You've dug deep into your family's history and you're ready to turn your research into a book. How do you organize it? In this article we share how to organize your family tree book in a way that will make your project easier and your book more engaging and easy to read.
The best way to organize your family tree book is to organize your research findings, pick a unifying theme, choose a format that best fits your theme and research, outline your book, and add front and back matter.
Organize your research findings
Everyone has a different approach to research. Some of us are rabbit-trail followers that get lost for hours. Others approach their research in a structured manor.
Regardless of how you conducted your research, it's important to organize your findings before tackling your book project. Getting everything organized will help you identify a unifying theme, as well as make it easier when it comes time to write.
Typically, you will have two kinds of records: digital and physical.
Organizing digital files
For digital files, we recommend a simple structure. Make a folder for every surname (family name or last name). Then make subfolders for each individual with that surname. You can then compile your digital files as they relate to each person. This can include text files, relevant photos, charts, or graphics.
There are a number of software options that can help a great deal. Evernote is a long-running favorite, but make sure to check out newer options like Obsidian, Roam Research, or Notion. Some of these apps, like Obsidian and Roam Research, make short work of creating important connections, especially if you're handy with Markdown.
Note: It's critical to have some sort of secure back-up system in place. You need to regularly back up all your files in the event your computer develops issues. Solid-state drives (SSD) are inexpensive and are an excellent back-up option.
Organizing physical files
For physical files, the best option is to create binders for each family name. Each tab within a given binder can be dedicated to an individual within that family. Include a pedigree chart at the front of each binder that includes every individual in the binder and shows their relationship to the family.
Once you've set up a binder, add all your files to their appropriate sections. You can use binder sleeves for documents that you want to protect, like original wedding certificates and photos. Also, make hard copies of everything from your digital files. This saves you from having to go back and forth between binders and your computer, and also serves as a back-up of last resort for your digital files.
Identify a unifying theme
Once you have your research information organized, identify a unifying theme for your book. Review your materials and look for common threads, a unique story arc, or repeating traits that show up throughout your research.
The idea here is to find a theme or narrative that can pull everything about your family together. This will help as you outline and write your book, but it also helps your readers. No one wants to read a list of historical facts but everyone can appreciate a family's unified story spanning generations.
Some good examples of unifying themes include things like overcoming adversity, exploring new frontiers, rags to riches, and sacrifice. Of course, you can unify your family history around a prominent individual like a patriarch or matriarch.
Choose a book format that fits your theme and content
Now it's time to decide what kind of book format you're going to create. There are a number of common formats for genealogy and family tree books.
- Narrative Account
- Family Reference Book
- Category Approach
- Researcher's Account
- Photo Book
We'll explain the format options and then describe how you can choose the best one for your project.
A narrative account is simply using a story-telling approach to your book. There are a number of ways to approach this. You can tell the story of your family as it spans the generations, tell the story of one interesting or influential member of the family, or even tell your story as a descendant.
Family Reference Book
In this option, you are simply providing an organized collection of information that your family can reference as they please. There's no need for a story or narrative to pull it together, but you will want to use elements that help connect information. These would include things like timelines, pedigree charts, detailed indexes, maps, and supporting photos with captions.
In the category approach you will group your information based on a common category, like a profession or a place. For instance, let's say your category is dates. One chapter might be "The Smiths in the 1700s" and the next "The Smiths in the 1800s". Or, maybe you categorize by geography, thus, "The Smiths in England" and "The Smiths in America".
You can write your book according to your experience as the researcher. "I began my journey intrigued by how my family came to own our farm in Iowa," and then proceed to share your journey and what you discovered along the way. In this approach you can share your journey, the methods and process you used, as well as your experiences as you went about researching your family's history. The researchers account should be treated carefully, as it may be too easy to make the book all about you and not so much about your family; something other readers may not find interesting.
You may find you have a wonderful collection of photos, birth and marriage certificates, maps, and other graphical information. If that's the case you may way to consider a photo book, which is simply a collection of all your photos, scanned documents, and graphics presented as a book. It takes a little bit of organization, which you would have done in step one, and some caption writing. Photo books are great for family members of every age because they are so easy to engage and enjoy.
A hybrid book is one that combines any of the above. For instance, you can have a narrative account photo book which essentially uses lots of images and some supporting text to tell the story of your family.
Now that you have a better understanding of some of the basic formats, it's time to figure out which best fits your project. Having already decided on a theme, look at the material you have from your research. Think about how your theme and the supporting material could work together to tell the story you want to tell.
For instance, you might have a great deal of photographs, birth certificates, and passports and you decided your theme was going to be "The Smiths Across Europe". Together these documents and theme would make a wonderful book that shares a categorical account through photos.
Outline your book
Okay, you've done the hard work. You've organized all your files, decided on a theme, and identified the best format. You're ready to start your book, right? Well, almost. There's one more step that will make it much easier to organize your book and that is to make an outline.
Go back to your organized files, and considering your theme and format, create an outline of sections, chapters, and even subchapters. Write a sentence or two for each part of the outline that describes what that part is about. This will make it much easier when you sit down to write/compile your book.
Since this article is about how to organize your family tree book, we won't cover the writing process. There are many excellent resources available to help you though the writing process. Contact your local writer's club, research online resources, or talk to your librarian to learn more.
Add front and back matter
The last step to organizing your family history book is to add front and back matter. These are the things that most professionally published books have to make them easier to use.
You don't need to include everything listed, but here is a list of common front matter elements:
- Half title
- Title page
- Table of contents
Here is a list of the elements included in typical back matter:
We recommend including a table of contents and an index, as these will help your readers navigate your book easier. It may also be good to include a section for acknowledgements, since most family tree projects require help from historians, family members, and even municipal and civil offices.
Congratulations! If you went through the steps we outlined above—organize your findings, pick a theme, choose a format, outline your book, and add front and back matter—you should have a nicely organized family history book.
Creating a book about your family's history is at once a great deal of work and deeply rewarding. We hope that this article has helped you organize your book and that your family will enjoy the benefits of your dedication and effort to discover and tell your family's story.