Writing a Family History
Karen Boucher relates her experiences in publishing her family’s history.
WRITING A FAMILY BOOK is no simple undertaking but the cumulative efforts of many people over a long period of time. A dream of many genealogists is to publish their family history. In June 1998 my cousin Marjorie and I had that opportunity.
Marjorie and I are part of a large family. William Baker and Margaret Hicks Baker with their 10 children emigrated from Cornwall, England in 1847 to what is now Elgin County, Ontario, Canada. There has been a family reunion every year since 1898. To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Baker Reunion, special events were planned for the 1998 reunion. Publication of an up-to-date family history was one of these events. In past years, the Bakers have produced three family tree books ranging from a booklet run off on gestetner to a professionally printed book including pictures. No copies of the previous books are available for sale, but family members loaned us copies.
I started attending Baker Reunions as a child and grew up in the general area where many of the second-generation Bakers had settled. My grandfather attended the first reunion in 1898 and each subsequent reunion until his death in 1984. I took the Baker family history for granted most of my life.
Marjorie came from a different background. Her first Baker picnic was as an adult with three children of her own. Her grandparents were all deceased when she was born and she knew little about her extended family. Says Marjorie, “This all changed early in 1987 when my twin sons had a school project that involved a mini family tree. I was appalled at my lack of knowledge, did some basic research and was hooked!”
Before I knew Marjorie, she was already actively involved in research and had made contact with many cousins, accumulating information on William and Margaret’s descendants and ancestors. Marjorie organized her data by creating a separate binder for each of William and Margaret’s 10 children and further subdivided these by dividers into generations. This continues to be a wonderful reference allowing Marjorie to quickly find the correct obituary or census entry when asked. Soon after we met, Marjorie told me she had long dreamed of updating the Baker book last done in 1957 and adding dates and places to the names as well as providing details of our ancestors’ lives.
Marjorie and I met for the first time in 1995. I knew of her existance from the family group sheets she had sent me in 1993, but that was it. Knowing that Marjorie had already done an amazing amount of research made it easy for me to say yes when I was asked to be on the book committee with her.
Researching and Writing
At the Baker Reunion in June 1996 we appealed to everyone to complete their family information and to check their attics for pictures and other memorabilia. I followed up with a mailing to all the addresses on the reunion mailing list. The response was amazing and without the help of the whole Baker family the book would not exist in its present form. Stories about where the pictures came from could fill another book. The regular contact with extended family at the reunions provided an ideal way to collect information and a known set of interested buyers for a family book.
Marjorie and I met for our first major planning session in the summer of 1996. I was immediately struck by how our different skills fit together so well. Marjorie had already done a lot of the genealogy research and brought that information to the meeting along with strategies to fill in the missing lines. I was just starting into genealogy as a hobby so reviewed other family books at the library and listed my likes and dislikes about each. Surprisingly, my list of dislikes was longer but through this review process I developed my own format for the Baker book and took that plan to the meeting. Without any advance planning, our roles fell in place.
Names and dates are important but Marjorie and I also wanted to provide some insight into our ancestors’ lives. The book needed to be attractive and user friendly to grab the attention of the non-genealogy oriented members of the family but also needed to include the basic genealogical information.
I liked Marjorie’s idea of one chapter for each child. A table of contents and introduction would help people navigate the book. I hoped that a variety of topics, rather than an in-depth analysis of genealogical data, would provide something to appeal to everyone. Reprinting an article from the 1947 book that talked about the homestead allowed us to recognize the work previous generations had invested in recording family information — and it would be one chapter we wouldn’t have to write. We divided the chapters still to be written between us.
To fill in some factual information about our ancestors, I summarized information from the 1871 Canadian Census in one chapter. I then delegated the chapter on the Baker Reunion to my mother who has attended more reunions than Marjorie and I put together.
Marjorie was responsible for writing the chapters on life in England at the time the Bakers came to Canada, the Atlantic crossing and the village of Littlewood where many of the second generation settled. In Marjorie’s words: “For the first two, little snippets of information had been passed down but not nearly enough for what I needed. I found a suggested list of provisions for a trip across the Atlantic and also a list of shipboard rules for the appropriate time period. This generic information, along with what concrete information I had, provided enough material to give our readers some idea of our ancestors’ lives.”
Marjorie and I live over 100 miles apart and communication would be vital. Marjorie was already using e-mail so I quickly got online and I don’t know how we would have managed without it. Marjorie upgraded her copy of Family Tree Maker so we each had the same version. We both kept that version until the book went to the printer to minimize any risk of data loss while swapping files.
