Publishing a Family History Book

Make a genealogical keepsake for your family

Book open on a table with an illustration of a couple standing next to a house and a car under a rainbow over the book

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Now that you've taken the time to research your family's history, here's how to find and use desktop publishing software to design and print a book that family members will cherish.

Software for Your Family History Book

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D E N N I S A X E R Photography / Getty Images

Whether you use software specifically designed for genealogy or more general-purpose programs you already have comes down to personal preference. For convenience and speed, the former is a good choice; for maximum flexibility and no additional outlay, the latter is better.

Family Tree Software

Genealogy software typically includes lots of predesigned layouts for printing family histories, including narratives, charts, and photos. That can save you some time and make your book attractive without a lot of fuss. Affordable options to consider include:

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 might have already entered information you've gathered into a word processing program like Microsoft Word. You can use the same word processing software to create and publish your family history book in your own design or using pre-made layout templates.

Narratives for Your Family History Book

Pedigree charts and family group records are an important part of genealogy, but it's the narratives, anecdotes, and stories that bring the family tree to life. Here are a few factors and methods that can help you present them attractively:

  • Consistency — Develop a consistent but distinctive format for all narratives, taking into account 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 immediately before their corresponding descendant charts.
  • Memories — Include a special section in the book for stories from living descendants that detail what they remember, what life was like growing up, and their lives today.
  • Footnotes — Include footnotes or explanations of names so that readers know that "Aunt Susie" refers to the Suzanna Jones found on page 14, or that "the Baileys" are a family who lived next door. Create a specific style for the footnotes or notations, and use it consistently throughout.
  • Small caps — In genealogy, it's common practice to set surnames in all caps to make scanning easy. Small caps work, too, and can be quite attractive.
  • "Chunking" — 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. Use subheads to break long stories into sections, perhaps by year or by the location during migration to other areas.

Charts and Other Data in Your Family History Book

Charts show family relationships, but not all standard genealogical chart formats 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 might 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, use standard, commonly accepted genealogy formats. Some provide greater space-savings than others.

Genealogy publishing software may automatically format charts and other family data for you, but if you are formatting data from scratch, use these strategies:

  • Consistency — List birth, marriage, death, and other dates in the same format throughout your book.
  • Indents — Use indentation with bullets or numbering to list successive generations of descendants. The indents help maintain readability when compressing chart information to save space.
  • Keep info together — Whenever possible, use page breaks to divide information about each descendant.
  • Small caps — As in 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, use a consistent style.
  • Photos — Include whatever family photos of deceased ancestors and living family members you can find — the more, the better, in the highest-quality originals or scans possible.
  • Image enhancements — Enhance scans of old photographs with image-editing software. You can repair tears, remove scratches, and improve contrast with most graphics software. GIMP is widely considered to be the best of the free image-editing software programs. 

Photo Layouts in a Family History Book

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

  • Consistency — Notice a trend? It's just as important with photos as it is with other elements. Use a grid to organize photos of various sizes on a page.
  • Grouping — Wherever possible, place photos near the text, narratives, and charts that relate to them. 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 stories.
  • Timeline — Create a photographic timeline — for example, using group shots from family reunions over successive years. Pair a wedding photo of a couple with a photo from their 50th anniversary.
  • Enhanced charts — Add 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 in which 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, include significant buildings or other locations including homesteads, churches, and family cemeteries.

Maps, Letters, and Documents

Dress up your family history book with maps showing where the family lived or photocopies of interesting handwritten documents such as letters and wills. Old and recent newsletter clippings are also a nice addition. Again, try to keep the formatting consistent. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Enhance a narrative about how an entire branch of the family moved from one state to another by including a map tracing their migration.
  • 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. 
  • When including photocopies of actual historic family documents, include a typed translation.

Other Items to Include

Aside from the typical items, consider adding these to your book:

  • Recent documents — Preserve some recent material for future generations. These might include drawings or handwritten stories by some of the youngest generations and newspaper clippings or notations about current activities of living family members.
  • Blank pages — Save some space for future family members to make additional notes as the family grows.
  • Signatures — Sprinkle signatures scanned from wills, Bibles, or letters throughout the book. Place them near the text for that person.

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 future family historians along with a table of contents and an index. Modern software makes the process fairly easy and automatic. Here are a few things to include:

  • Branches — Use the table of contents to show general sections, such as narratives and descendant charts for each main branch of the family.
  • Surnames and place names
  • Churches, organizations, businesses, and streets
  • Maiden names and alternative spellings — For female members or instances where the family name changed significantly, add cross-references to maiden and married names or alternate spellings used by the same individual.
  • Page numbers

Printing and Binding 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, get information on the correct size and any other technical requirements from the publisher before you start. You can use a local printer, or send a digital file to an online publishing company. Companies such as Book1One and DiggyPOD provide upfront quotes.

Photocopies

Laser printing produces the sharpest results for books printed at home. Print some test pages and photocopy them before you proceed too far; it may take some experimentation to get your photographs to copy well. Use a heavier stock than standard if you're printing on both sides to prevent distracting bleed-through.

Covers

If you're paying someone to print your book, full color might not be affordable for the entire book, but a color cover might be doable. A heavy stock will help your labor of love withstand wear and tear. You might even have the cover embossed with the family name. Another option is a die-cut with a family photo showing through.

Binding

Some relatively inexpensive binding options include saddle stitching for booklets with a few pages; side stitching (which requires extra inner margin room); and other various spiral and thermal binding types.