII letters, college letters, or vacation letters, you could group them together and then organize each grouping by date.

Preserving Old Letters Archive Lady

(Courtesy Houston County, TN. Archives.) Old letters like these need careful preservation.

2. Unfold old letters.

Once you have put your letters in chronological order, it’s time to do some preservation work.

I am asked all the time about letters and whether to leave them folded and in their envelopes. I can tell you that all archivists remove the letters from the envelopes and archive them unfolded. The creases made by folding and unfolding letters can cause damage and eventually those creases get weak and can cause the letters to tear into pieces. It is always best to unfold old family letters.

preserving old letters 4 steps

3. Encapsulate the old letters.

The term encapsulates means “to enclose something or to completely cover something.”

Now that you have unfolded and flattened your letters, you will want to encapsulate them in archival safe sleeves that can be purchased at any online archival supply store. Look for reputable preservation supply companies like Gaylord.

Preserving Family Letters Family Archivist

An encapsulated letter

Be sure to put the envelope with the letter in the same sleeve so that it doesn’t get lost or mixed up with another letter that it doesn’t belong to. When you’re working with many letters in a collection, the letter can easily be separated from the envelope. But envelopes may include crucial details such as dates, the identity and address of the writer, and interesting postmarks, so you want to keep them together.

4. Filing and storing old letters.

After you have put your letters in chronological order, unfolded them and encapsulated them, it is now time to file and store them.

Archivists prefer to put their encapsulated letters into archival file folders and then into archival boxes, being sure to keep the chronological order intact. (Click here for Gaylord’s Family Archives Document Preservation Kit, complete with archival folders and an archival box.)

This process gives you three layers of protection for your letters to ensure they are completely preserved and protected from bugs, dust, and anything else that could get to them and damage them.

Following these guidelines to preserving your family letters will ensure they are protected and saved for you to enjoy and for your future descendants to enjoy!

Perserving Old Family Letters (3)

Next step: Digitize your old family letters.

Old letters can fall prey to many unfortunate situations. Ink can fade and paper can crumble. If this happens, the messages on your old letters may eventually be lost, despite your best efforts. It’s also possible that the entire file folder full of the original letters could be lost, damaged, or even destroyed!

Digitizing your old family letters lets you digitally preserve the content for future generations. It’s the best way to added another layer of protection. Duplication is a fundamental key to preservation. 

In the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 144, host and producer Lisa Louise Cooke talks with The Family Curator Denise Levenick about digitizing and organizing your family history. Click here to hear their conversation and start preserving your own family letters and other original documents. 

Free-Podcast-292x300 preserving old letters

You’ll Never Regret Preserving Your Old Family Letters

As you can seem it’s actually pretty easy to preserve your old family letters. I encourage you to get started today so that you’ll never have regrets in the future. 

About the Author:

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, Genealogy Gems earns from qualifying purchases. This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Find Historical Photos at Flickr Creative Commons

Historical photos and images can bring depth and understanding to genealogical findings. In the case of sharing your family history with others in your family who don’t share your passion for genealogy, they are an essential part of bringing family history to life.

One of the best free online resources for historical photos is the Creative Commons at Flickr.

Flickr is a popular photo, image and video hosting and sharing service. It’s a great platform for sharing your favorite photos with family and friends. It’s also an excellent place to find images that fit into your family history.

find historical photos for genealogy

An important part of the Flickr world is Creative Commons, which describes itself as part of a “worldwide movement for sharing historical and out-of-copyright images.”

Groups and individuals alike upload old images, tag and source them, and make them available to others through the Creative Commons. And when it comes to groups, the list of participants is impressive.

The British Library photostream features over a million images in its photostream! And a robust collection of historical photos and images can be found at the (U.S.) Library of Congress photostream, with over 34,000+ photos.

Searching the Creative Commons

When searching the Creative Commons, be sure to look for your favorite libraries and historical societies. If you don’t find them today, don’t worry. Check back regularly because new content is being added all the time.

Here’s another example of what you can find at the Creative Commons. The Netherlands Institute of Military History (Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie) has a photostream.

"Exercise Field Artillery Corps" album, image AKL092038, Netherlands Institute of Military History uploads at Flickr Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nimhimages/16026248719/.

“Exercise Field Artillery Corps” album, image AKL092038, Netherlands Institute of Military History uploads at Flickr Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nimhimages/16026248719/.

