Introduction to Creating Custom Family History Books At Home

June 6, 2023 ·Updated January 17, 2024

I have a high standard for the quality of the work I produce, especially when it comes to design and artwork. I am notoriously particular on the details and am willing to do just about anything to make sure my vision for a project comes to fruition perfectly. Which often means that I find myself teaching myself niche skills and going down multiple rabbit holes for a single project. One of my more recent rabbit holes has been learning how to bind books so that I can design, print and bind my own family history books. While my choice to bind my own books has been a recent one, it’s been multiple years in the making.

A Short History

Photography has always been one of my favorite pastimes, and after I got married I had a lot more opportunities to practice as I started traveling a lot more. At the end of the trips I would have hundreds of photos on various memory cards that never got looked at. This is one of my major pet peeves: taking photos but never having the images in a format that can be enjoyed, by me or anyone else. When I take a photo I want to tell a story and I want it to be in a space where the viewer can enjoy that story. This can’t truly be done by scrolling through my photo roll, or loading up my photos on my computer and flicking through them from time to time. Photo books have become my mini art galleries where I can curate, organize, provide context, frame and share my photos in the way that I believe they should be seen.

I made my first photo books in middle and highschool using drag-and-drop services (e.g. Shutterfly, Snapfish, etc.). These have cute premade templates that make it quick and easy to create fun photo books to share with friends and family. These were perfect for what I wanted at the time - cute digital scrapbook-style photo books to share no more than 50-ish photos.

After a while I started really taking travel photography seriously, and the scrapbook-style photo books were no good for displaying hundreds of nature and architecture photos. The layouts became too restrictive, the book sizes awkward, the print quality decent, and the price tags horrendous. I wanted to be able to print simple consistent books with as many pictures as I wanted for a reasonable price.

As a designer, I decided I could create the layouts myself, I just needed to find a service that could print the books. Blurb became my printer of choice for the last 7 years. I use my custom InDesign template for all of my travel books which has allowed me to print all the photos I wanted for a reasonable price. (This was done by printing trade books instead of photo books. I decided that it was more important to me to showcase all of the photos I wanted even if they weren’t the highest quality prints.)

During this time, I had a client request designs for a non-fiction trade book and a recipe book for her nutrition practice. Four years later, I not only honed my book design skills for books other than photography, I as also became very aware of how to properly structure a book with front matter and end matter, the importance of editors and indexers and what it takes to prepare a book for publishing.

How Does This Relate to Family History?

More recently I have had the time to go through several boxes of family history that I inherited from my great-grandmother. As I went through the various papers I found an envelope with 15 or so poems written by my great-grandfather on pieces of old envelopes, scrap paper - even the back of a parking ticket! For me it was a fun opportunity to peak into his thoughts and see the world through his eyes. I felt that they deserved a better home than on the back of scrap paper stuffed in an envelope in a box of pedigree charts… Naturally, I decided to compile them into a proper poetry book where the poems could be shared and enjoyed with family without compromising the fidelity of the 80-year-old papers.

Determining to Print and Bind My Own Books

Creating a family history book is a new tier of creation. Going back to books being my own mini art galleries, my Blurb photo books are like me printing my photos on cheap, plain printer paper and displaying them unframed in my garage. A family history book should be like walking into a proper art gallery with marble floors and tall ceilings, the rooms designed to transport you back in time, and the photos printed on high end paper and displayed in fancy frames. A family history book should be a carefully curated and beautiful experience for the viewer.

As such, the only way that I can have complete control over my “gallery” is by being able to not only design the pages, but to also have control over the dimensions, the paper type, and the binding. I could work with a professional bookbinder, but that is prohibitively expensive for such bespoke projects, and I would still be limited by what they are comfortable creating. Hence, why I have arrived at not only designing my own books, but printing and binding them as well.

I’m sure not many of you out there will go to quite the extent that I have to control my book design, but hopefully you can learn something from my experience :)