Collaborate on Family History and Watch What Happens

by Jennifer Holik | Jul 9, 2013

Jennifer Holik

Genealogists tend to spend their research days alone or among others yet rarely speaking. We search through records and write down names, dates, and places. We scan family trees online, hoping for a clue which may break down a brick wall or help us locate new relatives. We record stories and family traditions. Genealogy can be a solitary hobby or profession. Yet if we open our minds to collaboration, the possibilities of what can come from that are endless.

For the last two years I have been working on a project with a group of clients whose families all came from one small town in Italy. In a town that was between 3,000 and 4,000 people by 1880, roughly half emigrated between 1880 and 1920. Many came to Chicago while others settled in New Jersey and New York. These families intermarried in Italy and the U.S., creating a somewhat complex family tree. To add to the complexity they reused the same names over and over each generation which adds to the confusion at times utilizing the Italian naming pattern.

This group of clients has a strong tie to their town of origin and it took the vision of one man to launch what has become a project beyond my wildest imagination. Through family collaboration we can open the doors to new possibilities and outcomes. How do we do this?

It Starts With One Person

match-resize.jpgOne spark. One person's enthusiasm is all it takes to start a fire. The first client asked me to work on his wife's line. When we completed some of that, he decided he wanted me to work on his side. He provided information and off I went. One incredible thing he provided was a book written by a member of the town in Italy in the 1950s. This man compiled census records (although he doesn't specify which years) to create a book of the town. That book lists the resident by household, full date of birth, full dates of marriage, names of parents, and sometimes if they immigrated. What the book doesn't contain is the additional information on those census sheets like occupation and year of emigration. It did however list people who had immigrated (and we had located records to prove this) and who had died, with full dates of death! If only we were all so lucky to have a book such as this from our towns of origin.

The Beginning of Family Collaboration

This client's project began so late in the year there was not a lot of time to amass a great deal of information. We did however create a booklet he could give his son, sister, and cousins for Christmas. It was a simple spiral bound, printed-at-the-local-office-supply-store type of book with the information amassed to that point.

The client gave the books to his family at Christmas and they were amazed at the information. They were now excited to participate and began writing down stories and gathering photographs. But that book was nothing compared to what came later. The client then requested a few extra copies to give to others interested in the family's history. Some closely related and others connected in that vast tree.

More Collaboration

Word began to spread through this group of Italians about the work being done. Before long, three cousins hired me. Soon after, others in the family began contributing stories, information and photographs to the project. What started with one person became a collaboration of roughly 20.

Results of Collaboration

The projects that came from this collaboration were varied, but all shared a common theme. All of them reflect what is possible when people share their interest and their story.


As the project expanded to include so many others and the enthusiasm spread, the families decided that a reunion should take place. Planning began with a committee and initial "save the date" emails were sent. As the year went on, the location and menu was chosen, official letters of invitation were sent, and people were asked to send in photographs, stories, and family information ahead of time which could be shared at the reunion.

The reunion day came and I was one of more than 100 people in attendance. They came from not only Chicago, where this family is located, but all across the country. There was a series of long tables at the front of the room covered in photographs. Some were identified and others were not. The committee put paper on the table and numbered the photos so people could write down who the people were if the photo was unlabeled.

The relatives laughed, shared stories and photographs, and discussed the hardships their immigrant ancestors endured so they could have a better life. The information I walked away with that afternoon for this project was incredible. It also gave me the chance to connect with others who wanted to contribute to the project.

Blog Posts

After the reunion, the client gave permission for me to blog about the main surnames in the family, talk about where they were from, in very general terms. Since that blog post went up, many people have commented and provided information and connected with others through that post.

Books, Books, and More Books

Last year the first client requested more books to be made for his family at Christmas. His request included variations of the family history for specific cousins, a full history for him and his son, a book with recipes, stories, and statistics, and a separate photo album for each person. This was no small task and took months of preparation. You know the feeling we all have about our personal research? That "let me find this one last thing and THEN I'll start writing the history" feeling? I had that with this client's family. I know them better than my own. But at some point I had to say "enough" and start writing.

The end results blew the client and his family away. Full color hardcover books with the entire family history to that point. Books with stories, recipes, and statistics. And a full-color photo book with stories, photos, and charts. This year we will repeat the same idea but create a separate volume of narrative because there is just too much information going back too far to put everything in one volume.

Final Thoughts

All it takes is one spark. One person to have a dream. One person to share that dream with another and that dream can take off like wildfire in a forest. The outcomes of that dream may be beyond the dreamer's wildest imagination. The outcomes may take the family down paths they didn't know existed and open doors to the past that were locked for years. The outcomes help each one of those collaborators to tell their stories, share their memories, and create something larger than themselves. And you may discover as you continue the research and write the stories that you are fulfilling the wish of someone who passed by sharing the family's history.

Are you collaborating with family? Are you that one person who will set off the spark?

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