I mentioned that last summer, I worked on a family history book for my daughter-in-law Ericka. (Why is it so much easier to work on someone else’s project than it is to work on my own? I’m sure it’s because of the emotional connection and feeling like you’re never REALLY finished.)

I used the “MyCanvas” book option on Ancestry and it really did save me tons of time because I was collecting all records and images into a tree I created for her on Ancestry, so every image or document could be placed in the book all from one central location. But once I got going on the book, I quickly became overwhelmed. I soon realized that I needed some type of “template”… a list of things I was hoping to include for each person. Parts of the “template” were pre-designed by MyCanvas and others were things I decided to include.

Every person got 4 pages. This allowed me to plan for 2-page spreads. If something didn’t fit on one page, I could make sure it fit on the facing page. A few individuals got 6 pages (or even more) depending on the details I could find for that person. For example, Ericka has an ancestor who was hung as a spy for the Union during the Civil War. There were several newspaper articles detailing his adventures and I transcribed those and included them because the clippings were too difficult to read on the page due to size and resolution restrictions. To allow her to view these clippings and all other documents in better detail, I placed all digital images into folders and gave her a flash drive of all digital media to go along with the book.

The first page for each person was a pre-designed group sheet supplied by the software. At the top of the sheet, MyCanvas included the name, birth and death info, parents’ names and an image which it pulled from a person’s profile in Ancestry. It doesn’t take going too far back in a family’s history to find that you have no pictures of an individual, so if I didn’t have pictures of both individuals, I used a picture of what the American (or their country of origin) flag looked like the year they were born. The default template for this page also included a line with the marriage date and location followed by the family group sheet. Sometimes the group sheet took up the remainder of the page and other times, it was very short. If I was able, I included pictures and information for the US President at the time of the subject’s birth as well as the number of states in the US at that time.

The last item I always included, whether it was on this first page or the next page, was a “bread-crumb trail” of how my DIL was descended from the couple. With the setup I was using, I could only include 5 generations, so if I was able to get back further than that, the “trail” would begin with one of Ericka’s parents.

On the 2nd page, I wrote a short “biography” for the couple. I used the Ancestry LifeStory tab to give me a start. Soon, I realized that there was very little variation in how a biography began, so I came up with a list of about 8 different ways to say the same thing.

  • When William was born on September 7, 1850 in Columbus, Ohio, his father, Stephen, was 32 and his mother, Mary, was 30. (Ancestry’s version)
  • William was born on September 7, 1850 in Columbus, Ohio to Stephen, age 32 and Mary, age 30.
  • The oldest child of Stephen, age 32, and Mary, age 30, was William, who was born on September 7, 1850 in Columbus, Ohio.
  • On September 7, 1850, Stephen and Mary, aged 32 and 30, had their first son, William, who was born in Columbus, Ohio.
  • William was the oldest of 2 boys born to Stephen and Mary. He was born on September 7, 1850 in Columbus, Ohio shortly after the family moved to Ohio from New York.
  • You get the idea…

I broke the LifeStory paragraph into parts – birth, marriage and death – and combined the information for the husband and his wife into one “couple’s bio”. I then looked up the year of birth for each individual to see if there were any historical events that I could add for the year they were born or married. If there were any interesting life events – such as an occupation, military service, or moving to a new state – I added that information. I added images to this page as well. Sometimes, the images were family photos or documents for the couple, such as a marriage certificate. If I was looking for “filler” to get to the 4-page mark, I’d add images of items that were talked about in the biography. It might be an image of an item that had been invented during the year of their birth or a short section about the town of birth or a local landmark. Wikipedia was invaluable for this!

If the “bread-crumb trail” of descendancy had not fit on the 1st page, I made sure it fit on this page.

On the 3rd page, I’d include images of as many documents for the family as I could. It might be cropped census records, guardian bonds, marriage permissions, newspaper clippings – anything I could find. If appropriate, I would include information giving background on something that was on the page. For example, why there was a guardian bond if the mother was still alive.

The last page for each section was always for death information. Pictures of gravestones or cemeteries, obituaries, family photos, etc.

MyCanvas was a real lifesaver for this project. I could add or delete pages and the page numbering was automatically updated. Once I had designed a layout for a page, it was easy to copy and paste it into each person’s section so I didn’t have to design if over and over. There are many pre-designed pages with dozens of themes that can easily be added with a simple click and the information automatically added based on the information you’ve included in the traditional Ancestry pages.

  • 5 different versions for a 4 or 5 generation tree
  • A descendant list or descendant tree
  • A timeline prefilled with all events you’ve included on an ancestor’s profile page in Ancestry
  • The Family Group Sheet
  • Pages with pre-designed layouts for photos or documents
  • Section divider or Title pages
  • A Table of Contents

Due to the cost of have a 159 page book professionally printed and bound, I decided I was going to print the book myself – an option that is readily available on the MyCanvas site. But most of the decorative embellishments that are built into the book design software cannot be printed with the Higher Quality option. (If you ever decide to create a book using the MyCanvas site, do a preview of the page before you design too many pages to make sure it’s really going to look the way you think it will.) Instead, I added many images to the gallery of certain individuals to pull into a page if I needed filler. I even created a few fictitious people in the tree just to add images to their gallery. For example, I had one individual named “America” whose gallery contained all of the flags and Presidential portraits. I had another ancestor whose gallery contained decorative Bible verses, vines, flowers and corner embellishments to add throughout the book. When I added these people, I disconnected them from all parents so that even though they are there, they don’t appear to be part of the family.

Overall, I was thrilled with the process of putting the book together and it was a nice break from the research I’d been working on for so long. Because it really never ends, does it?

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