Bruce Kemp. [photo from]

by Bruce Kemp

In the digital era, we’re all literate. Our schools taught us to read and write. We communicate with words, as well as pictures (although I’m not sure the reliance on emoji’s isn’t a step backward). Take a look at a social media platform like Facebook. It’s a place to tell our stories. Social media is great for instant gratification. But the jury is still out on how effective it is, in the long run, as any kind of historical document. 

When the brilliant American biographer Walter Isaacson sat down to write the life of tech guru Steve Jobs, he ran into a stumbling block. He actually found it easier to recreate Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century life than Jobs’. The reason why? All the material generated throughout Jobs’ lifetime is contained in digital files somewhere in unreachable corners of the Internet. His emails have vanished and he left no letters on paper that could be sourced. 

Da Vinci, on the other hand, produced thousands of pages of notes and drawings to illustrate his ideas, making it easier for Isaacson to travel back five hundred years than return twenty-five years to the tech wizard’s lifetime. The moral of the story is: Digital may be fun and convenient, but it is not dependable. 

Not every family is lucky enough to have a researcher of the calibre of Isaacson in the family. But, most families have a member interested in genealogy who has spent time digging through birth and death records to find out where the family ancestors came from. And, this is where the digital world has helped immensely.  

Record keeping institutions, like churches, museums, and municipal offices, have been putting their files online for several decades. You can look up your progenitors from the comfort of your couch while wearing nothing more than your most comfortable jammies. The trick comes with what you do with that information. A lot of people let their work go with posting a few files online. The effort to collect the family story deserves more than that. One of the hardest lessons of the digital age is that digital material has a nasty habit of disappearing into the ether. If you doubt this, try reading that five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disk you created in 1989.

If we have family or personal stories that we want future generations to hear and understand, the idea of keeping them on a computer is a big mistake.  That being said, the computer is God’s gift to the family genealogist. Not only does it allow you to conduct research in the far flung corners of the globe, it provides a tool for writing your ancestors’ stories in a readable – and preservable – form: the Legacy Book.

With a basic laptop and printer, you can create your own Dead Sea Scrolls containing Uncle Buck’s stories or the experiences of your grandfather on D-Day. You don’t have to be William Shakespeare, or even Margaret Atwood, to be a competent writer. It just requires organization and some advanced planning. Simply begin with a pencil and paper and write down everything you can remember about the story you want to capture. If the teller of the tale is still on the green side of the sod, talk to them for corrections and elaborations. Once you have a list of points, sit down and decide what is important and what is not, then organize these points in a descending order of importance – putting the most interesting facets of the story right up front to grab the reader’s attention. Now start writing. 

When you have enough stories, sort them into the chapters of your book. Don’t forget to print them out so you have a hard copy. I keep my hard copies in a three-ring binder. With that done, you have several options open to you. First, do you want to illustrate the story with pictures from the shoebox in the back of the closet. If so, you will need a way to digitize them. An inexpensive scanner works best. Just remember to make them at least three times the size you need for the Internet. When it comes to printing – bigger is definitely better. 

Now, how are you going to present your book? You can leave it as a collection of pages or there are several companies out there who will print bound copies of your book that look professionally produced. 

Just Google: instant books. You’ll find a number of companies that print, bind and deliver books to your door. These companies offer free book layout templates to make your life easier and will walk you through the publishing steps. 

In  the end, if you take your time and seek help when you need it, you will have a book that will preserve your stories for many generations to come.

For that help, Waypoint Custom Publishing’s Bruce Kemp will be giving a free seminar called “Going To Print”  at the Merrickville Public Library on March 3, at 7 pm. Seating is limited and COVID restrictions will apply. Contact Bruce at: for details and to register.


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