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Planning a Genealogy Book PDF Print E-mail
Written by Larry Grinnell   
Friday, 03 June 2011 11:16

I did the previous Grinnell genealogy back in 1997. I prefer to call myself the editor, rather than the author, because the lion’s share of the backbreaking research, the writing of anecdotal text, and the rest was done almost entirely by others.

What I did was to find the appropriate technology to make the job as easy as possible. The 1997 Grinnell genealogy consisted of something around 15-20,000 individuals and 5-7,000 families, and resulted in a book of approximately 700 8-1/2 by 11 pages set in two columns, with a four-column index (which itself ran over 100 pages).

The new Grinnell genealogy is going to dwarf that effort by a whole bunch. We’re looking at over 60,000 individuals, and over 15,000 families. The book will likely exceed 2,000 pages, including an index that will probably be somewhere around 400 pages.

To do the 1997 Grinnell genealogy, I found the best genealogy and general book publishing tools I could find, starting with a “register format parser.” This program, Gen-Book, took the enormous GEDCOM file (GEDCOM is the standard file format used by genealogists the world over to exchange and share their research) and created a huge narrative file with a standard numbering system that closely resembled the format used by the New England Historic Genealogical Society for their genealogy narratives. This file, generated in Microsoft Word format, embedded all the necessary markers to automatically generate an index of each person’s name—a huge load off my mind and my desk. No table of contents markers, but that was OK; there weren’t that many entries to worry about.

The big problem was paragraph formatting. The default format generated by Gen-Book was ok as a starting point, but I wanted to go way beyond that and do a two-column layout, as it reduces the total number of pages, which are going to be mind-blowing in any case. In the last book, I subdivided the narrative file into 15 separate Microsoft Word files to keep the individual file sizes reasonable. Anyhow, any technical writer will be able to tell you how advantageous it is to have style sheets to globally control paragraph formatting. In other words, if I assign a special “tag” called “children” to each child in the "Children" section of an NEHGS Register-formatted document, it means that a formatting change to any paragraph identified with the "children" tag will work its way through the entire document, to every paragraph that has been assigned the “children” tag. The same is true for all the other elements of a large document such as this. Problem is, Gen-Book, for all the wonderful things it did, did not tag paragraphs. None of the genealogy apps did, and I bought all of them in the futile hope that at least ONE of them would support this function. So, I spent the next month tagging every single, solitary paragraph with an appropriate tag name. And yes, it DID take a month, spending two or three hours a night in front of my computer, tagging every single paragraph of a ten megabyte Word file. Fortunately, there were only six formatting tags needed for the main genealogy, and I was able to assign those tags to six function keys on the keyboard (F1, F2, F3, etc.). Once everything was tagged (it turned out that in that entire 10 megabyte file, I only missed applying the correct formatting tag to two paragraphs!), I could globally (and quickly) format the document the way I wanted it, so everything was consistent, and at least in my opinion, attractive.

Enter the year 2011. It was beginning to look like nothing had changed in genealogy software, at least where report formatting was concerned. I researched every genealogy program on the Internet, and bought most of them, and found myself just about as disappointed as I was in 1997. It was then that I discovered an obscure little genealogy database program called GenBox. Formatting nirvana! As I got deeper and deeper into this program, I began discovering its pure and delightful goodness. Not only did it provide excellent Register report formatting, assigning the appropriate paragraph tags where required, it handled another problem I hadn’t thought of at the time: Family Tree Maker custom GEDCOM tags.

Our dear friends at (owners of the Family Tree Maker program) did the genealogy community a serious disservice, in my humble opinion, by adding a large number of custom data fields, and adding those non-standard and non-approved (by the folks who maintain the GEDCOM standards) data fields to their GEDCOM files. It's kind of like how Microsoft "embraces and extends" common file formats until they are unrecognizable, and ultimately become proprietary to Microsoft. But I digress. These custom data fields include things like Military Service, christening, occupation, and a whole bunch of other things, I suppose to permit the genealogist, amateur or professional, to perform more granular searches on these data fields in hopes of maybe finding new links or commonalities among the diverse members of a large family. Well, most GEDCOM to Register parsers don’t deal with these non-standard additions very well because they are, well, not part of the GEDCOM standard! Thankfully, GenBox permits you to add as many of these custom data fields to your report as you wish, with database manipulation tools that permit you to take these fields and wrap appropriate text around them so a readable, grammatically (and syntactically) correct sentence or paragraph is produced. The process is a tad (well, maybe more than a tad...) tedious, but the fact that it can be done at all without a lot of manual formatting and rewriting of the final document is a major relief and an incredible timesaver. Wow.

The only real problem with this program and what it does is the length of time it takes to do it. I have run test compilations of the entire Grinnell genealogy database, and it took, depending upon which computer I was using, anywhere from 8-24 hours to create the report. I guess it’s a small price to pay to eliminate the absolute drudgery that comes from doing a document like this. Oh, and it does excellent indexes, and even permits you to generate multiple indexes (people, places, events) if you so choose.

Future blogs will go into the actual publishing tools I will be using to create this enormous tome--tools designed for large documents.

Finally, I want to state that I am an Apple Macintosh fanboy from way back, but the lack of genealogy tools for the Mac platform have forced me back, in part, to the Windows platform. I discussed some of this in another blog that you can find on this site.

So, many major problems are now solved. I can now start to worry about the other issues that publishing a book of this size entail. Things like how I’m going to print it (conventional offset printing, on-demand printing, etc.), how I’m going to bind it (case binding, tape binding, etc.), and how am I going to distribute it.

Those are worries for another day, however. It’s just about time to start doing some test compilations to see what things still need to be fixed before the final job is started.


Last Updated on Sunday, 11 September 2011 11:30