Advice, Methodology

Three alternatives to publishing a family history book

There are many ways to compile and share your family history.


If you use family history software to document your research, you can easily compile your family history by using the reporting and charting tools in the software. The basic reports can be generated in a matter of moments, provided you have entered sufficient information to your family tree, such as source citations. With a bit more time, you can customise the basic reports and add extra content such as stories, maps and photo galleries. Through customisation, a report can be converted into a publishable family history book, if that is what you want, or you can keep it as an unpublished PDF document.

Table of contents for a family history report on Ivy Elizabeth Rusten listing ten generations.
Contents page for a standard report from family history software
Customise your report in your family history software to create a book

A lot of people use Ancestry to document their family history and the good news is that you can also generate reports and charts from that site. The LifeStory and Facts screens of individual profiles both have a print option, from which you can create a PDF document for an individual. The LifeStory is in the format of a timeline and it includes any photographs you have added to the Gallery for that individual. You can customise the LifeStory by editing text or by adding a biography. The Facts report includes any source citations you have attached to the information. From the tree view in Ancestry, the print option takes you to an external site, MyCanvas, which allows you to create a family history book based on your Ancestry family tree (for a fee).

The advantages of the report format of a compiled family history are that:

  • it is easy to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • it follows formats which are recognisable by other genealogists.

In my first article about compiling your family history I emphasised that there are different purposes for writing up your family history and different audiences. The report format is great for sharing your research with other researchers and for helping you analyse the research that you have done so that you can generate new research leads. Generally, report formats are not great for sharing your research with family, although the customisation options do go some way to addressing this limitation.


By comparison, a scrapbook is a great format for sharing your family history with family or non-genealogists. I use the term ‘scrapbook’ loosely to mean a document that is built primarily from visual elements, such as photos and illustrations.

You could, for example, include the following in a family history scrapbook:

  • a simplified family tree
  • photographs
  • maps
  • extracts from official sources
  • lists of children and family members
  • images of family letters, signatures, and other family mementos.
Example digital scrapbook page

Scrapbooks are more aesthetically pleasing than reports and convey information in smaller chunks, which means family are more likely to engage with them.

You can create a scrapbook in the traditional way, using an album and adhesives. However, I prefer to create digital scrapbooks.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • production of a digital scrapbook is cheap, you can customise it for different family members and you can make additional copies when needed.

Source citations are optional in a scrapbook, if the audience is family.


Creating a family history website is another fun way to compile your research and share it with others. Blogging platforms such as WordPress enable you to create a free (or low cost) website to share your research.

Your website can be anything you want it to be. A compilation of stories, photo galleries, family tree charts, surname lists and a way to communicate with family and other researchers.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • one website can contain elements for different audiences (both researchers and family).

Using a website to compile your family history does present a few challenges:

  • not all platforms allow family tree plugins
  • a website does not preserve your family history in the way that a published book or depositing with an archive does
  • information on a website cannot be printed unless you specifically include the means to do so.

Coming soon: More about the use of websites to share your family history.

Advice, Methodology

Writing for other researchers

When you write, it is important to think carefully about your purpose and your audience. Other researchers are a very different audience to family members, so you need to compile different products for each.

What is your purpose?

A compiled family history has many benefits for other researchers. Think about which of these you want to achieve, as they will influence the format, content and structure of your product.

Potential purposes:

  • help other researchers determine whether they are related to you
  • provide information that will help progress the research of others
  • provide context for documents and objects associated with the family history, such as photographs, certificates and heirlooms
  • synthesise your research and demonstrate a considered argument for your conclusions
  • present a different perspective or contrary view
  • demonstrate your genealogical research skills and knowledge, including the ability to analyse sources and evidence, and the ability to create family tree charts.

Audience needs

Based on the purpose(s) that you select, next you have to consider what other researchers will need so that purpose is achieved.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that other researchers will not be as familiar with your family or your research as you are. You will need to include details and explanations to help them understand your research and become familiar with the family structure.

