Debbie Corrigan will turn 55 this year. A baby boomer with children and grandchildren, she loves researching her family history.
Last year, Corrigan, of Winchester, Va., wanted to create something permanent out of her research -- a tangible representation of her family tree that could hang on a living room wall. But nothing she found was quite right.
"When I did some searching on the Web to see what was being done for family trees, you'd see all these family trees that looked like real trees," she says. "I wanted to make something people could give their kids that their kids would actually want to hang on a wall."
So Corrigan used her computer to design her own modern family tree. Relatives liked it so much they asked her to design ones for them, and soon she began offering her services on the craft website Etsy.com as a researcher and designer of graphic family trees.
Many of her customers are fellow baby boomers seeking to illustrate their personal histories in creative ways. Some make printed books and wall art to celebrate their past.
The website Blurb.com has become a popular destination for creating personal books that preserve thoughts and memories.
"There's something really powerful about the printed book" to baby boomers, in particular, says Brenna Lewis, head of marketing and products at Blurb. Young enough to use web-based tools enthusiastically, they're also old enough to appreciate the value of a tangible, hard copy.
Many boomers, Lewis says, are creating impressive, coffee table books of their own photos, accompanied by long paragraphs of text, or personal cookbooks detailing favorite family recipes and memories.
Some write about the life lessons they want to teach the next generation. Others chronicle their recollections of the moments captured in old family photos. Children of aging boomers are also using Blurb and similar websites to create history books for their families, interviewing their parents and grandparents to preserve their wisdom.
Finding raw material is easier than ever: Along with writing out their personal thoughts, many boomers are using tools like Ancestry.com to gather copies of census forms, military records, and other data that can be used in books or works of art.
"Technology has absolutely been a game-changer for family history. It has made global records available from the comfort of your home," says Ancestry.com's family historian Michelle Ercanbrack.
With all this data and a lifetime of experiences to share, the creative options are unlimited. Here are three relatively easy and inexpensive projects that make great vehicles for preserving history and knowledge, and also could be memorable gifts for relatives and friends:
• Project (hash) 1: Photo Book With Lengthy Captions
Many websites, including Shutterfly.com and Blurb.com, offer easy-to-use templates for creating photo books. Choose one that offers customizable pages with plenty of room for text. Choose a focus for the book, perhaps zeroing in on images from a particular period of your life or one specific place you lived. Then write long captions related to these photos, sharing personal observations and details with future generations.
Another option: Schedule a photo session with your extended family, and then write your recollections about what was happening in your life and in the world when each family member was born, or what you'd like each person to know about your life as they grow up. Pair the best photos from the shoot with your observations to create a keepsake book for the family.
• Project (hash) 2: Graphic Family Tree with Annotations
Genealogy websites can provide family tree data. Once your research is done, use your imagination to decide how to lay out the information. Surf websites like Etsy.com to find an artist to help you design your tree, or just browse for inspiration. Consider collaborating with artistic family members, and perhaps even getting grandkids involved in the research or design work.
Go back as far as you can, adding brief details or photos of each ancestor. And pair the graphic family tree with a booklet of notations about things that were happening in local or world history at the time each person was born, and how these events might have affected their lives.
• Project (hash) 3: Family Cookbook
Gather recipes from relatives or provide your own, perhaps focusing on dishes you loved as a child or ones you remember family members cooking on long-ago special occasions. Add paragraphs that detail your recollections. What was happening in your life when you first tried or most enjoyed each dish?
Add photos of each finished recipe and also photos of family members from the era the dishes were served at your house. Printing can be done inexpensively and instantly at FedEx/Kinko's, or more impressively through a personal publishing website like Blurb.