Preparing Handwritten Poems for Book Binding

May 19, 2023 ·Updated January 17, 2024

As with all my projects the idea for this one really came as I was going through several boxes of documents that my great-grandmother had saved. Among tens of pedigree charts and hundreds of family group records I found an envelope with “Poetry by W.C. Percival” written in her handwriting. Inside were 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… So, the idea of compiling them into a proper poetry book came to fruition!

Several years later, I now have the time and skill to make this idea a reality.

Step 1: Inventory

First things first, I attempt to take a full inventory of what physical items I already have. In the past I’ve received boxes full of miscellaneous documents and objects from family members. I go through and try to understand how the boxes are organized and what types of artifacts there are (e.g. papers and their dimensions, photos, tapes, slides, negatives, etc.). This helps me pick out materials for long term organization and storage, which I talk about in the next step.

It’s really easy to get stuck in this step by spending countless hours pouring over documents and photos. While it’s exciting to read through everything in detail right now, it makes it impossible to enjoy the same items in the future. To move past this I just get a sense of the content by briefly skimming the documents and flipping through photos, not spending any more than 30 seconds for each piece.

Luckily, this project was particularly easy to inventory since there was such a small number of documents already organized into an envelope.

Step 2: Organization and Storage

As much as I’d like to have all the time in the world to sit down and complete a project in a day or two, I don’t. So preserving and organizing the documents in a storage system that protects the documents long-term and that makes it easy for me to pick up where I left off is very important. (At some point I’ll write an article that dives deeper into my current storage set up.)

First, I have to pick how I want to order and label the documents to make them easy to find later. Since these documents are a small portion of what I have for W.C. Percival and I figure I’d probably be looking through them together, I place all of the poems in a large pocket folder with a label on the outside that says “Poetry by W.C. Percival.” This pocket folder is then placed in a box with the rest of the documents relating to W.C. Percival.

Inside the folder, I’ve decided to order the poems by page size. A little arbitrary, I know, but many of the poems aren’t dated and since the page size varies so much I’m afraid the small pieces of paper (2"x2") will get lost among the large ones (8 1/2" x 11"). Ordering them by size allows me to easily pull them out of the folder and quickly see how many I have.

While carefully unfolding and flattening each page, I interleave the larger pages with thin paper and place the smaller pages into protective plastic sleeves.

Step 3: Digitizing

I’ve decided to include the scans of the original poems alongside their transcription in the final poetry book. So, the next step is to digitize the original poems. Digitizing the poems also makes it easy to work with the poems when I’m too lazy to go upstairs to get the originals out, and acts as a back-up just in case anything happens to the originals.

For scanning family history documents I use my Epson E-8550 with the following settings under “Document Mode” in “Custom Settings”:

Each file is saved as a .tiff.

I have found that these color settings match the original colors closely and the size settings retain enough information that I can use the files in larger or smaller viewing and printing scenarios without loss of information. When setting up your scanning profiles, think about your unique color preferences and final uses.

To make it easy to find on my computer, I save the files using the same organization and naming scheme that I do for the physical files and folders.

Step 4: Transcription and Deciding the Final Book Size

Now that I have all of my documents digitized I can start playing around with book sizes and layout. I use Adobe InDesign to design my books.

As mentioned earlier, I plan to include both the scans and the transcriptions in the final book. I think that having the scans provides context and character, while having the transcriptions makes it easy for people who can’t read cursive to enjoy the poems.

For the layout, I knew I wanted a smaller format, somewhere between a pocket book and a trade book and initially settled on 5" x 7" dimensions. Since I’m printing and binding the book myself, I don’t have to pick a standard size. If I were to have this printed with a on-demand book printing service, I’d have to pick from one of their standard sizes.

I can’t really do the complete the design without the all the content, but I find transcription to be a little boring. So I alternate transcription with design, that way I have some content to work with without burning myself out.

After placing the images into a new InDesign file and doing some transcription, I take some time working out what the reader’s experience should be. This includes how the transcriptions are placed in relation to the scans and what colors, fonts and font sizes should be used. As I experiment I print out drafts of the book, usually just an excerpt to make sure that all the elements works together. This is very much a trial and error process that takes me several weeks to work out.

Since there were very few dates on the poems, I’v ordered them in a way that was attractive for the design, intermixing the short and long ones throughout the book.

Step 5: Re-reviewing My Documents

While transcribing I remembered seeing several poems in letters that my great-grandfather had written to my great-grandmother. I read through the letters and realized that they provide context for the poems and should be included in the poetry book. I scanned them into my computer and placed them into my file. Since the letters are dated, I rearranged the poems in loose chronological order alongside the letters.

References I Used