Genealogy goes beyond all those 'begats'

A wave of genealogical interest sees novice historians digging for their roots - and publishing the results

A nn Janes was sick of genealogy. After years of looking into her own and her husband's family histories, compiling lists of ancestors had ceased to be satisfying work.

"It just started to be names and names and names," she says. "And I thought: This is good to know, but what were these people like? Where did they come from, and why, and what did they do when they came?"

So Mrs. Janes began looking deeper into old family diaries and letters, starting with those of her husband's great-grandfather. They were full of stories: about serving in the Mexican-American War, about a cross-country train trip he'd taken with friends in 1874. These piqued her interest, and with the help of an acquaintance in the publishing business, she made a book of them - so they'd be more accessible to her children and grandchildren, and with the hope that they might reach a broader audience.

The number of people publishing their family histories has lately reached a high not seen since the ancestry craze of the late 19th century, when old-money heirs and social climbers raced to claim impressive pedigrees and secure their place in high society - or at least the DAR.

Today, people are interested in genealogy for different reasons. "Most people today are bringing to the study of family history not a search for an endless amount of names that date back into infinity, but an interest in narrative," says Lynn Betlock of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), whose Newbury Street Press publishes a dozen family histories every year. "It's social history; they're looking for interesting stories. They're looking for connections with the past."

In the 26 years since Alex Haley wrote "Roots," about tracing his African ancestry - and even more in the past five years as the Internet has made a wealth of genealogical material easily accessible - more multiethnic, middle-income, and young people have begun documenting their family histories.

At the same time, the content of what they're publishing tends to be more concerned with stories than with names, dates, and begats. As a result, says Christopher Hartman of the Newbury Street Press, many of these self-published or small-press-published books are picked up by libraries and local historical societies.

If reading other people's family histories sounds about as exciting as watching piles of their vacation slides, remember, Ms. Betlock says: "No book has to be boring." She thinks that considering a readership wider than tolerant relatives can help writers struggling to decide what, of the reams of historical materials they've uncovered, to include in a book - and what to leave out.

Janes's "The California Excursion" is a good example. A colorful, photo-filled volume, it incorporates eloquent letter and diary accounts of C.F. Sargent's train trip across the country only five years after the intercontinental railway had been finished - including tales of a hunt in Kansas, a swim in Salt Lake City, and a trip down a Nevada mine shaft.

Mary Ann Hales, publisher of the Cottage Press, whose Heritage House imprint released Janes's book, thinks the growing interest in family history and memoir publishing is a product of people's need - in an increasingly complex and mechanized society - to make some statement about themselves or their families as individuals.

"We are battered by a barrage of Palm Pilots and e-mail and digital cameras - the whole world seems to be going electronic," she says. "So when people want to preserve something about their family, they want something solid and substantial: that you can hold in your hand, that you can give to your children and grandchildren."

The cost of publishing a family history varies enormously, depending on everything from the magnitude of the research and editing it requires, to the number of photographs and the type of binding the writer chooses, to the number of copies wanted. Hardbound scholarly volumes like those published by NEHGS can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars just to begin, while paperback illustrated books of the sort Ms. Hales publishes cost several thousand dollars for a standard run of 250.

But for those genealogists who don't have the time or the budget for professional-quality publishing, there remain plenty of options for compiling family history in a lasting and readable way. Many people self-publish family genealogical material by simply photocopying and binding it at a nearby copy center. Others use book publishers that offer printing services online, such as iUniverse (, which charges $99 to bind a single bare-bones copy of an already-edited manuscript.

Still others use a variety of genealogy software packages that allow users to plug in names and anecdotal notes and emerge with a several-hundred-page volume of charts and records. Doug Campbell is one of those. His interest in genealogy began 50 years ago, but only now, in his retirement, has he launched full tilt into researching and publishing. A former engineer, he says he likes genealogy primarily because "it's like a jigsaw puzzle to me - or a crossword puzzle, where you're trying to fill in the blanks. I don't really care whose I do. It's the trying to hook people together that I enjoy."

Using the computer program Family Tree Maker, Mr. Campbell has, in the past 10 years, traced and published the histories of five family members and friends. The volumes he has produced aren't fancy - they include a single photo, and give only short anecdotes about particular characters - but they will allow coming generations easy access to the material he's uncovered. "Maybe it is somewhat sterile," he says, but at least the stuff isn't sitting in a shoebox in somebody's attic.

That's the most important thing, according to Gabrielle Stone of NEHGS. She says a family history "doesn't have to be sold in Barnes and Noble to have an impact on future generations." Whether a person publishes a beautifully told story or photocopies straight research, the crucial point is "that the information you gathered isn't lost when you're gone."

Family history resources

How to Publish and Market Your Family History, by Carl Boyer III

Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, by Tony Burroughs

Shaking Your Family Tree, by Ralph Crandall

Guidelines for Authors of Compiled Genealogies, by Thomas Kozachek

Cite Your Sources: A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records, by Richard S. Lackey

Producing a Quality Family History, by Patricia Hatcher

Source: Christopher Hartman, New England Historic Genealogical Society

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