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About Writing Your Family History

Part II - The HOW

Felix G. Game

In Part I (The What) my intention was to be a catalyst for ideas about what can and should be included in you family history. This time I am going to assume that you have amassed piles and piles of good data about your family, that you have read the history of the region they lived in, that you accumulated documents to prove the claims you are making about who is related to whom. Now comes the time to actually put it together in some format which will endure the ravages of time, and which will be intelligible to readers hundreds of years from now. It must also be available to anyone interested to study it or perhaps even to continue your work. There are decisions that you must make, and you must make them without regard to your own beliefs, likes, dislikes or idiosyncrasies. You must make them with one thought uppermost in your mind: this is not for me, it is for those that come after me. They must understand it, they must be able to follow my trail, they must be able to find the original sources of my data. And let us not forget the most important factor: they must be able to read what I am putting together. In these last four lines are included most of the obligatory considerations. Let us start with what should be obvious but is not: "They must be able to read it ". I am not talking about literacy, I am talking about the medium. Most of us now are quite computer literate, but because of that we are also driven by the rapid advances made in technology.

Right now we need to decide on a medium for storing our life's work of genealogical research so that future generations can access it. The first thought, which would also appear to be the most logical, is to select the most advanced storage medium we know of. At the time of this writing that would probably be the compact disc which we know as CD.  Anyone can now "burn in" his own CDs. Neat, small, and shiny, they are not even expensive, and each one holds enough data to store a book and still have empty space left. The additional benefits are that pictures and even motion and sound can be recorded on a CD. What else could you ask for? I suspect some will opt for storing all their research data on CDs. Wonderful. Or is it? 

I am writing this in the year 2000. What I said describes the current state of the art. But listen to this: Not quite 20 years ago I bought my fist computer, it was a Tandy TRS 80 Model III from RadioShack. I learned how to program in BASIC and I wrote programs to keep track of my electricity bills, my automobile expenses, the gas mileage I was getting, and set up intricate routines to keep my inventory of household goods up to date. It was a wonderfully thrilling experience but compared to what I am using to type this article is like comparing Ford's first automobile to a space capsule. There just is no comparison. And there is no continuity either. I can no longer read my own programs that I saved on the TRS-80 19 years ago, and I can no longer read some of my DOS disks which are less than 10 years old - not because my computer cannot read the data, but because computers no longer have 5 1/4" floppy drives. In these last 20 years either the programming language, or the platform, or the medium or the gadget to read the medium have become obsolete and unavailable. So tell me, why would anyone think even for a minute that a CD produced today will be readable in 200 or 300 years from now? Let us just forget the CD idea. 

There are several other alternatives that stand up to the test of time. The LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) seems to bet on microfilm . Since the laws of optics will probably not change, the availability of optical instruments that will read old microfilm or microfiche can perhaps be assumed. Mind you, even today most of us have to go to a library where they have microfim readers because not too many of us have one at home. What I would worry about is the life expectancy of the film itself. The Mormons have their films inside a climate-controlled vault in a granite mountain. Most of us would have to be satisfied with a safety deposit box at our neighborhood bank. Home movies, camcorders should be eliminated as alternatives for the same reasons: their discs or casettes can no more be expected to be readable as are the CDs.

So what is left? Plain old fashioned printed paper , that's what. Archives are full of books that are several hundreds of years old.  I trust books. Not only do they not depend on technical apparatus to read them, they also have the added advantage of usually existing in multiple copies. Some of these copies have a good chance of surviving wars and natural disasters. If they don't, nothing will. So let me state here and now that I am a believer in books, and that I believe that my years of genealogical research work will be best preserved for future generations in the form of a book. I have in fact done exactly that. I wrote a family history, printed it and gave each one of my descendants a copy, and also placed copies in some prominent libraries and archives. They are not all going to perish at the same time, not unless we collide with another heavenly body and the entire population of  Earth is wiped out. But then no one will need to read my book anyhow. Now that the medium has been decided on, let us go to the next step: Pricing the production of a book.

