Publishing a Family History Book

Make your own genealogical keepsake for your family

Family histories are frequent candidates for desktop publishing projects—using the software and printing capabilities you have at home to design and then print out a few books for family members to cherish. Appearances are usually less important than the memories and genealogical data preserved in these books, but there's no reason they can't look good as well.

You may have already been collecting information from family members, along with old photos and your own personal memories. If you haven't, this is where you start. Your journey may take you to genealogy websites for research or consist entirely of your memories and images. Making a family history book is a labor of love that doesn't have to be rushed. Take your time to create a keepsake that will be around for years to come.

Here is everything you need to know to publish your family history.

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Software for Your Family History Book

Antique old Photographs Photos Fotos
D E N N I S A X E R Photography / Getty Images

Some software specifically for genealogy and tracing your family tree comes with predesigned layouts for printing up family histories, including narratives, charts, and sometimes photos. These may be adequate for your needs. However, if your genealogy software doesn't offer the flexibility you want, consider using the software you already have on your computer. Any of these can do the job:

Family Tree Software

Genealogy software often includes a multitude of options for home publishing books that are complete with charts and photos, which can save you some time and make your book attractive. It is the easiest way to set up your book, but you probably don't have genealogy software sitting around. Check out Family Historian, Family Tree Maker, and Legacy Family Tree, which are all affordable software packages.

Desktop Publishing Software

Producing your family history book with desktop publishing software offers endless layout possibilities. Adobe InDesign might be out of your budget, but there are less expensive options, including several free programs you may already have or can download at no cost, including Scribus and Apple Pages. These software programs have learning curves but give you unlimited customization options.

Word Processing Software

You may have already input information you've gathered in a word processing program like Microsoft Word on your computer. You can use the same word processing software to create and publish the entire family history book. 

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Narratives for Your Family History Book

Pedigree charts and family group records are an important part of genealogy, but for a family history book, it is the narratives or stories that bring the family to life. Creative formatting of narratives in your book make it more attractive. Here are a few tips for you to use when you are formatting your book.

Consistency

Develop a consistent but distinctive format for all narratives – margins, columns, fonts, and spacing.

Grouping

Group narratives of key figures or other historical information at the front of the book followed by charts, or place biographies of key figures of each branch of the family immediately before their corresponding descendant charts.

Memories

Include a special section in the book for stories from later descendants to tell about what they remember of their family, what life was like growing up, and about their lives today.

Footnotes

Include footnotes or explanations of names so that those reading the Memories or other sections know that "Aunt Susie" refers to the Suzanna Jones found on page 14 or that "the Baileys" are a family that lived next door. Create a specific style for the footnotes or notations and use it consistently throughout.

Small Caps

In genealogy, it is common practice to place surnames in all caps to make it easier for later researchers using your book to scan for relevant information. Optionally, use small caps, instead. The effect is the same, but small caps enhance the overall appearance of your text.

Break Up Text

Long blocks of text, no matter how well-written, are boring. Entice readers into the story and keep them reading with visual signposts within paragraphs such as initial caps, indents, bullets, pull-quotes, and boxes. For long narratives, use subheads to break the story into sections, such as by year or by the location of the family during migration to other areas.

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Charts in Your Family History Book

Charts show family relationships. However, not all chart formats used by genealogists are suitable for a family history book. They may take up too much space, or the orientation might not fit your desired layout. You'll need to maintain readability while compressing the data to fit the format of your book.

There is no right or wrong way to present a chart of your family. You may prefer to start with a common ancestor and show all descendants or begin with the current generation and chart the families in reverse. If you intend for your family history to stand as a reference for future family historians, you'll want to use standard, commonly accepted genealogy formats. Some provide greater space-savings than others.

Genealogy publishing software may automatically format charts and other family data in a suitable fashion, but if you are formatting data from scratch, consider these tips:

Consistency

When listing birth, marriage, death, and other pertinent dates, be consistent in the format throughout the book. 

Indents

Use indentation with bullets or numbering to list successive generations of descendants. The indents help to maintain readability when compressing chart information to save space.

Keep Info Together

When continuing information to another page, end on one individual and start the next page with a new individual if at all possible.

Small Caps

As with narratives, use small caps (rather than standard all caps) for surnames.

Boxes or Lines

When making boxes or drawing lines on charts that connect family lines, be consistent in the line style used.

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Editing Photos for the Book

Family photos of both ancestors long gone and living family members greatly enhance your family history book. 

Quality

Start with the best quality original photos or scans that you can. If you don't have a scanner or all-in-one printer, ask a relative or friend who does to scan the photos for you.

Black & White

For most desktop-published family histories that are professionally printed, color printing is too expensive. Since only recent photos are in color, scan and convert any color photos to grayscale. If you are printing only a handful of copies for immediate family on your printer, use the color photos and stock up on printer ink.

