Joachim Breitner

401 page family book published

Published 2011-06-13 in sections English, Digital World.

Over the course of the last five years, some relatives of me and I have been working on a family book which lists all descendants of my grandgrandgrandgrandfather Isaak Riehm, born 1799, and his wife Charlotte. My task was everything related to maintaining the data, running the infrastructure and generating the final book. In the end, we have collected biographical details, often with the person’s live story, of 703 descendants, 285 partners and 416 parents-in-law. Together with an extensive preface the book now has a respectable size of 401 pages, includes 144 pictures and maps and over 200 copies have been printed and sold through the family.

The book cover

Although I do not think that the details of the lives of my family is very interesting for the general public, or even suitable for general release, I do want to show the fruit of our work. Therefore, I have created a stripped-down on-line version that only covers the first four generations. I bundled the book body with the cover and the end sheets into one complete PDF file (caution, large: 54MB, and of course in German).

Some nifty embellishments of the book that I especially like are the abstract looking “descendant fan” in the front-end and back-end sheets, the separating bars between the persons which indicate the livespan of that person between 1799 and 2011 and the maps of the birth places and Isaak’s travel destinations in the preface.

Now to the technical details: Naturally, I used only Free Software in the genesis of the work (The cover is an exception, as it was not created by me). The most important is definitely gramps, a free genealogy system that held all our data. It is written in python and extensible with plug-ins, so I was able to create a custom report that takes the data relevant for us, filters for people who have agreed to appear in the book, and then generate LaTeX code that typesets the book, ready to be printed. I learned a great deal of LaTeX for this project, which uses over 30 different packages and required me to create a font of my own (which, as a side product, lead to a publication in the Linux-Magazin).

For the maps I found the Generic Mapping Tools (GMT) and the freely available data for that of great use. I still had to manually collect the coordinates for all the places I wanted to show up in the map. Here, I relied mostly on Wikipedia.

The fan which appears in the end sheets is laid out using a Haskell program (naturally, I have to use Haskell somewhere).

The front-end sheet

Of course, generating the book is only one side of the story; first, the data has to be collected and edited. For that, I wrote a plug-in to gramps that creates forms for each person. These forms contain the current known data and are used to correct and extend our knowledge. One variant of the form, created using LaTeX, was printed and mailed by snail-mail around the country and beyond, for those who are not reachable by mail. The other variant is an HTML form, hosted on a password-protected web site. Changes to that form cause the server to send an e-mail with a description of the changes (and only the changes, not the fields that are left untouched) to the mailing list of our team. There, the changes can be reviewed, e.g. for spelling and stylistic issues, and finally I copy’n’pasted them into gramps. These parts are implemented in python as well.

Since genealogical data is never complete or up-to-date, I have set up a password-protected mediawiki based web site for the book where we collect corrections and additions to the data in the book.

We have never anticipated that it would be so much work and that it would take us so long to finish this project, but we pulled it through and we are very happy with the result. Also, the reception has been very good and it was definitely a success. At this point I’d like to express my gratitude to the hundreds of Free Software developers out there whose code we used and without whom it would not have been possible publish the book in the current form at all!

Update: Due to some requests, I am making the code that I wrote available. You can download the tarball. Note that the code is a big mess and will not be usable right away. I guess if you can get the code to run and actually adjust to your needs, then you can as well write it yourself. Nevertheless it might be useful as inspiration or reference.


I'd like to implement a similar project for my family. Are you willing to make your code available?
#1 Todd Schulman am 2011-06-13
Hi Todd,

I’m willing, although I doubt the direct usability for other people. It is five years of organic spaghetti code growth... but see for yourself. The link is in the Update part of the blog post.
#2 Joachim Breitner (Homepage) am 2011-06-14
This is a very interesting work. Maybe I shall write one similar for my family. Thanks for share it.
#3 Victor Moral am 2011-06-16
#4 Simon Lenz (Homepage) am 2011-07-12

Have something to say? You can post a comment by sending an e-Mail to me at <>, and I will include it here.