5 Free Cloud-Based Apps for Creating Family History Books

A review and comparison of 5 free cloud-based graphic design apps to use for creating family history books to share your ancestor's stories.

Books come in all shapes and sizes. After all, it’s not the dimensions or the binding that makes the book but the content within. This is true whether you’re creating a compilation of recipes, your grandfather’s letters or your ancestors’ stories. When it comes to creating family history books, there are options to suit everyone.

Of course, no matter which composition you choose—casebound coffee table book, coil bound pages, ring binder—you’ll need an app to pull everything together to create a printable or shareable file. Even if you’re planning to only publish your handwritten notes or the report from your family tree software.

Many photo book companies provide layout software to make it easy to create your book. These apps are great when offered but don’t always have all the features you need. Nor are they an option if a printed book isn’t your end goal.

The good news is that you don’t need fancy software unless you already have it. There are oodles of other options, many of them cloud-based and free to use.

I’ve trialled five of these apps, comparing each of them against essential criteria relevant to creating family history books. However, each program has its own unique pros and cons. Therefore, this article will explore those features to help you pick the right app for your next family history project.

Creating family history books basics

When choosing which app to use, make sure it meets some basic requirements. You’re looking for software that allows you to:

  • Set custom page dimensions because book sizes vary and may not fit a standard size such as A4 or US Letter.
  • Create multi-page files because your ancestor’s stories will vary in length.
  • Set custom margins or guidelines so you’re consistent placement and formatting from one page to the next.
  • Adjust images—crop, increase or decrease the size, apply filters or other treatments—so you can create a consistent look and feel throughout your document.
  • Export the finished files as a print resolution PDF.

Of course, the more the app can help you format the document, the better. Not only will it save you time, but it also reduces the chance of errors. So also look for an app that offers some or all of the following functionality.

  • Add background images to pages.
  • Ability to include a repeatable header and footer for wayfinding purposes.
  • Automatically number each page, so it updates if you reorder the pages.
  • Allows you to upload fonts you’ve purchased or have a license to use.
  • Create custom styles for headings, subheadings and body text to make formatting easy.
  • Column functionality, so the text flows from one column to the next.
  • Add bleed and crop marks to the final PDF export.

BLEED? WHAT IS THAT?
It is the excess image added to the layout file when it needs to run to the edge of the page.  Paper will shift during the printing process. It’s recommended to extend the image (3 to 5mm) outside the margin, therefore, you’ll avoid unintentional white lines on the edge of the page.

Quick feature comparison

FEATURESCANVA*VISTA CREATE*DESYGNER*GOOGLE DOCSGOOGLE SLIDES
Custom page sizeyesyesyesyesyes
Multi-page filesyesyesyesyesyes
Custom marginsnononoyesyes
Guidelinesyesnononono
Printable PDFyesyesyesyesyes
Adjust imagesyesyesnoyesyes
Background imagesyesyesyesyesyes
Header/footernononoyesyes
Auto page numbersnononoyesyes
Custom fontssubscriptionyessubscriptionnono
Custom stylessubscriptionsubscriptionnoyesno
Columnsnonoyesyesno
Bleed/crop marksyesyesyesnono
* The review of this app was conducted on the free version.

A couple of other apps came up in my research that I didn’t review but are worth mentioning. Have you been curious about these apps? Then worthwhile checking out these apps yourself using the criteria above. After all, these may be a suitable alternative option for creating your family history books.

  • BeFunky
  • Shutterstock Editor.

Apps to use to when creating family history books

I won’t give an in-depth review of each app because this article would end up being a similar length to War and Peace. 😆 Instead, I’ll rate each program by the following six categories.

  • Level of difficulty. Using the “easy to difficult” rating scale, I rate how complex the software is to use.
  • Cost. While each of these apps has a free version, some offer additional features for a monthly investment.
  • Family History Templates. I share whether I’ve found ready-to-use templates available for purchase in online marketplaces.
  • Images. I dive into how well each app handles inserting, adjusting and altering pictures (filters or photo treatments).
  • Stand-out features. The top 5 things I think each app does well, specifically when creating family history books.
  • Limitations. No one is perfect, not even an app, so know upfront what you are getting yourself into.

Want a shortcut to the app that you are most interested in? Click the app name in the table above to go directly to the review.

1. Canva

Cloud based graphic design app Canva suitable for creating family history books
Cloud based graphic design app, Canva

The first app on the list is one you may already be familiar with — Canva. It’s a cloud-based graphic design program you can use either via your favourite web browser or on your smart device via a downloadable app. Therefore you can access your files anywhere and share files with anyone, no matter which operating system they are using.

Level of difficulty

Easy to learn. Canva has been created for non-designers to make files for print or use online. Of course there is a full Help Centre and library of tutorials available to guide you every step of the way. You’ll also find oodles of how-to videos on YouTube as well.

Cost

Free. The Canva free plan is robust offers everything you need for crerating family history books. You’ll also find all the features you need to create shareable images or animations for your family history social groups.

However, additional features and functionality are available with a Canva Pro subscription. Find all the details over on their pricing page.

Family History Templates

The Canva template library doesn’t include anything specifically for family history books, but there are many options for covers that you could easily adjust to fit your project.

However, a number of Family History templates for Canva can be purchased from the Etsy marketplace. Search “family history Canva” to see what’s currently available.

Can’t find anything you like? Start with a blank canvas, then add elements (shapes, image placeholders and graphics) to create your own design.

