Can HistoryLines Really Build an Instant Personal History of Your Ancestors?

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Can HistoryLines Really Build an Instant Personal History of Your Ancestors?

By Jodi Bash

The HistoryLines website bills itself as “Instant Personal History.” Those of us who love family history get really excited when we think we can get a lot of valuable information quick and easy. So at first glance HistoryLines can seem a little disappointing. Instant personal history may be overselling it. But, like any good tool, the more you put into it the more you get out. And on second glance, HistoryLines is a good tool.

How HistoryLines Works and What it Costs

Please note that we may receive a commission to support our work if you decide to use the discount coupon provided on this page. All opinions in this article are that of the author, who has written an honest review of what HistoryLines has to offer.

To get a sense of what this program can do for your family history you can create a free account in HistoryLines.com and start a story by plugging in the names, pertinent dates and locations for a few ancestors. But, in reality, the free version does not provide much value since you only get 2 free stories. To create any more you will need a paid account and once you start personalizing it, you’ll want more than two stories. If you do have a paid version it is also a very simple task to upload a GEDCOM file of your tree. It is the fastest way to get the most data imported into HistoryLines; and easy to add to once it’s there.

If you try the free version and would like to subscribe you can pay monthly for $9.95 or you can subscribe for a year for $59.95. HistoryLines has provided a coupon for Family History Daily readers so you can get 30% off of either option by using code FHD30P. You can find the subscription options here.

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No matter which route you choose – once you enter in some details about your ancestors you are delivered back a timeline of what happened historically within the life of that ancestor. For each story you will see a timeline of US events, a map of where that person lived, events by states they resided in, and a report providing a description for each event as well as descriptions of broader categories surrounding your ancestors life. An average size report for my grandparent was over 20 pages.

For example, in my grandmother Betty’s life, which ranged from 1919-2009, you can read generically about Iowa during the time she was born, the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, and the New Deal Years among other events. You can also read about trends in clothing, diet, religion, medicine, and other general categories throughout Betty’s life.

Timeline and map. The red dots on the map are where Betty lived. If I click my mouse on those, the program will list the historical events that occurred while my ancestor lived there.

The image above shows the generic history, made slightly more personal by using my ancestors name and age in each descriptor.

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This report can be printed in PDF form, a nice readable format. It can be put in a link to be emailed, or you can get HTML code and add it to a blog or website. You can also share it on various social media platforms with a click of button.

There is a “feedback” button above every paragraph where you can give input to the creator. Maybe you felt the information wasn’t thorough, wasn’t accurate, was too biased, etc. You can let them know. I definitely gave feedback that the “Entertainment” section of my timeline should have mentioned MTV and the death of Elvis! There is also a HistoryLines Community in the website where you can give more feedback, get help, and make your own contributions.

Making HistoryLines Personal

The first thing you’ll notice is that the initial history report on your ancestor isn’t terribly personal. By including country and state level events of interest and a line or two on your ancestors’ birth or death you do get a good understanding of the immediate world that your ancestor lived in. You don’t know necessarily what affected them, or what they really cared about. The key to making this tool go from just interesting to amazing it to add your personal information.

It is easy to add richness to your story by clicking “edit story” and adding your own events. When and where children were born, marriages, deaths, moves, etc. occurred. You can edit the pre-populated events by using the “personalize” button on top of each paragraph. The key of course is knowing how the event or category was personal to your ancestor. The topic of WWII gets a lot of coverage for people who were alive during that time. My grandfather served in WWII, so I added information into the generic history about where and when he served and his experiences that I knew of. I could even add of photo of him in uniform.

Above is an example of an “Edit Story” screen.

Residence is an important data point to add. HistoryLines will provide local (state-level) historical events for the dates your ancestors lived in certain areas. That level of detail can really make a difference to understanding the influences on your family’s history.

Events and categories are also removable. So, if for example, I want to include only events or trends that happened when my ancestor was an adult and likely impacted major life decisions, I could remove “Scopes Monkey Trial 1925” from my grandmother Betty’s timeline since she was only 6.

Family Tree View

The family tree view is a great way to get a quick look at relationships and see what gaps need to be filled in. From every person in your tree you can go to another part of the tree or to that person’s story with one click.

The Family Tree view: the book icon takes you to the story, the tree icon makes that person the “central” ancestor, where you can add details to that person’s life.

Understanding Limitations

It’s easy to assume that every major event that is listed was somehow important to or impacted your ancestor in some way. While that may be impossible to know, I tested the relevance of the events reported on by running my own HistoryLines story to see what came up.

I was born in 1970 in Houston, Texas. Most of the events that were listed before 1980 I didn’t count because I simply wasn’t that aware of them. The big historical events that were included my time line were:

  • Mt. St. Helen’s explosion of 1980
  • Challenger disaster of 1986
  • Waco-Branch Davidian cult in 1993
  • 9/11/2001
  • Hurricane Katrina 2005

I remember all of these. There was nothing on my timeline post 1980 that I had never heard of. I can tell personal stories about how each of these events affectedly my life. It was a good list.

Then there were the things that weren’t included in my timeline (based on a quick search of Wikipedia):

  • Roe v. Wade 1973
  • Deaths of Elvis and John Lennon
  • No presidential elections made the list
  • Exxon Valdez oil spill

These are just a few things that I did hear a lot about and did affect me in some way that were not on my timeline, even though they would be considered major events. Of course, every major event can’t be included or the report would be way to long. And, these events can be added in manually. I recommend doing this search; don’t assume that what comes up in the initial report are the only important or influential events in your ancestors lifetime.

HistoryLines appears to be better at creating US stories than non-US. My Irish ancestors have a shorter more generic story than my US ancestors. There is work to be done on the international side. And, if you are so inclined to add events important to you ancestors, the non-US stories can be just as enlightening. If you have a lot of non-US ancestors I would recommend contacting HistoryLines to see if they could provide the depth of information you’d want.

HistoryLines is a great way to get a glimpse into the world in which your ancestor lived. The broad brush strokes of history that impacted their lives will give background and meaning to your family history. Use additional sources to see what other significant events may be missing from the timeline that are worth adding in. Take the time to include personal details and photos and it will really be something worth sharing. The key is to treat this as a useful tool, that can grow into a great tool.

If you decide to subscribe don’t forget to use code FHD30P for 30% off.. You can find the subscription options here.

Jodi Bash is a genealogist living in Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She is founder of Family at Your Fingertips and is passionate about finding creative and tangible ways to connect with family history. She runs two blogs: Unclaimed Ancestorsis an effort to connect old photos with descendants, and a way to scratch the ever-present research bug! A more personal blog at Family at Your Fingertips explores family heirlooms and the love of history. Jodi has been researching family history for over 15 years, and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She is the Director of Communication for Covenant Church in Houston, holds a B.A. in History and English from the University of Texas at Austin, a Masters in American History from the University of Houston, and an M.B.A. from Rice University. You can reach Jodi at Jodi@familyatyourfingertips.com and follow her on twitter via @famatfingertips.

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