Family history makes us understand our place in the world. It is comforting, educating and often moving. While most of us grow up knowing our parents and grandparents, beyond that things gets hazy.
Stories are passed from one relative to another, with each iteration getting foggier. When we take the time to examine them, these tales are fascinating. You might discover you hail from a city, region or country you were never aware of. You might find relatives who achieved incredible things, or unearth branches of the family that had been previously lost.
Threaded through these narratives are the smaller, tantalising details: hushed rumours of scandals gone by, old family folklore and clues to an individual’s wartime heroism. It’s these personal touches that make genealogy especially exciting.
In this article, I’m going to help you organise a handmade, cross-generational family photo album. More than a family tree, this is something that’s as entertaining as it is informative. Split into chunks, the project involves:
- Honouring The Past & Setting A Precedent
- Part One: Consolidate Old Material
- Part Two: Consolidate Modern Material
- Part Three: Create A Future-Proof Family Album
- Part Four: Enabling Future Generations
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Honour The Past, Set A Precedent
There’s an old saying that we die twice: once when our body perishes, and again when our name is last spoken aloud. It’s reassuring to think that future generations will know who you were, where you came from and how you lived. With that in mind, it’s only fair we do the same for our ancestors.
Here’s an in-depth look at how to gather, display and preserve your family tree.
Part One: Consolidate Old Material
Old material is harder to find, but all the more exciting. Take the time to ask your relatives and be on the lookout for filing cabinets, discarded boxes and dusty photo albums in the loft.
Photographs have been around since the 1840s. Although they were scarce, it was not uncommon for people to have at least one portrait taken at some point in their lives.
Look out for:
- Professionally shot family portraits
- School graduation photos
- Military regiments
- Work/factory/trade photographs
- Real-photo postcards
Surviving photos are often buried in a drawer, in envelopes or a box. Time, light and movement may have taken its toll on them; if the materials are damaged, you can have them professionally restored through Photoshop. Images can be brightened, sharpened, repaired or even colourised to bring them back to life.
Once you’re satisfied the photos are the best quality, have them scanned and print additional copies for posterity.
Letters & Correspondence
Letter writing dates back longer than we can understand our own language. Until the invention of the telephone, it was the main way of staying in touch. While photos determine a person’s appearance, it’s letters that shed light on who they really were.
Look out for:
- Love letters
- Journals and diaries
- War correspondence
Remember that letters were sent to others, so even if you draw a blank at your end, friends and relatives may still have correspondence safely stored. Reach out to them and you might unearth stories you’d never anticipated.
Other Historical Material
There’s plenty of other material besides letters and photos. Family history is personal, but its secrets are hidden in everyday sources.
Look out for:
- Birth, marriage & death certificates
- Employment records
- Education records
- Military service records
- Photos of the local area
- Local newspaper clippings
- Ration cards
If you can find contemporary pictures of the city or town they lived in, this will provide invaluable context to the family story.
Newspaper cuttings (including relevant births, marriages and deaths) can be great secondary sources. Often this information is freely available at local resource centres such as the library, museums or record office. Think creatively about what you can include and it will make for a more well-rounded, historically sound family history.
Part Two: Consolidate Modern Material
Modern life presents us with so many means to document what’s going on. In fact, it’s widely feared that we overindulge and forget to live in the moment. That notwithstanding, smartphones and social media make it easier than ever to build a snapshot of style, fashion and contemporary values.
With all this information flying around, it’s important to consolidate what you have and turn it into a cohesive, relevant narrative of your family.
Let’s face it, most of your social media feed is filler. However, that doesn’t take anything away from memorable announcements and moments of genuine friendship. Scour through your profiles and isolate:
- Supportive comments on life announcements: births, engagements, new job etc.
- Mentions on websites and blogs
- Email exchanges with friends and colleagues
- Videos from phones and camcorders
- Photographs – pick the best of the best!
Where possible, make hard copies of these. The tactile, real-life printout of a webpage is oddly satisfying.
Having so much stuff on the internet makes offline material all the more special. Harvest (but don’t hoard!) the following:
- Ticket stubs, event flyers and setlists
- Business cards
- Holiday brochures
- Academic, sporting and vocational certificates
- Birthday and Christmas cards
- Old textbooks (and the graffiti therein!)
Every now and then, why not hire a “proper” photographer for parties and family gatherings? Phones are great, but nothing beats the eye of a skilled professional.