Image Enhancements

Enhance scans of older photographs with image-editing software. You can repair tears, remove scratches, and improve the contrast with most graphics software. GIMP is widely considered to be the best of the free image-editing software programs. 

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Photo Layouts in a Family History Book

How you arrange photos can make your family history book more enjoyable.

Consistency

Since your photos may come in a variety of sizes, orientation, and quality, a grid helps provide visual consistency throughout the book.

Grouping

Where possible, place photos near the text, narrative or charts describing the individuals in the picture. Group photos from the same branch of the family tree on the same page or group of pages. Accompany narratives with photos of the key people in the story.

Timeline

Create a photographic timeline such as a series of group shots from a family reunion taken over successive years. Pair a wedding photo of a couple with a photo from their 50th anniversary.

Better Charts

Enhance an otherwise dull chart with a headshot of the head of each primary branch of the family.

Replace a Drop Cap

Instead of an initial cap, cut in a photo at the start of a narrative.

Captions

Captions are especially important in a family history book. Attempt to identify each person in a photo. For large groups of people where identification of everyone is impossible, at least caption the photo with information about when and where the photo was taken.

Places

In addition to photos of people, including photos of significant buildings or other locations including homesteads, churches, or family cemeteries.

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Using Maps, Letters, and Documents

You can dress up your family history book with maps showing where the family lived or photocopies of interesting handwritten documents such as letters or wills. Old and recent newsletter clippings are also a nice addition.

Consistency

As much as possible, fit these additional documents into the same format as the rest of your book. Even when these documents vary from your usual layout, maintain a consistent style for captions and notations.

Migration

Enhance a narrative about how an entire branch of the family moved from one state to another by including a map tracing their migration.

Boundaries

Create maps that show both current boundaries for counties, states, or other areas, and the boundaries that existed at the time your family lived there. 

Translation

When including photocopies of actual historic family documents, include a typed translation.

Recent Documents

In addition to historic documents, consider preserving recent material for future generations. These might include drawings or handwritten stories by some of the youngest generations in your book and newspaper clippings or notations about current activities of living family members.

Blank Pages

Add a few blank or lined pages for future family members to make additional notes as the family grows.

Signatures

Sprinkle scanned signatures taken from wills, Bibles or letters throughout the book. Place them near the text for that person.

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Creating a Table of Contents and Index

One of the first things your third cousin Emma is going to do when she sees your family history book is flip to the page where you list her and her family. Help Emma and all your cousins (as well as future family historians) with a table of contents and an index. Creating a table of contents is not that hard to do, but making an index is an ambitious task. 

Having genealogy software that generates an index automatically is priceless. Older published family histories often omitted the index because, indexing was a tedious, time-consuming job before the computer age. If you decide to do an index by hand, keep these tips in mind:

Consistency

Keep the style of your table of contents (margins, fonts) consistent with the rest of your book.

Branches

Use the table of contents to show general sections such as narratives and descendant charts for each main branch of the family included in your book.

Surnames and Place Names

Include surnames and key place names (towns or counties) in your index. You may also want to include the names of churches, organizations, businesses, and even specific streets that figure prominently in your family history.

Maiden Names and Alternative Spellings

For female members or instances where the family name changed significantly in spelling, add cross-references to maiden and married names or alternate spellings used by the same individual.

Page Numbers

Don't forget the page numbers—ideally number every page of your book. The table of contents and index are useless without page numbers.

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Print and Bind Your Family History Book

Many family history books are photocopied or printed on home desktop printers. When only a small quantity is needed or when you can't afford other options, this is perfectly acceptable. There are ways to give your family history book professional polish, even with low-tech reproduction methods.

If you are considering having your book printed professionally, either locally on online, get information on the correct size and any other technical requirements before you start. 

If you can get your entire book into a digital file, you can send it to a company online that will use your files to print the book. You can get quotes up front on the number of books that you need from companies such as Book1One and DiggyPOD.

Photocopies

If you decide to print copies of your book at home, it's usually best to use a laser original for the sharpest results. Print some test pages and photocopy them before you proceed too far. It may take some experimentation to get your photographs to copy well. If you plan to copy on both sides of the paper, use a thicker-than-normal paper to prevent distracting bleed-through.

Digital Printing

Discuss both photocopying and digital printing options for small runs with a local printer. Color digital printing costs a lot less than it used to.

Covers

If you are paying someone to print your book, full color may not be affordable for the book itself, but a color cover can dress up your book. A good heavy stock will help your labor of love withstand wear and tear. You may even want to expend a little extra on the cover to have it embossed with the family name. Another nice option would be a die cut where a photo of the family shows through.

Binding

Some relative inexpensive binding options include saddle stitching for booklets with a few pages, side stitching which requires extra inner margin room, and other various spiral bindings and thermal binding.