Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Formatting your Family History: Images and Documents

This post builds upon my previous post regarding Putting your Family History in Context. I’ve learned over the years that not everyone thinks the same way I do, which makes for some frustrating moments as I try to explain a concept in a way that makes perfect sense to me, but seems disjointed and hastily put together to someone else. The same goes for a family history. If you’ve put it together the way you think it should be, without thinking of the way other people might prefer to intake the information, you’re going to disappoint a lot of your readers who might then be tempted to stop reading all together. And that’s a waste of all your hard work.

You’ve done all your research and written up an engaging account, but how to present it?

Sometimes it’s best to follow the crowd. The format of books, and more importantly, history books, has slowly evolved over the past few hundred years. There’s a reason that most history books you pick up are formatted so similarly: because time and reader experience has shown that these formats are most effective at getting information across to readers.

Some of the most important questions you should ask yourself when deciding how to format your family history should be related to format. You should think carefully about 1) how best to present photos or reproductions of documents (images), and 2) how you are going to tell your reader where you got your information (sourcing).

This post will discuss how to present photos or reproductions of documents.

It has become increasingly easy to get high quality reproductions of documents and photos that you can include in your family history. A two-hundred year old signature of a relative in a church register can be scanned, as can old family photos. But, where should they go in the book? You have a few fairly solid options for this: you can place them in an appendix, or you can place them on the page of the narrative that discusses the image.

I know many people dislike appendices precisely because most people won’t bother to flip to the back to look at it, or if they do, it won’t be until they have finished reading the narrative entirely. However, appendices have benefits as well. If you have a lot of documents or images, sometimes it’s best to keep them all together – especially if they tend to be full page size. This makes it easier for the reader to digest all the images at once and they don’t have to flip through all the pages, looking for them. If the number of images you have, stacked in a pile, rival the thickness of your narrative, consider placing them in an appendix. This will give your family history a much more professional, clean look.

If, however, you have a spattering of interesting, small images, perhaps just your Great-great-grandfather John’s signature, consider placing it in the body of the text in the spot where you make reference to what information you have about John. As long as you keep your images sparse, small and close to the relevant point in the narrative, you will enhance the story you are telling. This will give your family history a much more intimate feel for the reader.

What you should try to avoid is a seemingly haphazard array of documents and photos stuck into the book in a manner that the reader has trouble understanding why you are showing them this at this particular spot. If you want to include a full page reproduced document, but you don’t have room near the point in the narrative where you discuss this document, place it as an appendix - anything more than a couple lines away from the relevant narrative point and you're going to confuse your reader. If you have room and you feel it enhances the story, place it in the text. Choose carefully, and your reader will thank you.

*Note: random pictures of ducks in your blog post do not enhance your message. Neither do poorly formatted images in books.

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