What should be included?

The specific content of your compiled family history will depend on the results of your research and your purpose(s). However, here are some general tips.

A synopsis and/or introduction provides an overview of the family history and a concise statement of the purpose of your document. It introduces the family to the reader and explains how the document is structured. It describes the scope of the work, and the sources and methods of research used so that the reader can decide whether the document is likely to be useful to them.

Family tree charts contribute to most of the purposes listed above, because they provide summaries of key information and illustrate the relationships between people. They provide a recognisable structure for a family history and help contextualise the information provided.

Sources citations are essential, because other researchers will want to know where you got your information and may wish to consult the sources that you used. Citations allow others to confirm whether or not they agree with your conclusions, and they also allow you to acknowledge the work of others. Footnotes are the preferred method of citing sources in family history and a bibliography should be included at the end of the document.

Indexes are also essential, as they help researchers identify if your work contains information of relevance to them and they help them locate that information. Consider including a surname index and an index to places.

Other useful inclusions, depending on the nature of your compilation:

  • Tables allow you to present, organise and summarise key bits of information to help readers make sense of the data. For example, if the purpose of your compiled family history is to provide context for documents and objects associated with the family history, you might include a catalogue of photos in table format. Tables should have a clear title and labels on the columns and rows.
  • Figures, such as graphs, drawings and maps also allow you to present and illustrate information in a visual manner to assist in the absorption and understanding of information. Maps, for example, can help the reader conceptualise locations and distances. Like tables, figures should be clearly and appropriately labeled.
  • Photographs may be used to illustrate the text and add to the story, or merely to ensure that they are preserved. Photographs should have both a caption and a source citation, to provide information about the subject, date and location, as well as where the photograph was obtained and the copyright status. If such information is not available, photographs should be placed with associated material or in a broad family context, as this may help other researchers identify them.
  • Including too much detail in the body of the document can reduce the effectiveness of your message. Appendices can be used for helpful, supporting or essential material, such as detailed family tree charts, raw data, copies of source documents, transcriptions and perhaps even maps and tables.
  • To help readers navigate the document and find content relevant to them you could include a table of contents, and lists of tables and figures.


A compiled family history must be organised logically and be presented in a clear and readable manner. Done well, the structure you choose will guide the reader through your family history and make it easy for them to use it.

The most common structure is chronological. You can start in the past and work towards the present, or go in the opposite direction. In a chronological structure, the work is usually organised by generations.

An acceptable alternative is to structure your product based on surnames or family lines, and then apply a chronological format on top. Dividing your family history into four parts, each representing one of your grandparents, is a great way to help other researchers navigate through your work and focus on the people that interest them. If you are compiling your family history to donate it to an archive or library, the grandparent structure is particularly useful in providing context for documents and objects associated with your family history.

However you structure your product, take care to utilise good grammar and spelling, and focus on the accuracy of the information that you present.

Further reading

Five tips to make citing sources easier.

Society of Australian Genealogists, Diploma in Family Historical Studies Guide, 2020,

Australian Copyright Council, Family Histories and Copyright, fact sheet, 2012.

Even though you are writing for other researchers, you should still aim to make your writing enjoyable. Here are a few books on that topic:

Carol Baxter, Writing Interesting Family Histories, revised ed., St Ives, NSW, The Author, 2016.

Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, How to Write History That People Want to Read, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2009.

Hazel Edwards, Writing a Non-Boring Family History, rev. ed., Alexandria, NSW: Hale & Iremonger, 2003.

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and Writing Women into Family History, St Agnes, SA, Unlock the Past, 2013.


Should you write a family history book?

At some point in our family history research you have probably come to the realisation that you should really write it all up. The idea of writing a family history book may sound quite daunting. Fortunately, publishing a book is just one of many options available.

Since I am not just talking about books I am going to use the term that we use in the family history archives where I work – a compiled family history. A compiled family history is a synthesis of research that draws together component parts of a family history. A family history book is a type of compiled family history, but there are many other types and approaches.