According to the Netherlands Institute of Military History blog, “The Institute exists to serve all those with an interest in the military past of the Netherlands. Its sphere of activities covers the Dutch armed forces on land, at sea and in the air, from the sixteenth century until now. The staff of the NIMH administer a unique military history collection containing approximately 2 million images, of which they will be uploading many to the site.”

Back in 2015 when we first wrote about their brand new photostream it only included a couple dozen images, like the one shown here. Today they have well over 3,300.

Tips for Finding and Using Historical Photos at the Creative Commons

Searching for Historical Photos: On a photostream home page, click the search icon (magnifying glass) just above the first row of photos in the upper right corner. A search box will pop up at the top of the page. Enter Keywords to search for images within that photostream. (Image below)

photostream search

Location isn’t Everything: Just like with brick and mortar libraries, don’t let the location of the library or archive hosting the photostream fool you! Their collections are not limited to only items in their area. If you’re in search of something specific, try the Flickr Advanced Search page here.

Understanding Downloading and Copyright: Those who post images to Flickr Creative Commons offer different rights to those who want to download and use their images. Described here (and searchable here by the kinds of rights you want), those rights may include the ability to use a photo as long as it’s for noncommercial purposes and proper credit is given. Perfect for a responsible, source-citing genealogist!

10 Favorite Flickr Photostreams with Historical Focus

It would be impossible to list all of the potential photostreams at Flickr’s Creative Commons that feature historical photos, so I won’t even try. However, I’m happy to provide this list of favorites, which illustrates the breath and depth of possibilities. I hope it inspires you to search out your favorite library or archive at the Creative Commons.

(Organized by number of photos)

Internet Archive Book Images
5,240,000+ Photos
Though not currently organized by Albums or Galleries, there is something here for absolutely everybody! Use the search feature to zero in on what you want. (See tips section below)

The British Library
1,000,000+ Photos
A gloriously eclectic mix of images. Just one example: World War I: The Canadian Experience. This photo album covers 1895 and 1924, and contain depictions of Canadians’ experiences of the First World War. From the British Library: “Either produced by photographers on home soil or individuals in Europe employed by Lord Beaverbrook’s ‘Canadian War Records Office’ the photographs provide a wide ranging account of the many Canadians involved in and impacted by the war.”

The National Archives UK
20,000+ Photos
the UK government’s official archive contains more than 1,000 years of history, so their photostream is not to be missed! Nicely organized into Albums focused on location, the images offer a sampling of their massive holdings.

The U.S. National Archives
16,500+ Photos
Nicely organized into a vast array of albums, these photos represent only a small sampling of the photographs in their collection which totals more than 25 million photos and 20,000 graphic images. Early on they focused on uploading photos from the Women’s Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a few staff favorites. According to the National Archives, “These photographs, most taken by agents of Federal agencies over the years, cover a wide range of subjects and themes documented in the work of the United States government. Higher resolution versions of many of these images can be obtained from the U.S. National Archives by following the links located below each image.”

SMU Libraries Digital Collections
10,000+ Photos
Southern Methodist University Digital Collections includes the digital libraries and online digital collections from the six SMU Libraries. You’ll find an emphasis on digital collections of Mexican photographs, locomotives, Texas history, art, and currency notes, and more.

National Library of Norway
3600+ Photos
These images either fall in the public domain or the copyright belongs to the library and has been wavered. You’ll find photos, postcards, stereograph cards and other ephemera depicting life in Norway. With all of the portraits you may just spot an ancestor!

National Library of Norway photostream

National Library of Norway photostream

The New York Public Library
2500+ Photos
Considering how many Americans passed through New York, this photostream is definitely worth a visit.

National Library of Ireland on The Commons
2500+ Photos
Here you’ll find a range of items from the Ephemera Collections of the National Library of Ireland. They provide a snapshot of different periods in Ireland’s social, political, economic and cultural history. They’ve also added items from their Manuscript collections, Prints and Drawings, Exhibitions, as well as photos from Library Events.

UBC Library Digitization Centre
of the University of British Columbia
2400+ Photos
Just one of many Canadian library photostreams, the UBC Library shows off it’s diverse image collection in well organized albums. My personal odd-ball favorite is the Tremaine Arkley Croquet Collection!

Library Company of Philadelphia
1280+ Photos
They’ve organized their current photo collection into more than 50 albums, making it easy to quickly spot the historical collections. Notable albums feature unique historical images from the Civil War era.

 

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