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Publishing Family History

Publishing Family History:​

Sooner or later, after you’ve faithfully and accurately transcribed your family history texts, you will want to make them available to other members of your family—parents, brothers and sisters, children, grand-parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. It is certainly possible to simply make one copy and keep it to yourself, but much of the enjoyment of working in family history comes from sharing these artifacts with others. Recovering family history helps preserve the past and connect it to future generations, and it’s good to encourage others in the family to become involved. One copy of a manuscript in a house can reach a number of family members. If you’ve edited and annotated the manuscript, so much the better, because it gives other readers and researchers both inside and outside the family a better understanding of the text they’re engaging as well as a solid starting point for further research. This reproduction of the edited manuscript also allows you to store the original safely and preserve it better, since so few readers will actually need to examine it.

Options for Going Public:

The options that you have for disseminating the edited family manuscript vary in expense and difficulty. Consider these options:

Professional Printing and Publishing—The most expensive approach is to go to a publisher or a professional printer and pay them to copyedit, proofread, format, print and bind your manuscript. Nowadays professional printers can do limited runs of manuscripts at a lower cost than used to be the case, but for most of us the cost is prohibitive. However, if you’ve done a thorough, scholarly job of transcribing, editing, and annotating, you might propose the manuscript to a local publisher or regional press which might be interested in making such work available on the local or regional level. Some small printers and publishers would be willing to publish a small print run and sell the book as a means to recover their costs. Clearly this is a limited option for most of us. My book, “Time by Moments Steals Away”: The 1848 Journal of Ruth Douglass, was published by Wayne State University Press because most of it is set on Isle Royale during the early copper mining era and has a number of historical elements connecting it to Michigan and Great Lakes history. Without some of those ties, the publisher might not have been interested in publishing it.

Copying and Duplicating Services—Another way of going public is to do what people in business and education often do: take a camera-ready copy of the transcribed and edited manuscript to a local copying and duplicating service (like Kinko’s, for example, or Printing Services at Central Michigan University) and ask them to print, collate, and bind a certain number of copies from your original. Most of those companies have a variety of ways to enlarge, reduce, photocopy, and bind work that people bring in, from full-fledged clothboard hardcovers to spiral binding, glued binding, stapling, and notebook formats. They can also punch perforations or three-holed openings so that the manuscript can be sent to individuals for their own binding. Because these printers work closer to cost than other printers they are always cheaper than commercial publishers and larger printing companies.

Self-Photocopying and Binding—It is also possible to “publish” the manuscripts yourself by preparing camera-ready copies and doing the photocopying, collating, and binding on your own. Many professional copy-shops have self-service machines that are cheaper to use than when the copy-shop staff runs things off. Often these machines have multiple-page feeds, so that you can put twenty pages at a time on the feeder and have them all run off and collated with a single press of a button. Those shops will also have a variety of covers and bindings available as well as automatic hole-punch and perforation machines, heat-binding machines, and industrial strength staplers. This kind of publishing is the cheapest and, with all the powers of word-processing, desktop publishing, and photocopying available, very attractive publications are possible.

Webpages—Clearly this form of publication is not for everyone, but it is an increasingly attractive way to publish because it gives you the widest possible distribution of your material at the lowest cost (depending on whether you already have the computer, the software, the internet connection, and the web server available to you). When you cruise the Internet looking for genealogical sites, consider some of them in light of the way information has been made available. Some genealogy programs (Reunion, Family Tree Maker, etc.) are available to help people create family history files, flowcharts, and websites.

Computer Software—Another method is the one that goes along so readily with the methods I’m using to create this guide book, as well as my own manuscripts and writing projects. An alternative for me is to put all this together and save it on a computer disk. For members of my family who have the same programs I have, I can copy the information onto a back-up disk for them. I can also use transfer or file exchange programs to save my work in a different format for someone in another program. At my own office I continually go back and forth between Macintosh and Windows applications. With the advent of writable CD-ROM disks, it is also possible to create your own CD-ROM files for family members with CD-drives on their computers.

Publishing Formats:

If you decide to go public with the manuscript you’ve edited, you have a number of formats to choose among in order to represent the original fairly. Consider the following ideas and examples:

Photocopies and Facsimiles of Original Manuscripts:

The best and more accurate reproduction of the manuscript would be one that lets each reader read it as if it were the original document. Photographic copies of the manuscript might produce the clearest image, but the cost of photographing each page and publishing the entire manuscript at a high enough degree of quality of print and paper to ensure legibility would be prohibitive for most people. Photocopying can be highly reliable but more often can’t quite produce a clear enough image for easy and accurate reading, particularly when the handwriting is in pencil or light ink or when the original is too blurry or has bled through the page. If the original photocopy you made as a text to work with is good, it might make additional photocopies, but the more often you make copies of copies, the more likely the quality of the copies will be reduced. For an example of a photographic reproduction of a manuscript page check the Douglass Houghton journal page.

