Presenting Your Family History

Calvin J. Edwards Sr. Family

My great-grandparents and some of their children

As Miguel Helft reported last January in Forbes, genealogy is big business. Ancestry.com, the world’s largest genealogical research website has more than 2.5 million subscribers, who can gain access to Ancestry’s repository of more than 16 billion historical records and 70 million family trees. Now also in the DNA analysis business, 1.4 million AncestryDNA kits were sold in the last quarter of 2016, and Ancestry had more than three million members in its DNA database by the end of last year.

People are finding, recording, and storing much information about their families’ history. They are copying names and dates from old bibles, getting access to online information (and misinformation), studying old census records and Ellis Island’s trove of ship manifests, resurrecting yellowed photos from attic trunks. Their desks are cluttered with post-its and scribbling-in notebooks. What to do with it all?

This week I spoke to a small group of local genealogists—some new to this passion, some experienced—about options for presenting family history when the online templates from genealogy websites aren’t sufficient. You sometimes need a paper version for elderly relatives who aren’t online. You want a keepsake. You want to take it with you when you go to a research library.

Some basics:

  • There is no one “right” way to present a family history. What will work best for you depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Be comfortable with “iterations.” Probably no matter how much research you’ve done, you’ll find new relatives, run across new supporting information, have new insights, get unexpected input from a long-lost relative. That’s a good thing, really, it allows your document to live and breathe.
  • So don’t worry about making it too “pretty.” That may make you reluctant to make changes!
  • You’ll thank yourself a thousand times over if you obsessively keep track of sources—that is, precisely where you obtained a particular piece of information—as you go along. The current draft of my main family history is 222 pages long and has more than 350 footnotes.
  • Eventually you will need some kind of filing system. My genealogy information fills two large plastic bins, plus a box of books. I have files organized by: state or county, with information about the places my ancestors lived; a particular family or generation; census information in a single folder, because I refer to it so often; maps; “Not Our Family” – dead ends; and so on.

TUESDAY: Family History Models

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