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  • Hot Topics: Writing as You Research: A Problem-Solving Tool Your Family Will Appreciate

    Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG

    Published Date : November 1, 2002

    As the holiday season approaches, our thoughts turn to giving and sharing. I have a suggestion for a gift that also will benefit your research. Too many of us see publishing our family history as a “someday” project, to be undertaken when our research is “done.” Consider, instead, publishing your family history in pieces — with each piece a gift to your family. When you are ready to undertake a full-fledged family history, these pieces become the building blocks for your final book.

    Keep the gift book relatively small. Focus on a single surname or geographical family cluster. You could begin this gift series with a compilation on the most recent generations of your family.

    One benefit of sharing your research in small pieces is that your family is more likely to read it. A four hundred-page book can be intimidating. Although proudly displayed on bookshelves and coffee tables, such tomes often rest there unopened and unread. Because the gift book is focused and small, the information isn’t too overwhelming for family members to absorb.

    Don’t “dumb down” the gift publication for your family. It should contain all the genealogical material that you would put into a compiled family history. Consider it a dress rehearsal for the big production. Show-biz people expect that problems will be uncovered during dress rehearsal, but they plan to get them fixed before opening night.

    The process of expressing our findings in writing, including proper use of terms such as probably, possibly, likely, and maybe, is the most valuable tool we have in our research kits. Unfortunately, it is also the most neglected. Many family researchers don’t feel comfortable writing a research report to themselves and by the time they are ready to write a book, the number of hidden problems can be immense.

    Don’t omit the documentation — if you do, you may be doing family members a disservice. Some of them may want to know how you found out about Great-Uncle Albert’s military career or how you found the land that great-grandpa homesteaded. There is nothing wrong, however, with making your book more family-friendly. You can print the documentation as endnotes rather than footnotes. Switching between one and the other is just a few mouse-clicks in almost any word processor or genealogy database program.

    As you prepare the genealogical section, you will probably find inadequate citations, inconsistencies, and omitted information. Furthermore, because you are focusing your concentration on such a small portion of your findings — and because you are approaching it with a fresh eye — you will likely identify new paths to research.

    However, don’t postpone the gift for your family because of a few minor problems or unexplored research opportunities — remember, this effort is a dress rehearsal. Keep a “to do” list for further research. On the other hand, if you realize that there is a big hole in the information you received many years ago from another researcher and that perhaps you aren’t descended from that Revolutionary War general after all, then stop. It isn’t ethical to publish the bad information, even if it is “just for my family.” Choose another surname for the gift. You can work on resolving the problem family in time for next year.

    Because you have prepared the book according to genealogical standards, you will find that the carefully presented genealogical material you prepared for the book is perfect for exchanging information with fellow researchers.

    By systematically writing about your research in focused pieces, you are likely to gain great benefits. Regularly preparing gift books for family members might be a crutch to make yourself write as you research, but it’s one with rewards for both you and your family.

    It is quick, easy, flexible, and relatively inexpensive to prepare a few copies of this family gift book through the services of a chain office supply store or copy center. The service is rapid, and you can often pick up the final product in a few hours — an important consideration in a season crowded with a myriad of last-minute tasks.

    Keep things simple, and use an 8.5×11 format, which lets you choose a generous-sized print that will be easier for elderly eyes to read. If there are only thirty to forty pages, print the pages single-sided, but if the number of pages is large, you can print them double-sided. There are many types of papers available. Spend some time browsing the paper shelves at the office supply store or studying the sample book at the copy center. For a nominal amount, you could pick a gray or beige paper to give the book a “noncomputer” look. Laser printer and copy paper comes in several weights. 20# is the most common, but if you use white paper, you should choose 24# for the gift books. It feels substantial when the pages are turned and there is less bleed-through from the next page, which also makes the text easier to read.

    Copy centers offer a variety of binding styles. Visit those in your community and see what they have to offer. Spiral and plastic comb bindings are not a good idea for books donated to libraries, but they are great for family gift books because they lie open on a table or lap. Some copy centers have arrangements with outside vendors for hardbound books, but find out what the time requirement is for this service in order to accommodate it in your schedule. 

    Color reproductions of photographs can be prohibitively expensive in a published book. On the other hand, the inclusion of a few color laser photocopies in each of the family gifts can be well worth the additional cost. Also consider photocopying (in color or black and white) other small items, such as graduation announcements, funeral cards, newspaper clippings, and so on.

    Think about the mechanics of producing the book. There are many options. If you are doing only two or three copies, you could print all the pages yourself, copy the photographs yourself on the color laser copier at the copy center, and then have the stacks of paper bound. (Hint: Put a sheet of brightly colored paper between each volume to help keep them organized.) If you are printing a dozen or more copies or want double-sided pages, it is usually easier to have the copy center print them.

    The per-book cost on these gift books may be much higher than printing hundreds of books through a commercial book printer, but the total out-of-pocket cost is very reasonable, especially if you are considering the books part of your family gift-giving budget. The cost could run anywhere from $2 to $20, depending on your choices for reproduction, color copies, and binding.

    Customize the contents. You can include information in gift books for your immediate family that you would not wish to share with the broader genealogical world, such as vital data about living persons. Stories that are fond memories for the family aren’t nearly as interesting to readers who don’t know the parties involved — and some of those stories could be embarrassing to the individuals involved if they were shared outside the family.

    If you are dealing with an ancestral family very far back in time, you can help your family understand how the people in the book relate to them by including charts. For a single surname, include a drop-line chart down to a family member they would know, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent. If you are presenting a geographical cluster, a focused pedigree chart would be helpful.

    If you prepare all the pages yourself and use a copy center only for binding, you can even personalize each book for the individual recipient, adding a page saying “A gift from me to you on the occasion of event, given on date.” If you have prepared the charts mentioned above, they can extend down to the individual recipient of the book.

    If you will be giving the books to your family in person, you have the opportunity to share even more. Take along photographs, maps, and souvenirs from your research trip to the home county. Add copies of the documents you found in your research. The family will be especially interested in those with signatures. The 1840 census may be familiar to us, but not to someone who hasn’t been bitten by the genealogy bug. The deed with almost indecipherable handwriting that you used to identify the wife’s name will be the perfect answer to “but it’s so easy, isn’t it, with everything on the Internet?”

    You may benefit during this show-and-tell when a family member casually mentions a photograph, painting, letter, schoolbook, sampler, or other item he or she possesses. It seems that no matter how carefully we structure our genealogical interviews or query letters, our families seem to filter our questions through their understanding of what they think we need for our research. “Well, I didn’t think you’d be interested in that” is an all-too-common comment. This sharing process may lead to invaluable new information.

    The winter holiday season is upon us. If you feel that you can’t possibly pull something together in time, don’t despair. Get a jump-start on the upcoming family vacation season. Late spring and summer are packed with family-oriented events, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation ceremonies, weddings, and reunions — perfect times to share your research with your loved ones.

    Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG, is a professional genealogist specializing in problem solving whose articles have appeared in over a dozen publications. She is the author of Producing a Quality Family History and is the editor of The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine. She is currently writing a forthcoming book on land records.

    Family gift-book plan


    I will give this book to: [list all names]

    I will give this book on: [date]


    Title of book: [title]

    This book will include: [list all family groups]

    Illustrations: [list all, identify those in color]

    Charts: [list]

    Will there be personalized pages? [describe]


    Number of pages: [number, single/double-sided]

    Type of paper: [weight, color, where to obtain]

    Binding: [describe binding, including color]

    Copy center to be used: [name]

    Total books to print: [remember to keep copy for yourself]

    Cost estimate: [total and per book]

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