Box of old photos and papers
Example of an un-compiled family history – bundles of photos and papers
Cover of a family history book by Betty O'Neill
Example of a compiled family history

Three reasons to compile your family history

Compiling your family history allows you to convert your research into a format that you can share with family. Your family probably can’t interpret a family tree chart or a bundle of probate documents on their own, but they may engage with your findings if you extract bits of information and pictures and synthesise them into summaries and stories.

But there are other reasons too.

Compiling your family history makes it easier to share your research with other researchers, either informally or formally through publication or depositing it with an archive or library. You might share copies of certificates, photos, maps and other records that you discovered, but it is the compilation or synthesis that helps other researchers make sense of these items. When we do this, we help other researchers use our research to progress their own.

Which brings me to the third reason for compiling your family history. We often think about compiling or writing up our research as something that gets done at the end or near the end of the research process. However, the compilation and writing process is also a powerful tool which can help us progress our own research further. When we compile our family history we review what we have found, we structure and organise it, and we write up our conclusions. During this process, it is almost inevitable that new research leads will be revealed – as gaps in our knowledge, inconsistencies or new ideas to explore.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts, in which I will discuss format, structure, content and the process of creating compiled family histories.

Methodology, Sources and resources

Study the repositories

Learning about the types of sources that provide useful information for family history is essential, but so too is learning about the repositories.

Identifying the repository

A repository is a place which holds sources. A genealogical source is anything that provides you with information for family history. Sources include books, journal articles, birth certificates, wills and records of land ownership. They also include items such as photographs, handwritten poems, advertisements, or something less tangible such as personal recollections.

So, if these are examples of the range of source types, how does that help us identify a repository?

Some are easy. Buildings, such as libraries and archives; places, such as cemeteries; and websites that are managed by an institution or organisation.

Others are a bit trickier.

What is the repository for a website managed by an individual? What about sources held in a personal collection? And what is the repository when the source is the memory of a person?

Another complication is that an institution or organisation may manage multiple repositories, and an individual can manage multiple websites. The NSW State Archives, for example, holds sources in buildings at various locations around the state and also holds some sources online.

Finding sources

Why is it important to identify the repository? The first reason is so that we can find the sources.

When we research, we develop research questions, think about the information we need to answer the questions, make a list of sources that might provide that information, then make a list of repositories where the sources may be held. In this process, we may research the sources to determine which ones are likely to be useful, but how much time do we spend researching the repositories?

As mentioned above, an institution, organisation or individual may have more than one repository. We need to know that before we go looking for sources. Have the sources been digitised and placed online, or do we have to visit in person?

We also need to know how the repository is managed. Each repository is different. They have different collection policies that determine the sources they hold. They have different methods for organising the sources, describing them and presenting them to researchers. They may even have different versions of a source.

For example, a state library and a state archive may both have collections of convict indents but they may cover different date ranges and they may catalogue them differently. In addition, one repository may have the original sources and another may have derivative copies.

Learning about repositories increases our chances of finding the sources that we need.

Citing a repository

Knowledge about repositories helps us cite our sources more effectively.

It is true that we cite our sources, not the repositories. A citation that just says the information came from Ancestry, for example, is not a good citation because Ancestry is a repository.

However, that does not mean that we never mention a repository in a citation. In fact, citations for family history research often do mention the repository. Why is that?

I have written before about how to craft a good citation. One of the key rules is that you need to include the information necessary to find the source. If a source is unpublished, for example, it is unlikely to be found unless the repository is included in the citation. This could be the name of the archive or cemetery and its location. In the case of a website, locational information in the form of a URL performs the same function; and for a personal collection or personal recollection the owner is identified in the citation. If the source used is a derivative source, it is good practice to include information about the repository of both the derivative and original versions.

