01 March 2019

How to Create a 'Book of Life' for Your Relatives

You already have the materials to make this most personal gift for someone you love.

Have you been watching Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s "Finding Your Roots" on PBS? It's bursting with the type of excitement that keeps us active in genealogy year after year.

I've always liked the "book of life" he gives to each guest. You and I may be used to reading census sheets and ship manifests. But for the TV show's guests, it's probably the first time they've seen such a thing.

My mom's 1st cousin Eleanor had a milestone birthday last week. Years ago I printed a family tree that measured 2 feet by 4 feet. I made 40 copies and gave them to the heads of 40 families. Eleanor is the only one who put hers up on a wall and looks at it regularly.

Eleanor is the perfect cousin to get a "book of life" from me. You must have relatives who would appreciate a gift like this, too.

Here's how I created the book for my cousin.

1. See What You Have

My research hasn't gotten very far on Eleanor's father's side of the family. But I do have his ship manifest showing his arrival in America. I have his father's draft registration card, ship manifest, and census sheets.

Eleanor's mother was my great aunt. I've taken her tree back many generations. I have her beautiful wedding portrait and a copy of her marriage certificate.

All these items are good material for the book. I even had an extra 1-inch binder and lots of clear sleeves to hold as many pages as I wanted. If I didn't have the binder, I'd have looked for ideas in a local stationery store.

Fill the sheet of paper with your document. For trees, size them to fit.
Use up the entire sheet of paper by toying with your print options.
2. Print the Best Documents

Print the different census sheets, manifests, and certificates onto 8½" x 11" paper. It's nice to see them and hold them at this size when you're used to seeing them only on your computer screen.

I have a laser printer that does an excellent job of printing documents. If your ink-jet or other type of printer isn't doing justice to the documents, put the files on a flash drive. Find a friend with a better printer or go to a store like Staples or the UPS Store that can print the images for you.

3. Create "Call-Outs" to Make it Easy to Follow

You and I know how to find the right line on a census or manifest and understand the information. But your cousin doesn't.

There are 2 things you can do to help:
  • Use your photo-editing software to carve out the important lines on the document. Blow them up a bit bigger and print them out. Place the enlarged cut-outs on top of the document. I put a little rolled-up bit of tape on the back of the cut-out to attach it to the document.
  • Create a text box in your word processing software with nice big letters. Explain what we're looking at. For example, I made a text box to attach to a draft registration card that says:

    Carlo Vallone's World War I draft registration card, Sept. 12, 1918
    Address: 239 E. 151st St., Bronx, New York
    Birth: Dec. 8, 1881 in Italy
    Job: elevated conductor for the IRT

Enlarge and summarize the most important information.
Enlarge and summarize the most important information.
I printed these call-outs on marigold-colored paper. I included a thick outline for each call-out to help it stand out.

4. Put it in a Scrapbook or Binder

Some documents, like ship manifests, often have 2 pages. When you're putting your printouts into the book, be sure to arrange them so you can see both pages at once. When you're creating a family tree for the book, try to size it to 2 pages, and arrange them on facing pages in the book.

Make sure 2-page documents can be seen together.
Make sure 2-page documents can be seen together.
My binder had an extra pocket in the back. I decided to print an extended family tree and fold it down to fit in the pocket. I started with Eleanor's mother and siblings and went up 6 generations. I included dates and places of birth, marriage, and death.

I sized this tree to fit on 9 sheets of paper. Then I printed it out, trimmed the pages, taped them together from the back, and folded it down neatly. For instructions on how to put together a multi-page document like this, see "This Project Makes Your Family History Larger than Life".

I didn't get to see Eleanor open her "book of life", but she did tell me how much it means to her.

How often do you have the chance to give such a unique and personal gift? Check your calendar. Is there a birthday coming up for a relative who would love their own "book of life"?


  1. I love this idea :) I also want to do something like this digitally, either in publisher or powerpoint, so I can email to people. Your blog is a constant inspiration to me :)

    1. Also, here's a website someone recommended to me for having your work beautifully printed, if you like. www.magcloud.com/create

    2. Thanks for the tip - I'll check it out :)

  2. I recommend creating each page digitally, then export it into a pdf file. You can send them the pdf by email or you can upload it to Lulu.com or other on-demand self-publisher and print it out in book format.

    1. Thanks, Matthew. That's a really good option, too. The nice thing is, you can print out all the pieces yourself, and when you're happy with the results, you can choose how you'd like to print it professionally.

  3. This is a great idea. I have thought about making one and recording it like they do on the show. I think the revelations and the reactions are as much a part of what makes it interesting as the ancestor's story. I have created a scrapbook which was enjoyed as well.

  4. There's a TREMENDOUS spike in visitors to this article on March 14 and 15, all coming from somewhere on Facebook. Can anyone tell me if something or someone triggered your visit here?

  5. I saw it posted on a FB page Genealogy Addicts Arts and Crafts. Great ideas!!

    1. Thank you. I've been amazed since last night at how many people are suddenly coming to this 2-week-old article. I'm glad you enjoyed it. This is a very fun project.

  6. I love your advice! I actually found this by googling "scrapbooks similar to Professor Gates tree of life". I'm rarely on facebook. I do have a question. I have binders and sleeves a plenty, but his books are so unique, I can't find anything like them. They are probably linen. They are not a standard size. They do not have sleeves. I want to make one because as far as I can tell there isn't anything like it on the market. What have you found?

    1. Hi, Julie Ann. I haven't made a book that really looks like the ones Prof. Gates does. But they remind me of old-fashioned photo albums with matte-black pages. Does anyone make them anymore?