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Make Your Own Genealogy Book

Using Online Photo Books to Tell Your Family's Story


Why Make Your Own DIY Family History Book?


When I first started getting involved in genealogy, one of the dilemmas I faced was how to make all the dates, photos, data and family stories make sense. How could I get all that information in one place, instead of chopped up amongst various online ancestry sites and my own digital photo collection on my computer?


I knew that whatever I did, it needed to be efficient at conveying all the information I had, but I also wanted it to be beautiful and ultimately heirloom quality. Ideally it would be a little like a coffee table book, but all about my family. I wanted it to not just be a dry list of facts, but a 3-dimensional view of the family, with little anecdotes and personal memories, in as much as I was able to make it so. 


There were online photo book sites I'd used to make travel books and such in the past, so I decided to go that route. I used Shutterfly, but there are other options out there. For our purposes here, I'll use Shutterfly to illustrate. 


If you've been trying to figure out what to do with all your ancestry research, making a book (or several!) is probably the best way to go. It's something you can easily refer back to, and it makes a wonderful gift for other family members. And imagine the joy your great-grandchildren will have when they find it! It will be a holy grail for anyone looking to do family research in the future.


You can make your book as simple and straightforward or as lavish and intricate as you like. This is your book and your family - make one that suits your tastes. I admit I went a little bonkers with mine, because I wanted something both informational and lush, packed with interesting factoids and delicious visual flourishes, but you don't need to go anywhere near as elaborate with yours, unless you want to.


Whatever you decide, this will likely not be a weekend project. Prepare to spend some time on it. The end result will be oh-so worth it!

Getting Started


One thing to consider before you start - do you want an overall visual theme for the entire book? Then use similar colors, backgrounds, fonts, and composition for all the pages. Not necessarily just one color (BORING!), but pick a few and stick with those. If you feel like you need help with this, look online for color palettes that you like, and try to recreate them in your book. You can even try a Greece-inspired color palette!


Do you prefer to have each generation have their own color scheme? Or each branch of the family to have a specific background or color? 


Or like me, do you prefer to have each double-page spread be it's own little story, giving you a more varied look throughout the book? Do whatever you like, but you should think about it before you start the project so your book will look intentional and not be a mish-mash. 

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What you need to gather first:


1. All the digitized photos you want to use. This can include photos of:

  • documents - immigration, birth/marriage/death certificates. Maybe you have a baptism certificate or a diploma from Greek school? Add those as well. 

  • important heirlooms (if you have them)

  • any handwritten letters, notes or recipes you want to photograph and use

  • obituaries

  • current-day photos of the family village/church, etc.

  • family portraits

  • literally anything you think would be a good addition


When you're digitizing them, get the clearest and largest scans you possibly can, as it will give you more options when you're ready to use them, and they'll print better. 


If you have Photoshop skills, see if you can remove any egregious scratches or blemishes from the photo, or use Auto-Correct to fix sharpness or an "off" color tint. Photoshop is also how I made the various art collages in my books.

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You can even use a Google Maps aerial view of your village in Greece, if you choose, to add another interesting element! 


Do you have any handwritten notes or letters from a family member? Especially one who is deceased? I photographed the ones I had, uploaded them, and added them as-is to my book. It made for a more personal touch. 


Here is a family tree my dad and uncles had started years ago. Not only was the information in it helpful to my research, but adding images of their handwritten workbook pages really made it more personal.

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Another handwritten item that might be a nice addition are recipes! Photograph Yiayia's recipe, written in her hand, and add it to the book. What a wonderful thing for future generations!

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I did this more as a design element here - you could place yours so that they're actually useable. 

Since I am a very visual person, I took the extra step of uploading digital scrapbooking papers to Shutterfly, as well, because the backgrounds they offer aren't always what I wanted. Some of the digital offerings looked like old faded and torn parchment, which added a nostalgic feel to my book, while others suggested the decade the information was from (a mid-century modern print design for photos from the American 1950s, for example). There are papers to suit every taste and design concept, from the simplest to the most ornate. In fact, anything that has a high enough resolution can become a digital paper background. You could take a hi-res photo of the wallpaper in your grandparent's house and use that as a background! Or the stone wall texture of the family house in the horio! Let your imagination really go. 


Photo book sites treat these digital papers just like any other photo, so you would upload them the same way. You can find many online for free, or inexpensively. Etsy has tons. Digital papers are also an easy and beautiful way to keep an overall look and theme to your book.

You just choose what you like, pay for it if it's a paid item, download it directly to your computer, and from there upload it to the photo book site. Choose your sources carefully, as some free sites can be problematic and virus-y. 


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Of course, if you're new to making books online and the idea of digital papers is off-putting, you can certainly just use the backgrounds the photo book service provides.

2. Your data. This may be in the form of written notes or something on your computer. You'll want to have all the names/dates/places very handy while you're making the book, so make sure they are located in such a way that you can refer to them easily. 


3. Know that all of these photo book sites will allow you to type as much text as you like, but they do NOT have Greek fonts (that I've seen, anyway). If there is something you want to write in Greek, you'll need to either type it in Photoshop or in a Greek font in a word program. Alternately you can clearly handwrite it out and take a picture of it, save it as a file, then upload it just like you would a photo. Depending on what you used, you may need to crop it before you use it, and Shutterfly offers an option to do that when you're editing.

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I wanted to add the Greek lyrics of a meaningful song to a collage I was making, so I typed it out in Photoshop over a crinkly digital paper, cropped it, and uploaded it just like any other photo. 

