Desktop Publishing Your Family History Book

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Design, Layout, Printing for a Family History Book

Holding a picture of an ancestor near a family tree.
Getty Images/Lokibaho

Family histories are a frequent candidate for desktop publishing. While appearances are generally less important than the memories and genealogical data preserved in these books, there's no reason they can't look good as well.

No matter how small or how it is printed, there are several easy ways to make your family history book attractive and readable.

  • Software
    You can use genealogy software, desktop publishing software, or even word processing software depending on your needs and the complexity of your book.
  • Family Stories
    Narratives bring the family history to life. Creative formatting will make these stories more attractive.
  • Charts
    Ancestor and descendant charts provide an easy way to show family relationships.
  • Family Photos
    Family photos of both ancestors long gone and living family members can greatly enhance your family history book. Edit them and arrange them to best effect.
  • Maps and Documents
    Maps from where the family lived, photocopies of letters, and other documents add interest beyond the stories and charts.
  • Table of Contents and Index
    Help family members find the stories and charts that interest them most with a table of contents and a comprehensive index.
  • Printing/Finishing
    Print a few copies, or print many. However you get it printed or copied, you'll want it to look good.
  • Your Finished Book
    Share your book with family and other history buffs.

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Software for Your Family History Book

Some software specifically for genealogy and tracing your family tree comes with pre-designed 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 desire, consider using desktop publishing software.

  • Family Tree Software - Genealogy software often includes a multitude of options for publishing books complete with charts and photos. Here, advice and reviews on the best genealogy software.
  • Desktop Publishing - Producing your family history book with desktop publishing software offers endless layout options. Adobe InDesign might be out of your budget, but there are less expensive options. Digital scrapbooking software could also produce nice photo-rich family history books.
  • Word Processing - If your genealogy program cannot export data in plain text or common word processing formats, you may have to input all the information yourself into a word processor for import to the desktop publishing software of your choice. Using word processing software to create and publish the entire family history book is also a viable option. See How to Do Desktop Publishing With Microsoft Word for tips and tricks.
  • Print/Copy - Another alternative is to print charts or other portions of your family history from your genealogy software to a laser printer to use as camera-ready copy to be incorporated with other layouts from your desktop publishing software.​
  • Graphics Software - To get the best photos for your family history book, you'll need to include photo-editing software in your publishing arsenal. See the Family Photos section for advice.

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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 will make it more attractive.

  • Consistency - Develop a consistent but distinctive format for all narratives (margins, columns, font, 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 such footnotes or notations and use it consistently throughout.
  • Small Caps - In genealogy, it is common practice to place surnames and sometimes place names in all caps. This makes it easier for later researchers using your book to scan for relevant information. Use small caps, instead. The effect on scannability 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 longer narratives, use subheads to break the story down into sections, such as by year or by location of the family during migration to other areas.

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Charts in Your Family History Book

Charts provide an easy way to 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 doesn't 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.

While genealogy publishing software may automatically format charts and other family data in a suitable fashion, when formatting data from scratch consider these tips:

  • Consistency - When listing birth, marriage, death, and other pertinent dates, be consistent in your format throughout the book. Consistency is important throughout your book.
  • Indents - Use indentation with bullets and/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 - If making boxes or drawing lines on charts that connect family lines, be consistent in the line style used.

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Editing Photos in Your Family History Book

Family photos of both ancestors long gone and living family members can greatly enhance your family history book. For small quantities, it may be cost-prohibitive to obtain the high-quality printing needed for the best reproduction of photos but manipulation of photos with graphics software can produce results that fare well with desktop printing and photocopying.

If you don't already have graphics software, there are plenty of options to explore. Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Photoshop Elements are popular image editing programs.

  • Quality - Start with the best quality original photos or scans that you can.
  • Black & White - For most desktop-published family histories color printing is too expensive. Since only recent photos are in color, scan and convert any color photos to grayscale. If you do want to include color and you're having your book commercially printed (including quick printers) ask them for tips on cutting costs. Sometimes grouping all the color photos in one section can cut down on the overall printing costs.
  • 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, including many entry-level programs. Graphics Software Guide Sue Chastain has quick fixes as well as more complex graphics manipulation tutorials.

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Photo Layouts In Your 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 will help 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 that 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 rather than placing it "tombstone" style over the top of the story.
  • Captions - Captions are especially important in a family history book. Attempt to identify each person in a photo. For very 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. Use a consistent caption style throughout your book.
  • Places - In addition to photos of people, include photos of significant buildings or other locations including homesteads, churches, or family cemeteries. If possible, place the photos near the text describing these locations.
  • Other Pictures - Beyond photos, you may use clip art or line drawings in your book but use restraint. Don't clutter your pages with irrelevant images. Of course, if your family tree includes a talented sketch artist who can do portraits of family members -- do enlist their help.

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Using Maps, Letters, and Other Documents in a Family History Book

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 (margins, etc.) 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. Use different styles of lines and a legend to show historic and current boundaries and routes of migration.
  • Translation - When including photocopies of actual historic family documents, also include a typed translation.
  • Recent Documents - In addition to historic documents, consider preserving more 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, letters, etc.) throughout your book. Place them near the text for that person.

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Creating a Table of Contents and Index for Your Family History Book

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.

Be sure that the genealogy or desktop publishing software you are using provides for automatic generation of an index or use third-party indexing solutions. An automatically-generated table of contents is nice, but the index is the more complex part of the book. While older published family histories may have omitted the index (before software, indexing was an often tedious, time-consuming job) don't leave out this important component of your family history book.

  • 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/Placenames - Include surnames and key place names (towns, 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/Alternative Spellings - For female members or instances where the family name changed significantly in spelling, consider using cross-references to maiden and married names or alternate spellings used by the same individual.
  • Page Numbers - Don't forget the page numbers -- ideally on every page of your book but at the very least if your TOC or index references a specific page, it should have a page number on it.

Written for all types of publications, here are tips and advice on organizing and formatting a table of contents.

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Print and Bind Your Family History Book

Many family history books are simply photocopied. 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.

Although almost the last step in the process, think about your printing and binding method before you start your book project. Talk to a printer. They can give you advice on low-tech and new technologies that will yield good results at the lowest costs. Sometimes the printing and binding methods will dictate certain design and layout requirements. For example, side stitching requires extra room for the inner margin and some binding methods don't allow you to open the book flat or are better for books with fewer pages.

  • Photocopies - For photocopying from your printed original, it's usually best to use a laser original for the sharpest results. Print some test text and photos and photocopy them before you proceed too far. It may take some experimentation to get your photographs to copy well.
  • Digital Printing - Discuss both photocopying and digital printing options for small runs with your printer. Color digital printing costs a lot less than it used to.
  • Covers - If full color isn't an affordable option for the book itself, 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 fairly inexpensive binding options include saddle stitch (for booklets, small histories) side stitching need to allow extra inner margin room), various spiral bindings, and thermal binding.

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Your Family History Book: Start to Finish

Once your family history book is completed and distributed to family members, consider donating a copy to the genealogical section of your State Library and Archives or local genealogical society. Share your family memories, genealogy, and your desktop publishing skills with generations to come.

To dig deeper into both the creation of your family history and publishing your family history book, explore these in-depth resources.

What You Need to Know About Genealogy to Publish a Family History Book

These tutorials come from Kimberly Powell who is also the author of "Everything Family Tree, 2nd Edition."

What You Need to Know About Desktop Publishing to Publish a Family History Book

The following tutorials guide non-designers and those new to desktop publishing through the basic page layout and publishing tasks that can help you create an attractive, readable family history book.