Off the top of my head, I know a lot about my mother, a fair amount about the woman who gave her life and practically zilch about anyone who came before her. Time simply moves much faster than we realize, with seriously important ancestors fading into the background despite having often lived long, full and memorable lives. Creating a couple of genealogical scrapbooks will paint a broad and interesting picture of those kinfolk who helped to shape your family.
The idea of starting work on a heritage album might seem daunting, but it can actually be a fulfilling, enlightening and – dare I say – fun activity to share with the entire brood. So what're you waiting for? Grab a computer, telephone or hit the craft store and get started, already! Here are some tips.
Start With Existing Family Members
Figuring out how to portion the past into neat little pages can seem daunting, but doesn't have to be. "All it takes in the beginning to start family research is curiosity," explains avid genealogical scrapbooker Nancy Merrill.
Start by interviewing your parents and then talk to the oldest surviving family members. They can often get you on the right path to locating records and add dimension to the names and faces of ancestors gone before your time.
Technology can also facilitate a process that used to be fairly tedious. If your extended family is computer literate, consider setting up a Dropbox or other cloud-based storage area through which they can supply you with photos and scans of documents, or simply have them mail or bring favorites to the next family event. Family tree software programs can go a long way toward keeping details organized and easy to access.
It's also smart to leave your creation open to future inclusions by choosing a scrapbook with pages that can be added or reordered when new photos or tidbits become available. Bear in mind that you won't always be able to wrap people or pages up with a tidy little bow. My maternal grandparents were born in their respective rural Georgia homes in the early 1900s, leaving our family with nothing in the way of a registered birth certificate. This lack of formal documentation can be easily replaced with photos and personal accounts of their lives and interests.
Less Is More
You don't have to be the next Martha Stewart to assemble an attractive and informative heritage album. The possibilities are endless and completely up to your personal tastes and abilities. Although many embellishments and layout options exist, some experts caution against going hog-wild, and instead suggest following the "less is more" approach.
A Patient Genealogist recommends sticking with one color scheme throughout the book, so that the pages flow more naturally into one another. Serious scrappers often shy away from multi-picture collages in favor of one or two dominant photos for a more dramatic and less chaotic effect.
Still, it's entirely possible to have fun with embellishments, photos and layouts without going over the top. Longtime genealogy and scrapbooking buff Joan Kramer points to workshops, known as "crops," which are often available in craft stores, to learn the basics of layout and design. "Scrapbooking is all about creating beautiful, archivally safe keepsakes," Kramer explains. "There are innumerable papers, stickers, tapes and other embellishments that combine the creativity of the scrapbooker with the beauty of the photographs and other keepsakes."
Select a Theme
It's super-easy to lose focus in the creation process, especially if you boast a large family, so develop a theme of sorts before the first photo hits the page. For example, if your lineage is filled with proud servicemen and women, consider a book that highlights the various branches, achievements, wars and other details of their time in the military. Or, devote an entire scrapbook solely to the women in your genealogical history and their accomplishments. By selecting a theme or focus, you'll avoid clutter and irrelevant information.
Scrapbooks are often made to serve as meaningful gifts, so consider your target audience before and throughout the process. "Something that you make for your 70-year-old father would be much different from what you would make for your 3-year-old child," says Kathleen Cogbill Warr with Old Dead People Genealogical Services. A scrapbook for a child could include pictures of toys and children from the past, as well as simple captions. For an older person, more details on family history and pages of letters.
Make it Interactive
Even if you're starting from scratch, heritage album content has a tendency to grow exponentially, thanks to research and enterprising family members. Rarely does a standard book have space for every last detail you'd like to include, so consider using pockets to add depth to your family's story. For example, copies of extra photos, recipe cards featuring great-great-grandma Ruth's legendary pecan pie and DVDs containing ancestor interviews will certainly up the interactivity quotient of any genealogical scrapbook.
"Have your favorite family stories tucked inside pockets, or use an accordion fold of different pictures that the reader can fold out," suggests Lucina Verish, who has been investigating and preserving her family's genealogical roots since age 12. Three-dimensional items, like baby bracelets, can also be included on the page or tucked into a pocket for safe-keeping. "Make sure that anything in the book is acid-free and won't harm the other items," Verish cautions. "Also, never stack your scrapbooks on top of one another as these 3-D items could push through to other pages."
Keep It Current
People generally like to see how ancestors fit into the shape of their lives, and there are some easy and cool ways to illustrate this. A graphical genealogy or family tree is a simple and effective way to visually demonstrate family relationships. An old friend has a family tree that shows his family's connection to Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
Another method for bringing the past into the present (without the help of Michael J. Fox or a DeLorean) is to mount ancestor photos side by side with those of living relatives. They might not be 100 percent identical, but it can be startling to see how the trademark family nose, eyes or jawline are still alive and kicking today. Pepper the photos with info comparing similar interests or personality traits to further illustrate the blood bond.
Another way to bring the olden days into the "now" is to show cost comparisons of common items, like a Coca-Cola, car, newspaper or an acre of land. This will put the changing times into rapid perspective, especially for little kids. Or, feature information on the most popular movies and songs of then and now, as well as political information, such as president or dominant party.
Preserve the Originals
Many scrapbookers opt to keep original documents and photos in acid-free archival boxes, rather than expose them to potentially harmful elements. Seemingly benign items, like newspaper clippings, can cause damage to other treasures over time with their ink and acidity. Instead, use high-quality copies and be sure to store scans digitally for safekeeping. Plus, original documents can be quickly ruined by an errant glass of water or curious toddler. "Scrapbooks are meant to be shared, put out on the coffee table for family and friends to enjoy," says genealogy expert Kramer. So create them in a way that won't totally stress you out when people start thumbing through them.