Putting It All Together


Now that you have all your essentials in place, how do you start?


Upload all your photos and digital papers, if any, to the photo book site. This may take quite a while, so kick it off and just let it run.


Jot out a rough outline of how you want the book set up. The good news is if you want to go back and add a page or two in between what you've already done, you don't have to start over - just click "Arrange" on the top menu and move things around as you like. But it is helpful to have a guide before you start. 


Do you want to make a soft cover or hard cover book? I've made both. Needless to say, a hardcover will likely last longer and is more impressive. I did make a soft cover book for a family branch I didn't have tons of information on, plus I wanted to bring copies of it back to Greece and didn't want to weigh down my luggage with heavy books. (It's hard to convey how thrilled and gobsmacked my Greek relatives were to see these books about their family. They were absolutely beside themselves to have their own copies. Yours likely will be, too.)


Decide on a front cover image. Is it a single image, or a few? Maybe a collage? Play around in the Editor function and see what you like best. 


The title will be easy - anything from "The Papadopoulos Family" to "Our Ancestry" to "My Spartan Family Heritage" -  whatever works for you. Use it as your Project Name and hit "Save As". 


Make sure to put the title on the spine of the book, as well. It will also be helpful to add the year you made it - this will be another layer of information for future readers. 


Be sure to add your name to the front cover and spine of the book, ie, "Compiled by Katerina Demos" or "By John Venizelos, Sophia Venizelos Smith and Peter Venizelos" if it was a joint project. The reason you need to be sure to add the creators' names is that, down the road when it comes into the hands of a descendant, they will need to know who made it. 


"The Daskalakis Family of Crete"

Compiled by Maria Daskalakis Pappas



Also consider the back cover. Do you want a single photo or an exuberant collage? Or do you want to leave it plain?


And I'm going to say this early and loudly - make sure to hit "Save" after every couple of changes! 


Yes, it's tedious and a little OCD, but if you've ever spent twenty minutes carefully adding text and images and moving this a centimeter to the left and that a millimeter to the right, and then have your computer crash, MAKING YOU HAVE TO DO IT ALL AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING (yes, this happened a couple of times to me), you will appreciate your diligence. 


Think about your opening page. Is there something you want to tell the reader before you let them dive into the book itself? A dedication or thank you that you want to add? A meaningful quote? All those are nice ways to start your book. 


Next, consider starting with a family tree. While putting in your entire family tree probably won't work, given the limited format of a book, what you might try is a page or a 2-page spread for each member of the family. 


Here are two ways I solved that...

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Once your trees are done, consider focusing on individuals - parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, interesting siblings of theirs, extended family, etc. 


Apologies for the Greek in this...I was just re-learning the language and had to use Google Translate a lot. Mistakes were made. I highly recommend having a Greek reader proofread anything you write in Greek before you put it in, if you're not a native speaker. Learn from my mistakes and save yourself some cringey moments.

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You can read more about this distant cousin of mine here.

Do you want to add individuals' stories to their page? Or do you want a separate section just for stories? 


Don't be afraid to get artistic, if you're so inclined. This book is about the facts of your family, but it's through YOUR lens. Feel free to put some of your love and imagination into it. If you do it right, not only will your book inform people, but also make them feel something. 

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This Photoshop collage focuses on my maternal great-grandmother, showing her family, her house and church interior, and a visual nod to a story of her claiming to have seen white-clad "nereides" - fairies or nymphs - dancing in a circle when she was young. These books can be made all the more personal by adding tidbits of family lore and interesting anecdotes as well as the facts. 

A standard book comes with a set number of pages. You may need more - I certainly did. You can add up to 99 extra pages, but know that each page over and above the standard amount will cost extra. I personally feel this is not the place to scrimp. Use as many pages as you need to tell your story. 


Once you think you're finished, go to Preview and check everything. Is all the spelling correct? Are you sure? Zoom in on the text areas to be certain. Not every service has spell check, so you need to be your own proofreader. 


That said, getting a careful friend or family member to proofread it while it's still on the computer is even better. It's always helpful for new eyes to have a look at it. It's very easy to glaze over a mistake when you've been marinating in it for a couple of weeks. 


Are any photos too close to the edge of the page, or are they broken up by the gutter (the place in the center where the two pages meet)? Is the service warning you that your image isn't big enough and will pixelate at the size you've chosen? (That's why you want to make big scans - you can crop or blow them up and they won't pixelate on you.) Make sure everything is aesthetically pleasing and easy to read. This includes your fonts. Keep them simple. 


Now, do all that stuff again. Rinse and repeat. Make sure everything is absolutely correct before you hit "Add to Cart". 


Now, the good news is - even if you do mess up and print out something with a mistake - you can go back to the project and edit it, but it will cost you a (potentially expensive) new book. So it's not the end of the world, but obviously it's best to get it right the first time. 


These photo book sites often run sales - sometimes up to 50% off - so clearly that's the best time to actually buy your book, especially if you're getting more than one copy. They'll sometimes even have a free shipping code, so definitely make use of that. 


Having a beautiful, informative book all about your family history research is useful and easily accessed. It can also be deeply moving and powerfully personal. You're honoring your ancestors and connecting with them in ways they couldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams. You're creating a priceless heirloom for future generations. You may even astonish your living family members with your efforts, and as in my case, bring the family history back full circle from Greece to the diaspora and back again. 


It is a labor of love that's every bit worth the effort. 

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Do you want to read more about Greek genealogy? Click here!

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