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.
- 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.
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.
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.