Memories In Sound
Kathryn Burtinshaw, a professional genealogist at PinPoint Ancestry, goes a step beyond and records her clients’ legacies in sound. This could be anything from creaking doors and cuckoo clocks to family catchphrases, singsong and musical instruments. Sound is particularly evocative and draws readers into the immediate sensation of your family. Kathryn says:
When I work with a family I always look to select the items that evoke the most memories of an individual […] recording the information and adding an audio file provides an excellent way to preserve someone’s memory, voice and intonations of speech at the same time. A recent client was a good pianist so I recorded her playing and singing so her skill would not be forgotten.
It’s these thoughtful details that go beyond traditional scrapbooking and help make a fully immersive family album experience.
Memories In Sight
Valerie Goettsch from Digital Photos 101 makes a point of photographing larger heirlooms: quilts, war medals, prized furniture etc. Not only do these add character to the album, these images are an important failsafe in the event of floods, wildfires or other sorts of damage.
Part Three: Make A Future-Proof Album
Using all the materials you have gathered, build a multimedia, future-proof family album that accounts for all eras! How you do this depends on the size of your family and how much material you have to play with. Everyone’s album should be different, so I won’t restrict you to specific instructions. Instead, here are some broad tips you might find helpful:
Start With A Family Tree
Begin with a ‘contents’ pages that details who was who, where they came from, birth and death dates and other relevant information. Include info such as:
- First name, maiden name and surname
- Birth and death dates
- Primary occupation
- Their relation to you, i.e. father, great aunt, stepdaughter
- Known quirks and distinguishing features, i.e. moved to Australia, served in the navy
These details will help contextualise the generations in your family.
Split Into Volumes
For tidiness, it is tempting to compile everything into a huge, heavy, hundred-page tome. I’d advise against this. If you split your album into smaller editions, you allow more wiggle-room for future updates. Plus, it’s a more sociable experience as you can pass these around when people come to visit.
Handwrite Wherever Possible
Don’t be ashamed of your spidery scrawl! Although it’s “neater” to type up all your labels, handwriting adds a personal touch to the project. As a compromise, you might try making a font from your own handwriting. It only takes a few hours and the results are quite convincing.
The Flow Of Your Family Album
Depending on the material, you might like to sort the album in different ways. Here are a few examples:
Individual Life Stories: Chronicle someone’s whole life from birth until death. As you flick through the pages, watch them grow up and discover the world.
Events: Split your album into “occasions through the ages” e.g. weddings, holidays and a compendium of Christmas dinners.
Institutions & Eras: Split your album by the milestones that govern our lives. Dedicate the first section to childhood, then school, military, marriage, work, retirement etc.
You’ll know from your collection which is most appropriate. Either way, make sure you incorporate all of the aforementioned images, letters, tickets stubs and other material. Photographs are great, but it’s the personal touches that make these albums so sentimental.
Make It Interactive!
As the relatives get closer to modern day, you could include pull-out USB sticks that store audio, video and other digital media. By changing the delivery system of your album, you’re emphasising how individuals are shaped by the technology they grew up with.
You can even make it open source so that other family members can add to the album. This is a convenient way of getting contributions from people who may not be able to provide first-hand accounts.
Leave Room For Expansion
Everyone has a tale to tell. Make sure your folders are open-ended and can be added to by later generations. That means using expandable photo albums rather than ones that are limited to a certain number of pages.
Everyone has a style. Some like personalised, kooky photo books, others prefer orderly layouts with right angles and symmetry. There’s plenty of inspiration to choose from, so have a look around the web and see what you find useful. Some examples to start with:
- Lil Blue Boo has some great tips for putting together a timeless, photo-centric album.
- Browse Pinterest for family trees for a spark of inspiration.
- The suitably named Life Storage Blog has an excellent set of resources on preserving your photo albums against the elements.
Part Four: Looking Ahead
With your album complete, you want to ensure it survives the ravages of time, use and moving house. You’ve created something that lasts generations; make sure it is built to survive that long!
Beautiful as your album might be, it’s essential to keep digital backups of everything you’ve made. If you can, take the time to scan every piece of material as if you’re the curator of a museum. At the very least, take some photos of each page and store copies in the cloud. That way, should the worst happen, you have backups of your hard work to refer to.
Inspire The Younger Generation
It might seem challenging to persuade the younger generation to take part. These whippersnappers are naturally less inclined to look backwards, and more engaged with the here and now.
It’s all about finding the right way to include them.
Start by giving your children the freedom to tell their own story. Make it fun and let them be creative. As we’ve seen, there are no rules to how we record our heritage. The way we do it reveals as much about ourselves and the times we live in as the information that is preserved.
A photo album is an excellent project for an individual, a family unit and for several generations. If you haven’t already, consider making the first move to celebrate this worthwhile legacy.
By Bruce Sigrist in: Discussion