A giant compendium of all your research is a mammoth project and outside of dedicated genealogists, few people enjoy wading through endless copies of land deeds and wills. An illustrated family tree is beautiful, but a chart leaves little room for extra information. Compiled family histories, where many generations are listed, are wonderful heirlooms and resources (especially when locating third or fourth cousins!), but require a lot of time to create and then require constant updating.
Looking for a fun, inexpensive and relatively quick way to give the gift of family history this holiday season? Consider making a "mini-history", that is, a short piece that highlights one aspect of your family's history and includes lots of surrounding information to make history come alive – with your ancestors taking their part on stage.
Which history should I pick?
Your mini-history can focus on:
A particular geographic area ("Our Home in the Home Counties: The Marshall Family and Surrey, England")
A particular lineage ("To the New World: The Migration of the Dorado Family from Spain to South America")
A particular era ("Pioneer Spirit: The Lives of the Smiths, Clarks and Belfours in the early to mid-19th century)
You may also want to highlight an aspect of your family's history such as military service; detail how you solved a family mystery; or for the right recipient, even devote a history to the family's black sheep. You can mix and match these histories to make individualized scrapbooks or books for different family members, depending on which histories are relevant to them.
I already include general historical facts with my research – how is this different?
Many family histories include brief descriptions of what broad historical events prompted a family to leave one location, or what sort of conditions they would have encountered arriving at a new location. A mini-history bumps up this historical context, so that 30 to 50 percent of the story is about your ancestors' world.
This isn't to say that a mini-history needs to be a 300-page treatise on the Great Depression and how it affected your ancestors – it just means doing a thorough job of setting the stage (and maintaining it) while following your ancestors' actions in history.
"Chelsea & Fulham: The Old Neighbourhoods" An example of a mini-history
Following one of my husband's lineages via 19th century English censuses, I discovered the family had lived in the Chelsea area of London first, moved to the Fulham area a decade or two later, and finally decamped to North America in the early 20th century.
As an Anglophile, I was curious about these areas, and as I researched I could guess why they moved. Chelsea was a relatively rural area into the 19th century, perfect for my husband's family of laborers. Chelsea underwent a later development boom, however, and became the bohemian hot spot for Victorian poets, writers, painters and radicals.
Around this time, the family moved to the more working-class Fulham. Fulham remained working-class into the first half of the 20th century, although the family left for North America shortly after 1900.
Do I know why the family moved to a different London neighbourhood before leaving for North America? With no records explaining their decision, I don't. But I can suggest a theory, with historical information to bolster my case.
Most of the fun in that particular history, however, came from comparing the hard-scrabble 19th century surroundings of the family to the ultra-posh present in Chelsea and Fulham. Both areas are now amongst the most expensive in London, and therefore in the United Kingdom. Both are home to many celebrities as well.
This particular history was a gift for my mother-in-law, and as a child of the 60s, she got a kick out of the fact that one side of her family lived in what later became the epicenter of "Swinging London" and that should she stroll along her ancestors' street these days, she's liable to run into a Rolling Stone or two.
What do I include?
Start with all the relevant genealogical information, including names, dates, events and family photos you've found in your research. Some reliable history books should be next and general photos relating to your mini-history (Google Earth is a good source to obtain photos of what a particular location looks like now). Web research should be approached sensibly (no Wikipedia!), but the websites of historical foundations, museums or local governments often have valuable, reliable information, which you can always follow up with. Google News' archive feature can provide contemporary newspaper accounts for more information and color.
Fair's Fair: crediting work and respecting copyright
It might feel like school again, but be sure to keep the following rules in mind:
Don't plagiarize: you should have enough similar information from different sources to put facts in your own words, especially if you're describing the historical or economic situation as Great-great-grandma Enid might have seen it. An especially punchy or authoritative quote should be directly quoted, but limited; don't use entire pages of material as direct quotes.
Credit everything: much like genealogical research itself, cite all sources! Whether it's been used for background information, an image or a direct quote, fully credit where you originally located something.
Do you need to ask permission from the original authors? Sometimes. The material itself will usually indicate whether permission is needed. I have been approached a few times to have some of my work re-used as part of someone's genealogical project background; for private family projects, I am okay with just receiving a writing credit, and I appreciate the courtesy.
The best part about giving credit, however, is the benefit you and your family enjoy. A list of sources lets them read and research further if they like. Speaking of further research, a mini-family history is the gift that keeps on giving. Having the whole family peruse one together will bring up claims, counter-claims and new clues for your family research. You're not done writing when you finish a project like this; be sure to grab a pen and paper as you find out even more.