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Creating a Family History Book

by Donna Przecha
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From Planning to Printing: Your Family in Print
From choosing your paper stock to laying out your photographs, an experienced researchers shares how to preserve your family history in print.

Devoted genealogists love going through their many collections of family group sheets, boxes of photographs, copies of census reports, notes from all sources and the ubiquitous photocopies of relevant pages of books. To us these are the building blocks of history — our personal history. However, if you want to get the attention of your children, your cousins, other people with the same surnames or even other genealogists, you have to present your material in a more concise and logical manner.

There is no one ideal way to present all of your genealogy material, but the most efficient and logical way for most people is in a book based on the genealogy format report, i.e. the register format (used by the New England Historic Genealogical Register) and NGS record format (used by the National Genealogical Society Quarterly) which numbers people logically, arranges them by generation, allows for the use of footnotes and accommodates additional text on individuals where you can tell their stories.

These forms start with the oldest ancestor and include all descendants. Another form based on the ahnentafel system starts with the youngest person and includes all the ancestors and ancestor's siblings of that individual. These formats also use the least amount of paper. A database of 85 individuals in 15 families would take at least 15 pages to print in family group sheets (assuming a family of nine would fit on one page, which is doubtful) but the same amount of information fits on just 3 pages in the genealogy format.

Planning Your Book

A family history book can be a few pages or hundreds. It can be duplicated from your masters at a local copy store and put together with an inexpensive comb binding or it can be printed by a printer, bound in hard covers and sold in book stores. Even if you create the book just for yourself, it is a good exercise in organizing your material.

If you hope to sell many copies of the book, you need to plan well in advance. You should create a mailing list of as many descendants as possible as they are your potential customers. Contact them and be sure to get their family information in the book. This gives them a good reason to buy a copy for themselves and one for each of their children! Offer a special advance publication prepaid price so that you have a firm commitment for a certain number and working capital to help pay for printing costs.

There are many things to consider when preparing a book. An excellent reference is Producing a Quality Family History by Patricia Law Hatcher (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996). The most important advice is "Allow plenty of time." Do not think that you have this nifty program that will do a book and you will just knock one out in a week or so. It always takes at least three times longer than anticipated. Even if you have your data entered, you need to learn how to use the particular features that will help you with your books. There will probably be many options which you need to experiment with. This usually leads to the discovery that you wish you had entered some things in a different format and you decide to go back and redo them.

I would not consider trying to write a family history book without using a computer program. A program can automatically do the tedious jobs that would be so time-consuming manually, such as numbering the entries (and not accidentally skipping over one that has to be inserted later and throws the whole number system off), highlighting the surnames, getting the birth date the same on every chart and, most important, indexing.

Once you have decided on the form, print a few pages and take it to the place that is going to do the duplicating or printing for you. Be sure to take along any pictures or other illustrations you plan on using. Explain what you want to do and ask if there are any special considerations or problems. It would be a shame to get your entire book done only to discover you could have saved considerably on printing costs by using a slightly different format or handling the pictures in another manner.

The basic printing decisions will require some thought and experimenting. First is the physical size of the book. The standard paper size, 8.5" x 11", will be cheapest to duplicate, but you might want to consider putting the text in columns. Smaller page sizes may be more attractive, but will require more pages and will be more expensive as the pages will have to be cut to the smaller size. Headers are not obligatory on every page, but make a book look more professional. The header style and page numbering system also have to be decided on. If you have a choice of font, you might consider a slightly larger font to make reading easier on older people whose eyesight isn't as good as it used to be. Or, you might want a smaller font to fit more words on a page! The index and possibly some other charts can be in a smaller font.


Try not to make your book a recitation of names, dates and places. Add as much story as you possibly can. Even if you didn't know the person, perhaps your aunt did and she might be able to relate some anecdote that will make the person come alive a little bit. Land records may be pretty dull reading, but the information can add a lot if you say that when a person was 23 he bought a 160 acre farm located 12 miles from town on the banks of the river. Dates can tell stories, but most readers will not stop to figure them out, so explain in words when the dates are significant: "At the age of 35 she was left a widow with 9 children ranging in age from 2 to 16" or "He lived to the age of 87" or "Within a year of his first wife's death, he married a widow with 4 children." These phrases are much more interesting than "She was widowed in 1879" or "He died in 1959" or "He remarried in 1924."

