Shortly after her mother died, Lisa Jacobson started to write her parents’ story. Both had cerebral palsy, raised a family, and lived into their 80s.

During the process, Jacobson, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, also got curious about her extended family, and joined ancestry.com.

Since then, she’s created a 101-page word document of stories and pictures of her parents, and she has more than 4,000 people in her online family tree. She’s connected with family members from as far as Israel and Australia.

“I discovered branches I never knew existed,” Jacobson says. “It’s broadened my horizons. This is a record I can leave for my daughter and my nieces and nephews.”

Jacobson isn’t alone in her quest to document her family stories. For many older adults, it’s a hobby that’s become increasingly popular—and easier—as technology has evolved.

More and more people are jumping into genealogy research and documenting their family histories and stories.

Some are content to create a detailed family tree. Others set out to publish a custom book as a way to leave a meaningful legacy for their kids.

Connecting with your ancestors

“People find it fascinating to look at the history and try to imagine their ancestors’ lives,” says Wintress Odom, founder of The Writers for Hire, a Houston, Texas-based writing and editing company.

Odom and her team help private clients trace genealogy, interview family members, and delve into archives. For many, they produce a high-quality book clients give as a gift. 

Working with a company like Odom’s is one option for people who might feel overwhelmed with the research, but still want to leave a legacy.

Packages start at $2,500 and go up from there. Some clients come to Odom after they hit a stumbling block in their research.

Stick to a goal

To do your own legwork, says Phil Sutton, a librarian in the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy, first decide on a goal.

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Maybe it’s to find out where your family came from, or if a family member fought during the Civil War.

A goal will help prevent you from going down a research rabbit hole.

A goal will help prevent you from going down a research rabbit hole.

Write down what you already know, names, dates and places, he says. Fill out a family tree or pedigree chart: you can download one for free on ancestry.com or familysearch.org.

Then, interview family members and take down stories. Next, look at records. Start with U.S. Census data on ancestry.com. You can find information including a person’s date of birth, address, occupation, and date of immigration. 

There’s a subscription fee for ancestry.com, but many public libraries offer free access on site. Websites like familysearch.org are free. Many local libraries, like the NYPL, also offer free genealogy classes.

Working with a professional

Hiring a professional to design and publish a family book can be pricey.

It can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $22,000 on average, says Ella Ritchie, founder of Stellar Communications, which designs and prints family books. That includes cover design, formatting, editing images, reviewing proofs, worldwide distribution, printing, and shipping a few dozen copies. That’s on top of any fees paid to a professional writer.

Other, less expensive publishing options include services like Amazon CreateSpace, Lulu, or Blurb if your book has a lot of photos.

Ritchie, who’s from a large Cajun family, created her own family coffee table book in honor of her grandparent’s 75th wedding anniversary. She asked family members to share memories and photos, wrapped each book, and gave a speech about her process. 

“It doesn’t have to be this comprehensive history,” Ritchie says, “it can just be your favorite stories. My goal was to capture the beauty of our family.”

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