Presenting a visual legacy

Black and white photo of group British Army National Service recruits

One of the young men in this photo is my Dad. It was taken in 1946 during his initial National Service training in Aberdeen. When I look at it I think of an amusing story he told me about his time there.

One of the other recruits was from the Western Isles. A Gaelic speaker, it soon became clear he didn’t understand English. The NCOs persevered, doing their best to make clear what they required, but eventually it was accepted it just wasn’t going to work. The decision was taken to release the Gaelic speaking man from National Service. Assuming he wouldn’t be able to navigate the route to the railway station and make himself understood when buying a ticket for the journey back to the Islands, they asked my Dad to accompany him, buy his ticket and see him safely onto the right train. This my Dad did, and as they were parting the young man who spoke only Gaelic turned to him, shook him warmly by the hand and said in perfect Scottish-accented English: ‘Well thank you very much. You’ve been very helpful.’ And with that he jumped on his train and escaped National Service.

*****

Starting with more recent generations is more likely to create interest
My personal observation is that even people with no interest in family history will nevertheless enjoy stories about people they knew. I’ve often made the mistake of thinking a distant cousin might share my fascination with our shared line back to the 17th century, only to find what they’re really interested in is the life of their grandparents. As luck would have it, those more recent generations are the ones we have photos for. It follows then that old family photos are a great place to start in encouraging younger generations to take an interest in their wider family history.

In my last post I wrote about my dawning realisation that unless I make my family photographs more accessible, they could easily be lost forever when I’m no longer around, and I outlined what I’ve been doing to organise my files. This time I’m focusing on using and presenting those images. The emphasis here remains on digital images. But as is clear from the above example, this doesn’t exclude the beautiful monochrome photos we inherited from our parents and grandparents. I wrote previously about archiving the originals and how, for safety, these old photos should be scanned and digitised too, before the originals are safely stored. My own digitisation of all the old photos I inherited is about halfway complete. So now – old photos or modern – I’m ready to turn to what we can do once they are safely stored in our digital archives.

We need to provide context
A Facebook Family History group I’m a member of often has requests from people working through old family photos but with no idea who the subjects are. It takes a group effort with people contributing knowledge about changing fashions, estimating ages and the like, so that the original poster can try to work out who the subjects might be. I’ve also participated in ‘spot the unusual earlobe’ type discussions in which we’re asked if two photos might be of the same person, thirty years apart.

At the very least, then, what we need is to provide future generations with notes about who and when. If possible what, where and why would also be great. I like to take it a stage further if I can, using the photo as a starting point for a story, just like the one at the top of this post. I know from experience that this can help draw people in, but I need a way of presenting them alongside the images for family members to keep. What follows considers physical creations using images you print off yourself; and digital creations, in which you create the entire thing at your computer and then share the file/ link or a print of that end product.

Physical creations
Photo albums and scrapbooking are tactile and can be beautiful. I used to love arranging photos, and adding notes and other memorabilia. However, they take up a lot of space, and it’s now widely known that many albums actually harm our photos. Even if I took swift action to replace those first albums with sticky pages covered with film bought for about 99 pence each in my early teens, I know that none of my later albums, despite being much better quality, are actually ‘archival’. What we need is acid/ lignin/ PVC-free archival quality albums; and these come at a cost. It turns out albums with black pages are a no-no too; I have two of these. What’s known these days as ‘scrapbooking’ (and has little to do with what used to be called ‘scrapbooks’!) is probably safer for the photographs, since those who enjoy this craft are more likely to be aware of archival issues; and archival quality scrapbook papers, adhesives and the like are widely available. Having given much thought to this whole issue I’ve come to the conclusion that provided I don’t use treasured originals of monochrome photos, and provided I have a digital back-up of any images used, albums and scrapbooking are fine. I’ve removed all the old monochrome photos taken by my Dad from the cheap album I put them in when I was 13, and will be keeping them in an archival quality box from now on, but as long as any prints used can be replaced, I’m happy to have my photos in albums and scrapbooking albums.

Digital creations
Undoubtedly, digital creations have a lot of advantages. Whereas you would probably compile only one album or create only one scrapbook about an event or a special person’s life, a digital version of the same can be circulated amongst the extended family. This list has been compiled following a lot of online research and mulling it all over, a bit of talking to others, and some dabbling. It has enabled me to work out what options I’m going to use, and I hope it will help you too.

Creating Timelines
This idea turned out to be a lot more complicated than I expected. There are so many online applications and articles about creating timelines, that I had to keep reminding myself of what I was trying to achieve. What I want to be able to do is quite specific:

  • create a series of short timelines focusing on just one person or even just one part of that person’s life, for example my Dad’s time doing National Service, or my Granddad’s service with the Green Howards
  • build each timeline around my own family photographs
  • attach stories and significant local or world events as context
  • include maps
  • have it online, but private and password protected, so that I can invite family members but not overload them with info at any one time. This also means they could return to look any time they want without fear of losing, say, an email link or a document from me.

I narrowed the various options down to four online timeline websites.

Twile is online, free, private, password-protected and family members can be invited to view and collaborate. They provide the option to start by uploading a GEDCOM file, which I did. After a bit of exploration it seems easy to use. However, the skeleton timeline created by my GEDCOM goes back to the 1500s and this will seem cumbersome and off-putting to family members. So – just because I’ve already uploaded the entire GEDCOM – I’ve decided to use Twile for a different purpose: to create Timelines for more distant ancestors when I’m working on their life stories and researching/ recording context.