Marjorie describes how she handled the research area. “Once the decision was made to proceed with the book, I became much more systematic with my research. I looked up every census for every family, checked entries in the vital statistics indexes, copied out certificates and found every obituary that I could. For those branches where we were lacking information, I tried to choose a likely contact person and then mailed them computer-generated family group sheets. I learned to send blank forms as well so that more recent generations could be added. I had quite good success with this approach and very few were not returned. Of course, many families had left the area and were now difficult to trace. In some cases, where the surname was uncommon (certainly not Baker!), I used Canada 411 on the Internet and attempted to match up names of children in the 1957 book with last known locations of these families. This again worked well, providing information on several branches. I asked for favors from a couple of my genealogical correspondents who resided in the area of possible Baker descendants. We paid to have some research done on one branch of the family in Saskatchewan. Inevitably, there were some branches we were unable to update from the previous book.”
A past family reunion photo was labelled and presented as part of the new work.
Presenting the Information
We decided to print the obituaries for William and Margaret and their children. They provide information on the individuals plus show a totally different writing style and content than today’s obituaries. We were fortunate to find obituaries in one form or another for all but one person — Marjorie’s great grandfather. Instead of an obituary, Marjorie wrote a summary of his life.
As photographs started coming in, Marjorie volunteered to organize collecting and recording family pictures. A friend of Marjorie’s had copied some of her own photos and he consented to do the ones for the book. We could never have afforded to have them professionally done. Marjorie and I decided that no “one-of-a-kind” photos would go to the printer so Marjorie kept scrupulous records of who had loaned us each photo. Some people at a distance sent laser copies of photos and these copied as well as actual photos. To keep the number of photos to a manageable amount only the immigrant couple, their children and grandchildren were to be included. The next generation was included only if it was in the same photo. In several cases both wedding photos of a couple and one of them with their children were received. In these cases the family photo was used as it showed more people. The picture showed how names and physical characteristics were passed from one generation to the next.
The next major hurdle was to decide how to present the genealogical information so it could be easily followed. In the fall of 1996, Marjorie gave me the family tree data that she had collected to that point so I could experiment with page layouts. My colleagues at work were guinea pigs and reviewed several different formats. The unanimous choice was that dropline charts were the easiest to understand. This presented a new problem. How do I cut this huge pedigree into smaller pieces but still make it easy to follow family lines backward and forward? After a lot of trial and error I came up with a format. I put the chapter heading on each page by the page number as quick reference to which chapter one was reading. I then cut the charts from Family Tree Maker and pasted them into the word processor. To provide a logical flow to the drop charts, I used headings and asterisks to indicate when the drop chart was continued elsewhere on the same page. The appropriate page reference number was recorded under individuals whose family was continued on another page. I planned to use standard letter-size paper and it became apparent that using a landscape orientation allowed larger groups to be kept together.
I set up a binder using slip-in acetate sleeves to keep hard copies of the pages sequentially and double-sided, as they would eventually appear in the book. This binder became my constant companion. I used it to try out different layouts, place pictures and estimate the number of pages.
The book was filled with many family trees and black and white photographs.
The original plan for printing the book was to have double-sided photocopying for pages with just text. The quality of photocopying for pictures was disappointing but to have the pages printed professionally was expensive. To minimize costs, I planned to group the pictures together and have only the pages with pictures printed professionally. By collating the pages ourselves and then having the books spiral-bound, costs could be kept reasonable.
Then a wonderful thing happened! In April 1997, the day before we were to present estimated costs to the reunion planning committee, I bought the new publication The Families of Five Stakes from the Elgin County Genealogical Society. The professionally printed book had a color cover, beautifully reproduced pictures throughout, and was about the same length we estimated the Baker book would be. Best of all the price was reasonable. Fortunately, the person I bought the book from had been involved in its production, and gave me the name of the printer and some more pointers. This discovery was incredibly exciting and opened up a whole new set of possibilities.
The printer suggested I submit the copies of the pages from my workbook in copy-ready quality to keep costs lower and allow us to include more pictures. The new freedom with pictures allowed me to be more creative with page layouts. The pictures could now be placed with the appropriate text, not in a bunch at the end.
There are wonderful group pictures of some of the early reunions. These large group pictures presented another challenge. A sea of 185 unidentified individuals is not very inspiring so I wanted to identify as many as possible. Everyone was bunched together so I could not use rows to identify the location of individuals in these pictures. Finally I hit on the idea of tracing the outlines of each individual and then numbering the blank outlines. I then made up posters with blank numbered charts to record people’s names. These posters were circulated at the 1997 reunion and to some of the senior members of the family for a more detailed look. I used a similar format to the posters to set up these pages in the book.
