The Living Book of the Dead

Sometime back I wrote a column for the Graveyard Rabbit Online Journal discussing a cemetery inventory project I’m working on. The point being made in this article is that this project, like many family history projects, will never be “finished”. There will always be more research and new information to add. But, thanks to today’s electronic publishing options, that’s not a problem. Find out why . . . Continue reading “The Living Book of the Dead”

It’s not just family

I’m a big fan of Susan Branch and Girlfriends Forever is one of my favorite books. The VW convertible caught my attention, but the book’s purpose grabbed my heart. The book is a celebration of friends.

We spend most of our time focused on the family, but friends are just as special. And, think how much fun creating your own book can be. The hangouts, hot dates, hair-dos and heartaches combine with fads, photos, food and a bit of current events to document your friends at every stage of your life. What fun you can have with this project!

Susan’s book is full of ideas for design and content and today’s technology offers additional opportunities. For example, a photo collage in print is almost impossible to caption but a digital project allows you to tag photos with names, dates and places while maintaining the collage design. And, using Facebook as a research tool, try posting an old photo tagged with friends’ names. It could help you reconnect with them – and find that name you forgot.

Just writing this post has brought all kinds of memories flooding back from birthdays in the backyard to favorite records played at slumber parties. No source citations are needed here – just names and dates and places. The result will be a fun project for you to enjoy and a fascinating treasure to pass on to future generations.

Does anyone else remember Bobbie Brook’s shirtwaists?

Found Ephemera – Family Jewelry

Family jewelry – both fine pieces and costume jewelry – are as fascinating as old photos. Unfortunately jewelry doesn’t scan well. That doesn’t mean we can’t digitize it to include in our family history projects, it just means it will take a bit more effort.

I see two types of jewelry photos. First there’s the family heirloom photo that shows the piece off in all its glory. This photo might have the item artfully arranged on a piece of silk or velvet to give it all the attention it deserves. It would make a glorious addition to a book documenting the family’s heirlooms and treasures along with the story about each piece. Then there’s the ephemera photo where the item is arranged on a flat contrasting background so we can work some Photoshop magic to isolate the item and turn it into a design element for use in any number of family history projects.

Using family stuff makes your creations even more personal and you won’t have to worry about terms of use or licensing agreements for these graphics. Even the orphan cuff link or earring found tucked in the bottom of an old jewelry box can spark a fond memory when included in a family story or scrapbook.

The first place I went to look for affordable ideas for photographing jewelry was eBay. I wasn’t disappointed. One user – CameraJim – has some great tips in the eBay Guides section with a link to his site for more. I agree with him that light tents are easy to build. My husband built me a PVC cube which I drape with cheap white lining material. My lights are goose neck desk lamps I found at Goodwill with high-watt light bulbs. I’ve used this successfully for photographing items for sale.

Next, I’m taking a stab at heirlooms. A fabulous source for jewelry photography help is Table Top Studio. They are using (and selling) light cubes with gorgeous results. They also demonstrate some beautiful ways to arrange pieces for best effect.

If you are photographing your heirlooms for use as ephemera, the key is to use a contrasting background. White pearls on a white background may make a gorgeous photograph, but it will be a very time-consuming effort to isolate those pearls so they can become a design element for other projects. With a contrasting background, you can use the Magic Wand tool in your photo-editing software to “pull” the piece off the background and save it as a stand-alone item. Imagine including a family brooch or wedding ring as a design element on a page in your project.

Wrist corsage from Ritzy Glitzy Jewelry at Etsy.

My other recent jewelry encounter is way above my skill level, but a great idea for putting the bits and pieces of old costume jewelry together as a new piece full of old sentiment. You’ll find lots of interesting ways to make those old pieces part of today’s family history at Etsy. I fell in love with this hand corsage created from vintage jewelry. Not only would it be a lasting memento of a special event but if made with some old family jewelry pieces it would connect the past with the present.

The family jewels fascinate us all. Adding them to your family history projects will add some sparkle and possibly even generate a few fond memories.

Scrapping Keynote: A Living History

Not long after I got my iPad, I spent a whopping $27 for an electronic book titled Digging into WordPress, the blog software I use to run the Gazette. Why would I spend this much money on an ebook? Because the authors promised a free updated copy of the book each time WordPress released a major upgrade. Since I purchased it I’ve downloaded four updated versions. In a world where printed tech books often cost twice what I spent on this book and are out-of-date before I get them home, this is a refreshing alternative. And, because it’s distributed in PDF format, it’s full of great screenshots and links to outside resources. It has a table of contents that links to each section and everything in it is searchable so I can get to the information I want in seconds.

Today’s technology makes it easy for us to create our own books with tools we already have like word-processing software, photo-editing applications and scanners. There’s no law that says a family history has to be a ten-generation, fully-documented formal history. As geneabloggers are discovering to their delight, telling the little stories can be very satisfying. And, before you know it, that collection of little stories is well on its way to becoming a family history.


My current genealogy focus is to tell the stories of the people who touched my life. These were special people to me and I want to document their vitality even more than their vital records. We all whine about missed opportunities – and yes, I’ve missed many. I want to do what I can to pass on anecdotes and memories that give personality to the photos.

How do I do this?

I’m working on a project that pulls in several articles I’ve posted over the years about growing up in St. Augustine. I’ve taken those stories and added photos – lots of photos – into a sort of magazine/scrapbook hybrid. I’m building it in Keynote, the presentation graphics app included in Apple’s iWork suite. Each little story is transformed into two or three slides and can be placed wherever they fit into the growing collection. The landscape format of the slides not only give me plenty of layout space, they display beautifully on tablet devices. Everyone in the family has some kind of tablet so this works well for all of us.

Click for larger view.
Click for larger view.

My living history book contains a table of contents which links directly to each individual story and all the text is searchable. I’m using Scribd as my publishing platform. After converting my book to PDF format, I uploaded it to my Scribd profile. Now I can send friends and family to the book page at Scribd where they can read it online and download their own PDF copy. I can even embed the book on my blog – much like embedding a YouTube video. When the book is updated with new content, I edit the book page at Scribd to add a new revision and upload the updated book. Scribd keeps track of all revisions and I can go back to look at previous ones at any time.  Now all I do is email the family to come see the latest version.

Here’s what the book looks like today. This living history will continue to grow as more stories about my home and family are researched and written.

NOTE: The links in the table of contents will only work in the downloaded PDF version.

Scrapshot: The Sketchbook Bio

Cover of a sketchbook bio of my uncle, Tom Barker.
Cover of a sketchbook bio of my uncle, Tom Barker.

Another example of how presentation apps like Keynote and PowerPoint can be used to create beautiful family history projects. This “sketchbook bio” of my uncle is part photo album, part scrapbook and part biography. The completed project can be shared as a presentation, a PDF document, a video and even as individual images. The landscape layout displays beautifully on most tablets.

This simple sketchbook was created using Keynote – the presentation app included on new Macs and iPads – and the standard Letterpress theme. The body text font used is Monaco. The font used in the title is Enview.