When we start researching, it seems like our family history will be a never-ending tapestry of people and events. New lineages spread out in all directions and exciting connections with history and with other families are discovered. The numbers of different lines of family which can be researched, and the diversity of their lives and experiences seem to offer vast opportunities for story-telling. Gradually we add new knots and threads to the tapestry to create pictures, sometimes vague and sometimes distinct, of the many people who came before us. However, at some stage we run out of threads to add to our tapestry. The records dry up; every available cousin and great-aunt has been contacted for information; and all family attics have been plundered for photos and memorabilia. So, what now? The obvious next step is to set down what we have found in the form of a coherent family history, complete with references to our sources and illustrations.
However, although obvious and logical, writing the history seems to daunt many amateur family historians. In 2015 I conducted a survey of family history enthusiasts to find out more about how they approach our favourite hobby. There were almost 550 responses to our survey (prizes of some of our books were used to encourage participation) and we had many interesting results. The result which particularly struck me, and which promoted this blog, was the response to the question “What do you intend to do with your family history results?”. In our survey respondents were given options ranging from just leaving an unsorted file of information to publishing a family history in book form. They were also offered a range of probabilities for each option.
What surprised me is how many respondents intended only to leave a file of documents behind them when they finished their research. Indeed 12% were uncertain that they would even leave their file of records behind! Given the effort that most amateur genealogists put into family research, why would more researchers not wish to bring together all of their findings into a complete story of the family? I am reminded of the caution offered by authors Tony McCarthy and Tim Cadogan in their ‘Guide to Tracing your Cork Ancestors’ (Flyleaf Press) … “There are those who never finish, who spend their time following leads and postponing the onerous task of writing up the family history. After the amateur genealogist has, perhaps, gone to actually meet those ancestors who have so tantalisingly eluded them during their lifetime, what happens to their research materials? What happens to all of those certificates, newspaper cuttings, photocopies, photographs and other treasures that took years to compile? The unpalatable but obvious truth of the matter is that your life’s work, having all of the outer appearances of rubbish, is thrown out”.
The full details (in % responses) are in the table below. Note that the options were multiple choice, so respondents could indicate a ‘definite’ for one option and also a ‘possible’ for another. The survey shows that only 38% were definitely planning to write a family history based on their research, and less than 14% intended to make this history available outside the family circle.
The hope, we presume, of the group who opt to ‘leave the file’ is that someone else in the family will take up the chase for their ancestors in the future. However, experience suggests that few family members have an interest that is deep enough to cause them to take any action. You may offer fascinating ancestral information at family gatherings, and some cousins or siblings will express great interest, and enthusiasm to know more. But how many will really follow up, and how many will have the degree of interest required to pick up where you left off? The reality is that most families are lucky if there is even one enthusiast in each generation. Even if a champion appears in the next generation, and even if your precious file has survived the perils of appearing rubbish-like, what are the chances that they will know that your file exists, or where it is?
These, I suggest, are the unpalatable facts. However, you can ensure that your family information will not disappear. But it will require you to put in the effort to write up what you know in the form of a family history, and/or to put your records into the hands of those who will keep it safe, and make it available to other interested parties.
Any of the options presented in the survey are likely to ensure that your work will be preserved and made available to others interested in your wider family, including your own descendants. The most popular of these choices, not surprisingly, was to write the history and circulate it within their own family. This was the definite choice of 38% of the total respondents, and it is an understandable goal. Clearly the family is the audience with the most interest in the content of your history. They are also the ones you most want to know what you found.
Writing a history for the family. The easiest option is to compile a family history in manuscript form, i.e. typed or even hand-written and circulate this within the family. You can decide on the format and on the style of writing, and there are no rules other than the obvious need to make the story understandable to the reader. There are guidelines and even courses available to help you in compiling and formatting such a history. The National Library of Ireland, for instance, offers courses on memoir writing and there are many other supports available. There are also a range of companies who will convert your family history into an illustrated book if you supply them with the content. Google will oblige with information on other courses or supports.
Donating a copy to an Archive. If you have taken the trouble to compile such a history, the little further effort required to donate some copies to archives and libraries is likely to be well rewarded. Archives, particularly specialist genealogical libraries, or local libraries in the area of origin of your family, will usually welcome your family history as being of local heritage value. By submitting your work to a library which has an on-line index of its collection, you can ensure that your work is available to others and that it will be preserved for posterity. Surprisingly, submission to an archive was the definitive choice of only ~14% of the total respondents.
Publishing in a Periodical. Other options are to publish your history as an article in a relevant magazine or periodical. Strangely, only ~6% of respondents were definitely considering this option, which is even less than those who were considering writing a book. This option definitely deserves consideration. Remember that you are not just restricted to genealogy magazines in choosing where to submit your article. Local history magazines are usually interested to include histories of local families in their pages. Useful information on the local history periodicals published in different Irish counties is available on Thaddeus Breens useful site on Archaeological and Historical Journals. A few examples are below and most counties have at least two such journals.
However, whereas a manuscript family history does not have any editor to please (other than yourself), an article submitted to a periodical will be required to meet certain basic editorial standards. This generally means that it is concise, readable, provides relevant references and otherwise conforms with their format and style. Generally, these requirements are not onerous and the editors will help you with what is required. They will usually improve the clarity and usefulness of your history. Articles in such journals are a powerful way to ensure that your work will be made public. Most journals are indexed in international systems which means that their articles can be easily found by anyone.
Publishing a Book. Finally, a book (even a self-published book or e-book) can also put your work firmly into the public domain. Almost 9% of respondents definitely intended to pursue this option. Unless your family is very prominent for some noble or nefarious reason, your family history is unlikely to be of interest to professional publishers. The content, with all due respect to your family, is of narrow interest and would not justify the publication costs. You are therefore more likely to self-publish your work, which is perfectly feasible. The costs involved in doing so can be low if you are willing to publish in simple format, or in e-book format. Hard-bound books with glossy or colour illustrations will cost a lot more, but if your main purpose is to ensure that the content is preserved, that is not important.
If you self-publish, I would suggest two actions that will greatly help in ensuring that your book becomes available to others. Firstly, you should get an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) for your book. You can google the ISBN agent in your country, who will assign you an ISBN. This will ensure that your book is ‘visible’ to libraries and that it is included in indexes of available titles. Secondly, you should donate copies to major local or national libraries that have an on-line index of their holdings. This will ensure that its content and title are visible to others. Even if your book is published with a very small print-run, there are many programmes now actively digitising books of general and/or historical value, and their websites make a huge range of books available for free to all readers. Some major examples include GoogleBooks and www.archivebooks.org. You can also submit your book to one of these programmes for inclusion.
One important suggestion I would make to those who consider publishing is to take some care in titling of their work. A poetic title such as ‘From Kenmare to Kentucky’ may have emotional significance, but it almost guarantees that your book will not be found by those searching for a family name. Your title should be designed for the reader, not the writer. A more useful title would be, for example ‘The O’Sullivans of Kenmare, and their migration to Kentucky 1820-33 (with links to Murphy, Brosnan and Cregan families)”.
A final point which might be made regarding the advantages of publishing your family history is that it will provide you with an opportunity to describe your current family. Even one generation on, your successor in charting your family’s history may well value a description of all of the details of your current family motivations, triumphs, pleasures and problems. This is the the colour which cannot be provided by the standard records. Having searched for gems of genealogical value for so long, this is your opportunity to create a gem which will make some future researcher’s day.
A version of this blog by Jim Ryan first appeared in the the In-Depth Genealogist (now closed)