It is, of course, not possible for me to provide a cost estimate to suit all books in progress. Each of you can do that in your own town and with specific reference to your own work. I only want to mention here that printing has also undergone a tremendous change, to a great extent due to the same technological advancements I spoke of earlier. It is no longer a foregone conclusion that a book must be produced on an offset press where the unit price is a function of the numbers printed. Genealogists are not in need of thousands of copies of their family history because even if they wanted to give away the entire print run, they simply do not have that large a family - and frankly, not too many other people care.  You just write your family history and get it printed and see if you are lucky enough to have even your own children read the whole book. If you are working with a computer every day, and you must be if you already have a manuscript ready to publish, then you must also have a printer. With your text on the hard disk, and a normal laser or ink jet printer, you can produce camera-ready copy which some printing house can copy for you on their expensive industrial machines. (A camera-ready copy is one that looks exactly as you want your finished book to look.) You can view the entire operation as having multiple copies made of your master copy. Normally, when you go to the copy place in your neighborhood, you know how many copies you want and you ask to have that many copies made. The difference in cost between  having 50 copies made or 5000 copies made will probably be about 3 cents a page. This was not what the printer told when you spoke to him. He did not even want to discuss 50 copies, and was talking in thousands. He said that at 1000 copies your cost per book would be something like $40 and that this would drop to about $15 if you ordered 5000. Now you know why some people have an entire basement filled with books.  It is because they are saving money. The more you buy the more you save, have you not heard this already from your spouse?

The process of preparing camera-ready copy can also accommodate images. These can be grandfather's portrait in his West Point cadet uniform, or it can be an old document you are particularly fond of. You need to have a darn good scanner teamed up with an expensive industrial printer to produce photographs of the quality you would like to see in your book. It is possible, but you will have to go shopping again, to find the most viable approach. Be warned, though, that including color pictures in your book gets you into a completely new ball game, and it is an expensive one. Luckily, old photographs are all monochrome, and so are old documents, so you will probably not get involved with color. 

Stepping back a bit, I should have dealt with the skills required to prepare a manuscript so it can be used as a master from which to print the multiple copies of your book. Let's face it, most of us do not have the skills to produce a book, nor would we know how to go about it, nor should we be expected to. If you are rich, you do not need to read further, just pick up the phone and have a representative of a big printing house come to your home and sign you up to a profitable contract (read: profitable for him). If you are still with me it means that you do care about the difference between $3,000 and $10,000. It may also mean that you want to publish your family history, but are somewhat intimidated by the whole idea of wading into this new experience. It is not that bad, but we do have to talk about the things you need to know.

When you pick up any book and have a quick look at its pages you get the distinct impression that there must be some methodology  involved. The pages look so uniform, the headings look the same, most pages have an extra line running across the top, the chapter titles are uniform and they are always on the right hand page which happens to always have an odd page number, the index is always found at the back, and many pages have some fine print at the bottom with little numbers. I am making fun, of course, because if you don't laugh at this, it can make you cry. I did not invent anything, all those parts and considerations are there waiting to trip you up. Yes, there are conventions and you are expected to follow them unless you want to be sneered at for your amateurish attempt.  The question you might ask at this stage is "how can I produce my own book if I do not have the faintest idea about all these conventions and requirements".  Part of the answer will depend on the degree of your dedication to produce a book, and also on your attitude towards accepting a challenge. If you want to do it and you cannot afford to pay for having it done, then you must learn how to do it.

The first thing you should do is go out and buy The Chicago Manual of Style (by The University of Chicago Press). In the roughly 750 pages of this book you will find everything you need to know about producing a book. Everything. You do not read this book from cover to cover no more than you would read a dictionary from cover to cover. It is a reference, and you go to it when you have a question. And if you follow it, you will have a very reputable-looking book that you will be proud to autograph for your family and friends. Let me summarize the crucial elements in publishing your family history: Decide how to organize your book. (Mine is divided into three parts - father, mother and myself. Within each part the known individuals are dealt with in choronological order, and each one is given as much space as required to narrate all that is known about him or her. Some merit a short paragraph, others require large chapters to accomodate all that is known about them.)

To Table of Contents meter Last changed: 3 Aug 2002