On the upside, scanning and reproducing documents allows you to manipulate size to include more information than you otherwise could have on a traditionally sized scrapbook page. It also pays to take simple extra steps to preserve the authentic look of your heritage documents and photos. Verish encourages scrapbookers to mimic the look and feel of original photo documents as much as possible. "There are high-quality cotton-based photo papers, or even canvas that work well with older photos," Verish says. "A high-gloss photo of a turn-of-the-century portrait will look out of place in your scrapbook."
Digital scrapbooks have become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to affordable, easy-to-use online services, many of which offer regular promotions and Groupon sales. Although many craftspeople prefer the act of physically compiling their own work of art, the benefits of digital albums are not to be discounted.
From a practical standpoint, the only supplies necessary for a digital book are a basic computer and genealogical items to be scanned. By contrast, many traditional scrapbookers boast entire rooms full of embellishments, fancy scissors and other tools. So if you're low on space going digital can be a serious square footage-saver. Electronically created albums also are much cheaper. "For everything involved with traditional scrapbooks, I would easily spend a couple hundred dollars on them, but for digital I tend to spend around $30," explains Warr. "The biggest drawback is the fact that you can't really put fun 3-D embellishments in there for decoration, or include original documents." Another major perk is that digital scrapbooks can be produced in multiple quantities, making them easier than ever to give as gifts.
Years ago, a well-meaning new addition to my family presented my parents with the crest bearing our family name. Unfortunately, no one had ever told her that our moniker was altered from Khouri to Cory upon crossing the United States border, so that crest ... well, it had zero bearing on us. My mom, being the sweet soul that she is, kept her lips sealed and hung it on the wall all the same. My point is that, much like the beloved game of "telephone," information invariably gets warped over time. This is not to say that you shouldn't start with word-of-mouth accounts and interviews. Just don't commit them to paper unless you've done a wee bit o' digging to confirm their validity. Resources like Ancestry and Find a Grave come highly recommended by seasoned genealogists for their fact-providing services. They can verify correct name spelling, birth/death dates and burial sites.
Still, sometimes it's necessary to take the old-fashioned route to find the details you desire. "There is now a great deal of information online; however many times you still need to get the documents to ensure that you have the right family," explains genealogist and scrapbooker Nancy Hill. "There are some wonderful genealogy libraries around." Some U.S. key spots include Family History Library (the largest genealogical library in the world), run by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints in Utah and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana which has special holdings for those researching British, Canadian and African-American ancestors, as well as other records.
Genealogy scrapbooking isn't just about people you share DNA with. Heirlooms, whether of significant monetary or sentimental value, often merit a place in your historical account. "My great aunt gave me items that belonged to the family," says Merrill. "I then photographed them and added them to the page so that future generations would know where the items in my china cabinet originated."
In addition to photos, add a smattering of details on the origin of the item(s), how they came into your possession and even their estimated current worth (if you know it) to help future generations trace their path through time. Consider it as your own personal "Antiques Roadshow!"
Think Outside the Page
If you've "been there, done that" with a scrapbook or two, consider using another medium to show your love of lineage. Lockets featuring old-timey photos are a long-beloved sort of heritage piece, whereas anything upon which a printed image can be fixed, from magnets to other types of jewelry, are a very public and vintage way to display your roots. Merrill produced an ancestry item that is equal parts functional and beautiful, in the form of a six generation matrilineal Victorian-style fan. The traditional hand fan includes names and photos starting with Merrill herself and dating all the way back to her third great-grandmother.
After my father passed away, I dusted off his war medals and mounted them in a shadow box, along with a particularly fierce photo of him in Vietnam. They hang proudly in my living room alongside a similar display of his uncle's World War II and Korean War medals, where they are regularly admired by history buffs. I appreciate these pieces for their historical significance, but more so because they remind me that I'm descended from some pretty awesome people. And really, isn't that what preserving heritage is all about?
HowStuffWorks looks at what's legally required to join the Cherokee Nation.
Author's Note: 10 Tips for Genealogy Scrapbooking
As a particularly non-crafty person (even my smiley faces are wobbly), I shied away from scrapbooking until after I got married and discovered how easy and enjoyable it is. Inspired by the many amazing genealogy scrapbookers I interviewed for this article, my plan is to hunker down and produce an ancestry album that my children will cherish. Of course, keeping it out of my 2-year-old's hands until he's less grimy and destructive is an entirely different challenge.
- A Patient Genealogist. "9 Tips to Making a Heritage Album Someone Actually Wants to Read." Oct. 10, 2012 (Sept. 15, 2014) http://patientgen.blogspot.com/2012/10/9-tips-to-making-heritage-album-someone.html
- Hill, Nancy. Interview via email. Sept. 14, 2014.
- Kramer, Joan. Interview via email. Sept. 15, 2014.
- Merrill, Nancy Lockwood. Interview via email. Sept. 9, 2014.
- Scrapbooks by Design. "Genealogy and Scrapbooking: A Match Made in Heaven." 2014 (Sept. 15, 2014) http://www.scrapbooksbydesign.net/genealogy.html
- Scrapbooks etc. "Genealogy Research Tips." 2014 (Sept. 14, 2014) http://www.scrapbooksetc.com/theme/family/genealogy/genealogy-research-tips/
- Verish, Lucina. Interview via email. Sept. 8, 2014.
- Warr, Kathleen Cogbill. Old Dead People.com. Interview via email. Sept. 12, 2014.