We’re in Salt Lake City for day two of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) annual conference. The attendees are a wonderfully serious and enthusiastic group who have asked us some great questions. One of my favorites was, “Do you have the app to make days 48 hours long so I have time to get my family history written?” I had to admit that our crack R & D department is still working on that one. By far the most frequently asked question was, “What’s the best way to organize my family history?” There is no single best way, but here are five questions to think about when you are organizing you own book:
- Who is your audience? Unlike books intended for a general audience, family histories are written for a specific group of people – immediate family, the grandchildren, more extended family members, etc. You, as the author, know these people and probably have a pretty good idea of what they will want to know about your ancestors. The grand children may be most engaged by the stories or role models that help them form their identity. In most cases non-genealogists will be much more engaged if you can tell family stories, but if you have some avid genealogists in the family they will want to see fully documented sources. As you organize your book, tailor its contents to fit what will appeal to the people you want to read it.
- What do you have? Take an inventory of what you have gathered during your research. Unfortunately, many people look at this inventory and bemoan all of the things they haven’t yet found. Don’t! Look at the many things you have discovered and build on your strengths. Place the emphasis on what you have come to know best about your ancestors.
- What if I have too much? A lifetime of research may produce more than you can deal with in a single book. Would you be better off creating more than one book? Maybe a volume for each family line would be more manageable. Placing a chronological limit, maybe a specific number of years, or maybe a specific number of generations would make the task overwhelming.
- What if you don’t have enough? If your survey indicates that there are gaps in your knowledge, you may need to do additional research you can make it very targeted to fill critical gaps in what you know rather than taking a more shotgun approach which might go on indefinitely.
- How do you turn potential problems into strengths? Here are some examples:
- People often think that each ancestor should receive the same amount of space in the book. That doesn’t always work. For early generations you may only have the factual data you have been able to gather in the vital records for most ancestors. As you get closer to the present you will probably have have more stories and colorful details. Don’t try to deal with both the same way. Summarize the generations about whom you know less, slow the pace and devote more space to those people about whom you know more. If you have lots of stories about a few ancestors, but more limited knowledge of others, write a brief sketch for each ancestor and use sidebars or special sections with biographical sketches to highlight the people about whom you know more about.
- If you don’t have stories to supplement the factual records of an ancestor, use details of the persons time and place to give readers a sense of what it would have been like to live where and when the ancestor did. Using social history as a content for an ancestor’s life can make you family’s story much more interesting. The same technique applies to illustrations. Historical photos or paintings or landscapes with provide illustrations when you don’t have photos of your ancestors.