Timetoast appealed because it’s not linked to a family tree. You can create as many timelines as you like – so you can home in on a specific part of a person’s life and make another timeline for their full life if you wanted. Provided you’re happy with them all being public the account is free. There are two options for paid accounts, the more expensive Pro account providing an all-bells-and-whistles experience. My problem here is that I would want my recent generation timelines to be private but wouldn’t make so many timelines that it would be worth paying the full subscription. However, if you would make sufficient use of it this does seem like a good option.

HistoryLines also looks very good. They make it clear that what they’re about is the stories, and that’s just what I’m trying to achieve here. Their vehicle for telling these stories is your family tree and although you can start with a couple of stories for free, there is a subscription if you want to keep going. Their offering is different from the others in that they have gathered together a lot of contextual information that you can access and link directly to your timelines. This contextual information is arranged by State and, being a US-based company, my impression from the website was that you’d get more from what they have to offer if your ancestry is within the US. However, I wrote to ask a few questions and received very full and helpful responses to them all. Importantly, they tell me they do have a lot of contextual content for England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. You can also just input information and leave it to HistoryLines to auto-write the stories if you don’t feel confident about writing your own content.

Treelines is free but they do reserve the right to charge at some point in the future. They say ‘If ever we do start charging users, even if you decide not to pay for a subscription, we will not delete any data you’ve already added to the site.’ You have the option for uploading a GEDCOM, but for this website I’ve inputted manually myself, my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents. I’ll gradually add siblings, etc, as I focus on the timeline for each of these people. Your tree is accessible only to the people you invite to it, although there is an option to make any timeline public. Importantly for my needs, there is the facility to add additional stories away from the main timeline for that person. This is the website I will use to share stories and timelines with my children, nephews and niece.

Books
Online self-publishing and marketing platforms like Blurb offer free book-making tools to help users design and publish books and ebooks. They also provide a platform for promoting and selling the product should you wish to do that. They offer a variety of book formats and quality papers, and a range of styles of book, including travelogues and family photo books.

My husband’s second cousin (also a genealogist; we worked together on their shared line) has been using Blurb for fourteen years. She tells me the company is helpful, the quality and colour of the printed books excellent, and they deal well with text passages alongside images. The maximum number of pages for the printed book is 240. She pays extra for premium lustre paper and image wrap onto the cover. The pdf file of a book costs about £3.80 and you can share it with no restriction, but the cost of printed books is high so she waits for special offers. I haven’t seen any of her actual printed books but I do have a copy of the pdf of her family history book, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. It seems to me that paying a lot for what is destined to be a family heirloom is money well spent. When I wrote to Blurb to ask a couple of questions they replied within 24 hours, answering fully. They advised that all of their papers are acid-free/archival quality, and that all their books, regardless of paper type, should last as long as a typical bookstore book with proper care and handling.

Photo printing Apps
A quick Google search indicates quite a few photo printing Apps are available. After downloading to your mobile device you can use them to create a range of books (hardback, softback, booklet), prints and other products. So this is a variation on Blurb, but only for your mobile phone/tablet photos, and great if your phone is your primary camera. This is not for me – I want to edit photos and add contextual information, spending time poring over it to get the wording just right – but it might suit you. My husband has used Popsa and tells me it’s very easy to use.

Digital scrapbooking
There are various options for digital scrapbooking, from a free basic online programme called Smilebook to highly customizable software costing around £60-100, and all levels in between. These are expensive to make if you intend to print off the pages, but for circulating as digital creations, once you’ve chosen your programme, the only cost is your time. Here’s a review of the best digital scrapbooking software for 2021. As a result of exploring all this I’ve bought some digital scrapbooking papers and embelllishments and have been creating digital scrapbook pages using the Photoshop Elements programme I already use for photo editing. The results have been quite impressive and – wait for it! – I’ve had interest in them and the stories behind them from two nephews!

DIY Options
To keep costs down, here are some ideas for creating something yourself on your home computer. If you’re going to circulate to family members via email or Dropbox there’s no need to print these off, so no additional ink costs.

Finding Guide
This first idea is simply administrative and I’ve already created my own. It includes a list of my digital folders, where they’re to be found (PC and remote storage), dates covered and some thumbnail examples of the photos in each. Having put so much effort into my digital photo archives I feel confident that the folders themselves won’t change much, so it’s simply a question of keeping them up to date and updating the finding guide as technology and remote storage changes. I don’t need this: I know my archives system inside out; but our grown-up children can access our remote storage. They will now be able to find old photos, including the monochrome ones but also their own childhood photos, any time they want to.

Stories with photos
You could create a series of stories and recollections in a Microsoft Word document, each page starting with an image and followed by the text, like I did above. Other than a single photo followed by a body of text though, Word isn’t ideal for lots of images and wrap-around text.

Creating a Timeline using Word
Here’s a ‘Quick and Easy How To Tutorial’ for creating a family history timeline using Microsoft Word. I haven’t put it to the test, but the instructions seems clear enough.

*****

Well, they are my ideas and I hope the above has provided some useful information for you. If you have any experience with any of these photo-plus-story presentation options please let us know about it in the comments. The process of working through all this has certainly helped me to plan my next stages, and I’ll be reporting back on some of these options when I’ve had a chance to really explore them.

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