These group pictures are panoramic pictures about 30 inches long and containing up to 185 people. Now that the whole book was being printed these pictures could be reproduced on 11½" by 17" paper and inserted as end papers inside the front and back covers. This allowed the faces in the pictures to be large enough to recognize individuals!
A cousin went to England in the 1980s and took photos of many places important to the Baker family. However, further research had uncovered more English photo needs. Another cousin went to England in 1997 and managed to get a free day from her tour and hire a local guide and driver. The result is many lovely photos showing places our ancestors were familiar with 150 years ago.
By June 1997, we needed money to copy pictures and cover other costs necessary to get the book ready for printing. We decided to promote advance sales of the book at a $5 discount. Showing my workbook to family at the 1997 reunion allowed them to see what they were getting. In the previous books, families had purchased space to put personal messages in the book. We continued this tradition to raise some up-front cash. This also gave family members a chance to add their own personal touch to the book. These greetings run from a full page to wallet size, and include artwork, poetry and tributes. Hopefully future generations will have as much fun reading these as I had reading the ones from the previous books.
The Final Stretch
By August 1997 the chapters that didn’t involve family charts were finished and set up in my computer with copies in my trusty book.
Following the cut-off date for new information of August 1997, Marjorie sent me the updated family data. I then started on the final layout of the book. Even after that, Marjorie sent me updates by e-mail — all of which I was able to incorporate into the family drop charts.
So far everything had been fun. It was a combination of putting a puzzle together, making a scrapbook and visiting with family. The hard part was getting rid of all the typing and spelling mistakes. In November 1997 I numbered and made double-sided photocopies of all the pages, then cerlox bound them to make rough copies of the book. Various people, including my husband, had the task of proof reading. Marjorie got one of these rough copies to index.
Marjorie does the majority of the indexing for her local genealogical society and volunteered to index the book. I was relieved she was willing to undertake such a mammoth task and am impressed at the quality the index added to the book. I must admit to being worried at times after receiving e-mails relating the loss of a partially completed index not once, but twice — Marjorie finally resorted to saving the index on both the hard drive and floppy disk. However, the result was worth it and her escapades scared me into making a second copy of my material on floppies and keeping that set at work.
By early March 1998, the final draft was ready and sent to the printer. At the printer’s request, my workbook accompanied the pictures and the copy-ready pages to ensure all were properly placed.
Marjorie and I decided copies of the book would be given to various libraries and also to formally register the book with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Our hope was to record a piece of history and promote a sense of pride in being a member of the Baker Family.
We wanted to still have books available after the 1998 reunion, so planned accordingly. Money from sales of the book paid for the entire cost of the book and allowed us to properly archive the materials generated by its production (photos, old reunion invitations, newspaper articles). Future sales will provide funding for other reunion projects. As a millennium project, photos of the more recent generations not covered in the book are being collected. Family members are strongly encouraged to update family information at each reunion.
Would we do some things differently? Given the time constraints that we had, no. In the absence of time constraints, there are lines we would have followed up. Also it would have been nice to have included more personal information for the later generations.
What was our favorite part? Sorting through all the pictures was an adventure. Seeing ancestors who previously were only names for the first time and deciding that someone today looks just like their great-grandfather was very entertaining. Judging from the comments we’ve received, the rest of the family agrees.
What did we learn? Using today’s communication options of mail, telephone and e-mail, multiple people can get involved and distance is not a problem. We were very fortunate to find out about the professional printer! We didn’t need to photocopy and collate all those pages ourselves and benefited from the experienced advice. Most important, the quality of the finished product made the cost more than worthwhile.
What were we most thankful for? Karen’s mother Margaret (Baker) Holdsworth. She pushed to get the book committee set and was constantly encouraging. It would be embarrassing to admit the number of times we called for help and through her contacts questions were answered.
Would we do it again? You bet! It was a lot of work but it was great fun too. We got to meet a ton of relatives and the two of us became good friends in the process. Best of all, the experience of holding in our hands the book we had created was indescribable.
Like many facts in genealogy, the listed author of this article is correct but incomplete. The article was co-authored by Marjorie Wilson who also co-authored the book. To make reading easier, we wrote the article from Karen’s point of view.
This article originally appeared in our January/February 2000 issue.