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Sharing Your Heritage


Involve Your Immediate Family

Genealogy is more rewarding if you involve your family members. You may have started this project when a child came home from school with a request for information about family history for a school project. Teachers know genealogy is a way to bring families together.

Involving your children in the research process can not only give them a sense of their heritage and ancestors, it can sharpen investigative and reasoning skills they can use in other areas of their lives. Many families today are scattered across the country and involving your children in family history can provide an opportunity for them to e-mail grandparents and cousins in distant places.

Plan family vacations to ancestral areas. It’s rewarding to find cemeteries and home sites where your ancestors lived and visit the courthouses where they filed deeds and paid taxes.

Exercise Caution

There are some precautionary issues to consider when it comes to sharing what you’ve learned about your family. Twenty years ago, the only way to distribute your family history was to print it and sell or give copies to family members. Names, ages, birthplaces and other family facts could be shared without concern. With today’s ability to post family history on the Internet, there are huge concerns about personal information. Don’t post information about living people. “Privatize” your genealogy software files before you share them with genealogy cousins.

Just because people claim to be related to you doesn’t mean they’re trustworthy. Use common sense. Don’t invite strangers to your home and don’t go alone to meet new cousins.

Establish a Web Presence

Set up a web site devoted to your family’s history. Post the information you’ve found so far and add to it as you progress. Several genealogy sites offer free web pages. Go to RootsWeb.com and see the kinds of websites other genealogists have set up. Remember, don’t post information about living people without their permission. Consider a password-protected website where only family members have access. To read an excellent book on the topic, see Cyndi Howells’ Planting Your Family Tree Online: How to Create Your Own Family Web Site.

Create a blog (web log) about your research. Choose an interesting ancestor to be the topic of your blog. Many hosts such as Blogger.com and LiveJournal.com offer free space to post your blog.

Organize a Family Reunion

One way to share your information with family members and learn more at the same time is to organize a family reunion. Summer is the traditional time for families to choose a place to gather and visit. Reunions can be held as a one-time event, annually, or at other intervals.

How do you start? Call a meeting in person, by phone, or e-mail of the people in your family interested in getting together. Form a reunion committee. Pool your address books and make a list of all the relatives and cousins you know. Write a form letter and e-mail or snail-mail it to everyone who might be interested in a reunion. Enclose a copy of your list and ask for more names and addresses. Appoint a List Manager. Set up a Google or Yahoo Group to share information. Or start a blog devoted to reunion preparations on a free site such as Livejournal.com or Blogger.com.

Choose a date and place to meet. No date and place will suit everyone, but try to plan far enough in advance so vacation time can be reserved. When you decide on a place, be sure there are motel facilities available so family members won’t descend on one household. If someone in your family has experience arranging meetings or seminars, let that person be Meeting Chairperson.

Send reunion notices to everyone. Publicize it! Ask for a fee with registration or take up a collection at the reunion to defray expenses. Invite everyone to bring photo albums to display on a special table.

Plan special activities but leave unstructured time for visiting. Remember to have prizes for the oldest, the youngest, the person who traveled the longest distance to attend, the baldest, the couple married the longest time, the most newlywed couple, the tallest, and other categories. How about a contest to find the person at the reunion who looks most like a common ancestor? (Line up contestants; hold up a poster-size photo of the ancestor; decision is by applause vote.)

Brainstorm with the reunion committee about creative activities to both entertain and tie the family together. Organize tours of family cemeteries in the reunion area. Make a wall-size display of a tree and let family members fill out and pin on paper leaves with their names and birthdates. Use waterproof markers and let family members draw their hand outlines and sign a special tablecloth purchased for the occasion.

Be sure everyone at the reunion has a name tag printed with letters large enough to be read in photographs. And take lots of photos! Record interviews on tape with older family members. Make a video tape with a cameraperson and “reporter” who do mini-interviews with family members. Show videos of the last reunion.

Plan ahead for food and be sure the responsibility doesn’t fall too heavily on too few people. Remember special dietary requirements for health and religious reasons.

Gather family information at the reunion. Remember to cite your sources as you write data on group sheets. Use the reunion opportunity to tell the family members what you have found in the records. You may want to compile the material you have gathered to share in a printed format, a CD, or on a family website.

Write Your Family’s History

Whether for a reunion, an older family member’s birthday, or no special reason, you may, at some point, want to write about what your research has uncovered. Don’t wait to “finish” your family history—there will always be one more generation or one more collateral line to investigate.

Choose a starting point. Perhaps you want to write about all the descendants of a particular ancestor, or you may want to write about a particular line of ancestors. You may want to just describe your research process and tell what you found in a logical, progressive fashion.

Before you begin to write your family history, read Patricia Law Hatcher’s Producing a Quality Family History. Her well-written book describes methods, options, and information sources for producing a family history you’ll be proud of.

Write what you know about your family, not what you imagine your family was like. Attempt to put your story in historical perspective, but avoid writing historical fiction. Above all, say how you know what you know. Let your ancestors speak for themselves through the records you’ve found. Don’t jump to conclusions in your writing you cannot support with evidence. If you haven’t investigated a record or can’t solve a problem, say so—perhaps someone reading your book will take up the challenge. Depending on your audience, you can incorporate your sources into your narrative, or you can use footnotes.

You may want to include copies of group sheets and pedigree charts and copies of original documents and photos in your book. How much or how little you include is your decision. Above all, be sure your book has an index!

The Chicago Manual of Style will help you with the mechanics of assembling, formatting, indexing, and copyrighting your book.

You may want to print only a few copies of your book using a photocopier, or you may want to have a printer produce a few hundred copies using offset press. You can produce your book (with hundreds of color photos) on CD in .pdf (Adobe’s portable document format). You might use an online publishing service like lulu.com —upload your .pdf and order copies of your book.

Your book may have paper covers or it can be hardbound. Your purpose and budget will help you make these decisions. Talk to folks who have published family histories; learn from their experiences.

Writing about a portion of your family history can be a very effective way to analyze and organize your material. Missing facts, overlooked sources, new avenues of thought will occur to you as you write about your ancestors and your search for them.

Join a Genealogy Society

Another way to share your interest is to join a local genealogical society. It’s a wonderful feeling to be among people who share a common passion. Ask your librarian if there is an active local society. Learn the name of a contact person and invite yourself to the next meeting.

Societies run on volunteer energy. Even if you don’t have ties to the local community you can contribute your help to the society’s projects. And perhaps someone else living in the area where your ancestors were from will be volunteering, too, even if she doesn’t have local ties.

Inquire about state or regional genealogical societies. Ask about meetings and seminars. Often societies sponsor learning experiences for their members. When you attend seminars and meetings, mix with the folks (this is called ‘networking’ in business circles) and share ancestors and research techniques.

Don’t just read the publications of whatever society you join, get involved!

[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]

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