We’re at RootsTech, the annual Salt Lake City extravaganza which melds the latest technological bells and whistles with genealogy and family history. It’s a wonderful event. Stories To Tell founder Nancy Barnes will be presenting two computer lab sessions on restoring historical photographs with Adobe PhotoShop. We picked up some good ideas for better ways to help authors from the Innovators’ Summit today. But, at the moment, I’m thinking about what technology can’t do for the family historian.
The list of technological innovations that have made life easier for anyone trying to capture her family history in writing is impressive. Begin with the proliferation of platforms on which to publish your family history. The internet has eliminated obstacles and allows anyone to get her story out there. The profusion of genealogy blogs is evident any time you glance at the blog roll on GeneaBloggers. Sharing sites or apps like Treelines provide a venue for online narratives. Photo sharing sites like Flickr or, my favorite, Dead Fred offer an easy way to post and find photos of ancestors. Social media helps would be family historians crowd source the process of capturing their ancestors’ stories. If you want to write a family history book technology has given you choices. Digital printing and print-on-demand publishing have dramatically reduced the cost of printing a book. From simple photo books at Snapfish to more elaborate family histories using the latest incarnation of Ancestry’s My Canvas you can employ plug and play technology to create a book. Self-publishing authors who want to produce custom books collaborate with editors and book designers sharing files with tools like DropBox to help manage the process of creating bookstore quality books.
But, there is something essential to creating a quality family history that technology can’t replace: an author’s judgment. As a family historian no one understands the audience for your story better than you do. You have a clear sense of what will pique the interest of those future readers. That means that you have choices to make about how to preserve your ancestors’ history. What should the scope of the book you want to write be? Do you to paint with a very broad brush to include as many generations of ancestors as you can, recognizing that to keep your book a reasonable size you’ll need to limit what you say about individual ancestors? Or, would you rather narrow your book down by limiting the chronological period, or number of generations, it covers so that you can focus on individuals’ stories in greater depth. Will your book’s focus be capturing the facts you have gleaned from the vital records – births, marriages, children, deaths – often employing pedigree charts or family group sheets to keep everyone straight? How will you make use of photos or other images of ancestors, family homes, or family heirlooms? Would your audience be more engaged by a narrative approach that employs techniques of literature to describe ancestors’ times and places, recreate dialogue or speculate on what motivated them? Should you focus on persistent themes in your family’s history or look at things through a lens of biographical sketches?
No software can make these choices for you. You can employ many wonderful technological tools to bring the story you envision to publication, but nothing can replace your creative vision for the family history you want to write.