Example, unpublished source in an archive:

John Augustus Milbourne Marsh, unpublished journal commences 1 September 1848 on ship from England to Australia, Item 2/301, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

Example, online derivative source with information about the repository of the original:

FamilySearch, “England Bishop’s transcripts,” database ( accessed 21 Jun 2016), entry for Frances, daughter of Peter & Frances Hawkins; St Nicholas Church, Brighton, Sussex, FHL film no. 1,468,821, page 186, no. 1481; citing West  Sussex Record Office, Chichester, no.: EP II/16/27A-M.

Using sources

Information about the repositories also helps us use the sources effectively.

When the people who manage repositories gather sources together, store them and then present them to researchers they have an impact on the sources.

They may alter the sources – accidentally or deliberately. They may leave some parts of a source out or reorganise them, or group different types of sources together. They may provide explanatory material or material that presents their interpretation of the sources.

Learning about the repositories helps us understand these impacts and this understanding improves our analysis of the sources.


Customise your family tree

Customising your family tree can help your research planning and improve the way that you communicate the results of your research.

There are many ways to customise your tree, but this post uses Legacy family tree software and Ancestry trees to demonstrate the main techniques.

Set your direct line

While it is important to research beyond your direct line, it is also useful if you can instantly tell which people in your family tree are on your direct line. This makes it easier to navigate up and down your line, and focus your research when necessary.

In Legacy, you can mark the entire direct line in one step by selecting the starting individual (usually yourself) and then choosing ‘Set Direct Line’ from the Tools tab. Legacy marks the names of people in your direct line in bold typeface.

In an Ancestry tree you have to mark each individual manually, by adding a ‘tree tag’. The direct line tag is called ‘Direct Ancestor’ and it is under the group called ‘Relationship tags’.

How are they related to you?

Knowing how someone is related to you is another useful bit of information as you work on your tree.

Ancestry adds that information automatically to individuals as you add them. With Legacy, you have to switch it on by choosing ‘Set Relationships’ from the Tools tab.

Divide them into your grandparent lines

Dividing your family members into groups based on your four grandparents is a great organisational tool. It helps with navigation, research planning, filing and sharing information with others.

Legacy uses the four-colour scheme and it can be applied by choosing ‘Set Ancestor Colours’ from the Tools tab. This adds a small block of colour on the individual’s screen and colour codes the box for each person in the pedigree chart. The colours can also be applied to printed family tree charts such as the one below.

Ancestry does not have a specific system to group your family by grandparent. However, you could create four custom Tree Tags for this purpose.

Identify research groups

You may find it useful to create customised groups of your family members for research purposes, based on common characteristics or common research questions. For example:

  • convicts
  • everyone who migrated to Australia
  • people born in Ireland
  • parents not yet identified.

Legacy has both two systems of tagging custom groups. The tag system uses the numbers 1-9 which appear at the top of the individual’s screen. The hashtag system allows a seemingly limitless list of tags.

Ancestry has ‘MyTreeTags’ under the categories of DNA, life experience, relationship and research status, and you can also create custom tags. The tags appear below the person’s name on their screen.

Both Legacy and Ancestry allow you to search your family tree for everyone containing a particular tag and create a list. Legacy also allows you to print the list in PDF format or a CSV file. The latter is great for research planning, as the file can be opened and modified in Excel.

Note the status of research

Noting the status of research on individuals may help make your research more manageable and help you focus on those individuals who need to be prioritised to progress your research.

Ancestry tree tags have the following pre-set tags: actively researching, brick wall, complete, hypothesis, unverified, verified.

Legacy does not have a specific system to note the status of research, but you could use the tags or the To Do List for this purpose.

Even if you do not want to use most of these tags, the unverified tag could be extremely useful because it draws attention to the inconclusive nature of the information which affects the accuracy of your family tree.

Record DNA conclusions

I have written before about methods for recording DNA conclusions, so I won’t repeat that here other than to emphasise that it is important to establish a system for doing so and both Legacy and Ancestry have tools to assist this process.