Transcriptions of Original Manuscripts:

One good way to represent the manuscript fairly without risking illegibility is to transcribe the original manuscript exactly, duplicating the original spelling, punctuation, syntax, and even line-length. If you type it into a word-processing program, you will find a number of fonts that imitate handwriting,

such as this one(Lucinda Handwriting)or this one (Monotype Corsiva)or this one (Times New Roman, the italicized text of the rest of this page)

In fact, you can italicize any font you choose to make it seem more like handwriting. If the transcript has exactly the words in each line, the effect of the transcription will be to make it closer to reading the original than any other format. (With this approach, as with all others, I would suggest including a few photocopied or photographed examples of original manuscript. It will usually make the reader pleased you chose to transcribe it.) For an example of this kind of transcription check the Douglass Houghton journal transcription page.

Photocopy and Transcription Combinations:

Another option is to print a photocopy of the original with a facing page line for line transcription. The transcription can also be printed sequentially, your photocopy of each entry in a journal or diary followed by your transcription of that entry. This second method would take a lot of cutting and pasting and work best with experienced skills on a very good computer. Either facing-page or sequential format would let the reader decide whether to use your transcription or to attempt to follow the original unaided. For an example of the photocopy/transcription combinations check the illustration at the Douglass Houghton journal photocopy and transcription page.

Corrections and Regularizations:

Most hand-written manuscripts reveal the shortcomings or haste or inattention of the writer and turn up misspellings, missing words, random use of punctuation, and particular abbreviations. You may elect to correct the manuscript in transcription and regularize the spelling and punctuation throughout, so that it reads more like a modern commercial text. If you do so, make certain to preserve the original and to note somewhere what you’ve done, so that the reader knows the transcription isn’t verbatim but “corrected.” Another option would be to run an accurate transcription with a sequential or facing page corrected version of the manuscript. Again, the reader chooses whether to follow the original or to read the easier, contemporary format.


In addition to the text itself, in whatever form of transcription you choose to present it, family history manuscripts ought to have some additional elements or apparatus attached to help the reader use it. For example, a typical family manuscript might add:

  • Introduction—an explanation of what the document is, what you’ve done to prepare it for publication, what other elements this edition includes, whatever information you have about the person who wrote the manuscript and the circumstances under which it was written
  • Genealogy—a chart or a family tree or a listing of information connecting the subject of the manuscript to the editor and perhaps to certain readers
  • Illustrations—pictures of people and places, maps, facsimiles of manuscript pages or related information
  • Acknowledgments—a list of individuals and organizations that helped you with the project
  • Index—a list of subjects and individuals to be found in the manuscript by the date of the entry or the page of the transcription on which they can be found (obviously compiled after the rest of the manuscript has been put together)
  • Bibliography—a list of articles, books, websites, archives, periodicals, and personal resources you used to edit the manuscript
  • Notes—explanation and identification of references, terminology, individual characters, sources of further information
The edited and published manuscript might have any or all of these features.

Annotated Transcriptions:

The examples are variations on Ruth Douglass's journal entry of 8 September 1848, which has one note in it, regarding a man mentioned in the entry.

Figure 1. Standard Endnote Numbering

The traditional way to annotate a manuscript is to number each item for which a note needs to be provided, usually with a superscripted number in a smaller font than the word, term, phrase, or item being noted (i. e., notes 1). The page might look like Figure 1, an example of an italicized verbatim transcription, where the note number (79) is non-italic, boldfaced, and superscripted (or raised). The note itself in this case is included in the Endnotes section of the manuscript, following the entire journal. The inconvenience of the endnote system is that it makes the reader turn elsewhere to learn what the note says.

Figure 2. Standard Footnote Format

An alternative method is to place the note at the foot of the page (hence the name "footnote"), usually in a different sized font. This was a more cumbersome system when we had to type footnotes at the bottom of the page, but most reasonably good word processing software will have automatic footnoting applications, if you care to use it. Figure 2 models that kind of notation.

Figure 3. Use of Symbols

Of course it is not necessary to number noted material, especially if the note appears on the same page as the passage it comments on. The noted material can be indicated with a symbol, such as an asterisk (*), a tilde (~), a degree sign (°), a dagger (†), or some combination of these or other signs. Figure 3 includes an unnumbered note at the bottom of the page.

Figure 4. Notes Immediately Following Entry 

An alternative to that method is to include the note, in a different sized font, immediately after the item it explains. This is a method often used in published editions of diaries, journals, and letters (See Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by David Cooper [N.Y.: Norton, 1997] for another example.) Often, in such close quarters, a symbol or an upper case or italicized reprinting of the noted term introduces the note, as in Figure 4.
Figure 5. Columns with Aligned Notation Finally, another method is to print annotations facing the item noted. Sometimes this is done on facing pages, although the logistical problems of making text match up this way can be a headache. Particularly if there is no attempt to reproduce the original manuscript line by line, it is easier to try lining up materials in facing columns, as Figure 5 does. Here the reader can read the text down the left hand column and check the notes in the right hand column.

Figure 5. Columns with Aligned Notation

Finally, another method is to print annotations facing the item noted. Sometimes this is done on facing pages, although the logistical problems of making text match up this way can be a headache. Particularly if there is no attempt to reproduce the original manuscript line by line, it is easier to try lining up materials in facing columns, as Figure 5 does. Here the reader can read the text down the left hand column and check the notes in the right hand column.