How to Create a Family History Journal – Part 4: Organizing and Cataloging Pictures and Documents

My Great-Grandmother with my grandfather and my great-aunts and uncles.

On to organizing and cataloging all the material you’ve gathered for your book thus far.

1)  Now that you’ve sorted the pictures, documents and mementos by family member and section into piles, go back through them to be sure you’ve picked the best ones to t in your book. If your funds to print the book are limited, this will be especially important. The more pictures and document images you include, the more pages there will be in the book which will raise the printing or copy cost per book especially if the book is going to be printed in color. However, if you are going to save the book to a CD or a DVD or create a PowerPoint presentation, video/movie or e-book to distribute on CD’s or DVD’s, the printing cost will not be an issue. The cost of CD’s and DVD’s are much less than printing, copying or publishing. We discuss printing costs in the last chapter.

2)  Once you’ve picked all the pictures, documents and mementos you want to use, sort the items in order by age starting with the youngest first. Stories should usually begin when the person was the youngest and lead up to the present time.

3) On a legal pad or notebook page, write each family member’s name at the top of the page. Create a separate page for every family member you are going to include in your book or, if you created an Excel Workbook, enter the information in the appropriate page.

4) Once you’ve written a family member’s name at the top of the page, number down the side leaving every other line empty.

5) Number each picture and document on the back lightly in pencil. For some pictures or documents you can use post-it sticky notes to place numbers on them so as not to deface the picture or document.

6) How many times have you looked at a photo and wondered who the people were, when was the photo taken, where and what was the event? The stories in your book will be much more realistic, interesting, and meaningful if you identify each photo or document you use in your book using the names of the people in the picture, dates, where the picture was taken, the event and other meaningful information. Identifying the pictures and documents will make the reader (including you) feel they were there too and a part of the story especially if the reader is a family member who knows or knew the person the chapter is about or was there at the event. Ask friends and family members if they can help you identify the people in the photo and the date, if possible.

Below are some recommendations:

a)  The person, place, and date the picture was taken including month, day and year and any other significant information to identify it.


Mom playing baseball at the family picnic on the Fourth of July, 1997.


Don Smith, Jim Jones and Sally Jones and I at Sally’s engagement party at (place), June 1, 2000.

b)  Consider adding some descriptions or comments either in the title or description in the picture or document image or in the story directly below.

Examples:  “My hair was much longer there then than it is now.”, “This picture was taken after the accident.” “This is our old house in the background.” OR  “This was my first car, a 1950, Chevy convertible. Boy I loved that car.”

c)  Name the people in the order they appear in the picture from left to right.

d)  If the picture has more than one row of people, identify them as: Back Row: John Smith and Jim Jones, Front row, Sally Jones and I.

e)  If all the people are in one row, identify them this way: Left to Right, John Smith, Jim Jones, Sally Jones and I.

f)  It helps to use last names because some people, including distant relatives or future relatives might not know the people or remember them in the future including you. People change and you might not recognize them later.


Left to Right: My first cousins Don and John Smith, Sally Jones and I at Sally’s engagement party at (place), June 1, 2000.


Back Row:  My first cousins Don and John Smith

Bottom Row:  Sally Jones and I at Sally’s engagement party at (place), June 1, 2000.

g)  You might even want to put ages in. Example: “This is a picture of me at grandma Smith’s house in Cleveland in 1965. I was only two years old then.”

h)  Place each picture in the book on the same page as you write about the event even if it’s just a short sentence. When you write about the event, reference the picture. Example: (See picture above or below).

i)  If you decide you want to use the same picture in several different sections of the book, make a note of that in the family member’s identification sheet.

Example after you have written the complete description, write: This picture to also be used in the section or sections (name) in the chapter or chapters for (name).

An alternative to placing the same picture in more than once section or chapter might be to make a reference on the page you’re writing to the page where the picture or document is located. Example:  See section (name), chapter (name), page (number).

7)  Next, go to one family member’s pile of pictures and documents. Find the page you created for that family member in Step #3 (or go to the page in your spreadsheet) with that family member’s name on it.

8)  Choose the first image or document you previously numbered in Step #5 (i.e. Item #1) that you want to include in this family member’s chapter and write the information recommended in Step 6 about that image on Line #1 of the page. This information is the information that will be typed below the image in the book. The information can either be typed in the picture or document image itself as a title or in the story under the image. This is especially important if you are going to add the information to the image itself as a title at the bottom of the image.

9)  Continue doing this with every picture and document you’ve gathered for that same family member. When done, put everything including the list in the envelope.

10)  Follow this same procedure for every family member.

11)  Sort all the envelopes containing pictures and documents by family surname, most likely two piles; one pile of envelopes for your father’s family section and one for your mother’s family section (her maiden name). For family members branching off under different surnames, we’re going to make sub-sections under the main sections, etc. If you had a step-mother or step-father, they would have their own sections. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Don’t worry about a family member needing to be listed in more than one section. I’ll cover that and make this clearer in the next part of this article. For now we’re going to just have two piles; one for your father’s side of the family and another for your mother’s side. We’ll break them down later.

An example would be:

Chapters about your father’s family to be included in your father’s section would be the following in this order:

First would be a chapter about your father’s mother and father (your grandparents)

Next, a chapter about your father.

Next, your father’s sisters and/or brothers (your aunts and uncles)

Your aunts and uncles children (your cousins)

Your cousin’s children etc.

Chapters about your mother’s family would go in her section under her maiden name in the same order. The same would apply to step-parents, brothers and sisters.

12)  Now write the surname (Section name) for each family member on each of the envelopes that belong to that family name above their name and number them in order by oldest family member first, youngest last. (See above.)

The next article in this article is Part 5 – The writing process; ideas to write about.

I hope this 7-part article about putting together a Family History Book is helpful to you. I would love to hear from you if you found this series useful. I’m more than happy to help.


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Author: GSKWAuthor

Semi-retired. Worked most of my adult life as a secretary, executive assistant & in middle management. In 1998 I formed a secretarial service business at home specializing in the transcription of manuscripts, formatting for print, and eBook publication then uploading to POD publishers. Through ads and a website (no longer active) the business attracted customers from all over the U.S. In 2016, I phased out my business. I now spend the remainder of my "spare time" writing cozy mystery/suspense/thrillers. I hope to publish my first novel titled "Susan's Stalkers - Double The Fear" before the end of 2023. The synopsis is in this site. Check it out.