Years ago, genealogies only dealt with the positive side of the family history. They were used to prove how superior the family was and the black sheep were either left out or "rehabilitated." Happily, this is no longer expected. Don't be afraid to include the stories about ancestors that had problems with the law or were less than upstanding citizens. It makes for much more interesting reading. However, genealogy should never harm anyone, so don't include stories, even if they are true and documented, that would cause distress to a living person. The story may be about your great uncle who is long dead but his grandson may still be alive and would be very upset to have that particular story in print. It doesn't hurt to leave out an occasional marriage date if publishing it would cause embarrassment. And, don't print anyone's address or phone number without permission.

Other Reports

Besides the genealogy format report, which forms the main part of the book, you can include other charts that you feel are interesting or helpful. Many reports give only basic information, but are very visual and allow the reader to more quickly see the relationship between many individuals. The traditional descendant chart or box charts are a good example. Box charts generally are designed to be large, but some genealogy software programs, such as Family Tree Maker, will automatically break the chart up to fit pages in a book with cross references to previous or following pages.

Many other charts are available to present the material in a different way, such as calendars listing births, marriages and deaths by month. A relationship chart shows the relationship of each person to the progenitor. Every program has many charts that are quite fascinating, but caution should be used so that the same material is not presented over and over. Only include two or three other charts that add to the information already presented.


Many people find footnotes or even endnotes distracting and prefer to leave them out. This, of course, is a matter of personal taste, but I would highly recommend including them. (The question is not whether to document, but whether or not to print the documentation. You should always document your work.) The first three rules of real estate may be "location, location and location," but first three rules of genealogy are "documentation, documentation and documentation" and I try to document the source of information for every individual. You may not have official documents on a line, but instead just sat down with Aunt Sally and she recited all the siblings, spouses, and children or someone gave you their family group sheet. Although these are not formal "sources," you should document them as "Conversation with Sally Smith, 30 July 1994" or "Family Group Sheet of John Jones, 13 April 1992." Documentation is important, because as more lines overlap, you will not remember where you got the information on each line.

I firmly believe for several reasons that endnotes should be printed and included with your book. If you have entered your documentation as you should have, many programs will create endnotes without your having to do a thing. Notes are expected in family histories now and will make your book look more professional. They also give your serious readers important information. If readers have conflicting information, they can compare your source with theirs which might give a very good clue as to which is correct (a marriage record from the county court house will probably be more accurate than cousin Gene's family group sheet). Without notes, your cousin Charley may come back to you and say, "Why did you say my mother was born in 1922 when she was born in 1924?" It will save you a lot of argument and time if you have noted it was his sister who gave you that date.


The most important part of your book is the index. This used to be an immense job that had to be done by hand. That is why you find so many of those horrible old genealogies without an index. Nowadays indexing is much easier with the help of computer programs. The best solution is to make sure your genealogy program which produces your book also does the indexing. What used to be a miserable job now requires no more effort than just having to stand over your printer for an extra couple of minutes while it spits out 10 pages of index!

Most indexes will list a woman only under her maiden name. Ideally a woman should be indexed under her maiden name and all married names. If your program doesn't index under both married and maiden names, as a finding aid, you might be able to print a marriage list in alphabetical order by husband with the wife on the right so people could at least scan the list for a woman who they only know by married name. Or, you might be able to take this list into a word processor and by using macros edit it into an even more useful list.


Pictures, maps and other illustrations add a great deal to a book. Scanned original documents, or the signatures from the documents, are also interesting. If a handwritten name is difficult to decipher, you can scan in the entry and let your readers decide if they agree with your interpretation. Preparing the pictures by having them halftoned or scanning them into the computer can also take up quite a bit of time.

If you can place the pictures near the text relating to the person in the photo, it is more enjoyable to the reader. If photos cannot be worked in with the text, you can group the pictures all together and place them in the center of the book. Photos of older generations may be hard to find, but can sometimes be located in county histories. Any works published more than 75 years ago are no longer covered by copyright so you can use the pictures, but you should give credit. When using maps, illustrations and other material not your own, be aware of the copyright rules.


You will have to print at least two drafts. The first can be printed in chapters as you go along. Then, proofread and revise. Next, print a semi-final copy of the entire book which you need to proof again and, most important, have somebody else proof-read for you. By now you will be so familiar with the book that you will not be able to see any errors so an outside reader is essential.

Now you are ready to print up your final copy, have it bound and distribute it. It makes a great gift for Christmas, weddings, anniversaries, mother's day, father's day, birthdays or other occasions.

Be forewarned that once you have distributed a few copies, someone is going to discover an error. It is inevitable that someone will be left out, a date will be reversed or a name misspelled. Quite often the error will be in the family of the cousin who never quite got around to sending back the information on his branch of the family. Actually seeing a book published is what is takes to get some people interested enough to send you information. This is just a good reason to start working on the updated version!

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