Images

Canva has so many options for accessing your images or using stock photos, all without leaving the program.

Using your photos

  • Upload media such as images, videos and audio directly from your device
  • Also integrate Canva with your Google Drive, Box, Dropbox or Flickr to access any pictures stored there

Adding stock photos

  • Choose from thousands of free images (or purchase premium ones) from the Canva Library
  • Search and insert images from the free stock photo libraries Pixabay and Pexels
  • Upload stock images you’ve downloaded or purchased from another library

Editing images

Of course, Canva offers a large selection of frames or grids to add image placeholders to your design. These placeholders are one of my favourite things because you can:

  • Drag and drop a photo into the placeholder, even if an image is already inside. No need to delete the original photo first.
  • Use the crop tool to adjust the image within the placeholder
  • Resizing the placeholder resizes the image, so it’s still the best fit
  • There’s also a library of different shapes, including negatives, polaroids, letters and even a square linked frame for creating a family tree.

You can also use one of the many filters or photo treatments to create a cohesive look and feel throughout the document (e.g. greyscale images).

Stand-out features

  • The image placeholders (aka frames and grids within Canva) because of the varied selection, flexible and easy-to-use
  • You can add also Google Maps to your design from within Canva
  • Lock objects such as the background or overlays to make it easier to select smaller objects
  • Choose from trending styles therefore removing the overwhelm of choosing fonts and colours
  • Use pre-built text blocks or create your own and take advantage of a variety of effects without the learning curve

Also you can export print-resolution PDF with bleed and crop marks.

Limitations

  • Files have a limit of 100 pages though you can add as many files as the storage limit allows.
  • Custom fonts are only available with a Canva Pro account, but there is an extensive library of free fonts.
  • A free account allows a maximum of 5GB of cloud storage for all your uploads and files.
  • There is no automated page numbering, headers, or footers, so you’ll need to add manually to every page.
  • The resize functionality is only available with a Canva Pro account, so you’ll want to get the dimensions right when you set up the file.

2. Vista Create

Cloud based graphic design app Vista Create suitable for creating family history books
Cloud based graphic design app, Vista Create (formerly Crello)

Next up is Vista Create, formerly known as Crello. It’s a cloud-based graphic editor marketed as a social media design maker. It’s excellent for creating animations, but you can also use it to create print-ready documents of any size. In the same way as Canva, you can use it via your favourite web browser or download the app to your smart device. Plus, all your files are saved in the cloud, so you can access them wherever you are.

Level of difficulty

Easy to slightly difficult to learn. Vista Create makes life easy for non-designers to make files for print or online use. Furthermore there is a searchable Help Centre and a library of tutorials to guide you every step of the way.

Cost

Another app that is free on the starter plan. This plan allows you to upload images, videos, and fonts. You can also edit the default colour palette to add 3 of your own selections. Additionally, you’ll find features and functionality are available with a Vista Create Pro subscription. Find out more on their pricing page.

Family History Templates

There are no family history-specific templates in the Vista Create library, but you will find templates that can be adapted to suit your project. Choose “ebook” or “photo book” from the preset sizes so that you can access all the templates and resize the project when you’re done.

In spite of this being an established app, I couldn’t find any Vista Create templates in any online market place.

Can’t find anything you like? Start with a blank canvas, then add elements (shapes, image placeholders and graphics) to create your own design.

Images

Vista Create has three options to source photos from within the program.

  1. Upload images directly from your device (max 50Mb images)
  2. Also choose from thousands of free pictures from the Vista Create Library
  3. Purchase affordable images from the Deposit Photos selection

Vista Create also has a library of masks, collages, and electronics to add image placeholders to your design. In addition, you can add photo filters to these images to create a cohesive look and feel throughout the document (e.g. greyscale images).

Stand-out features

  • Firstly, create folders to organise your image uploads
  • Add an image inside a headline using the photo text mask
  • Also upload fonts you have purchased or have a license to use.
  • Use pre-built text blocks or create your own and take advantage of a variety of effects
  • Finally, it’s easy to duplicate and reorder pages

Furthermore you can export print-resolution PDF with bleed and crop marks.

Limitations

  • There is no automated page numbering, headers, or footers, so you’ll need to add manually to every page.
  • A total of five design downloads per month with a free account.
  • Templates are only visible by choosing the preset page sizes. If you change the size, then you lose access to that set of templates.
  • Accordingly custom styles for Heading, Subheading and Body Text require a Pro account.

3. Desygner

Cloud based graphic design app Desynger suitable for creating family history books
Cloud based graphic design app, Desygner

Marketed as a graphic design tool for non-designers, Desygner is accessible from your computer or smart device on any platform. Either use the online editor via your favourite web browser or download the app for iOS or Android.

Level of difficulty

Easy to slightly difficult to learn. Desygner has been explicitly created for non-designers to produce files for print or use online. Therefore several support options are available – tutorials, the help centre, or the blog. Most information is aimed at the beginner level, so you’ll be able to create in the shortest time frame possible.

Cost

Free. The Desygner free plan has all the features you need to create a book, binder pages or create shareable images and animations for your family history social groups.

Additionally, you’ll find other features and functionality available with a Desygner Pro or Business subscription. Find out more on their pricing page.

Family History Templates

While Desygner has thousands of free templates, there is nothing specifically for family history books. You can choose from many ebook cover pages to resize for the project, but you’ll need to create the internal page design yourself.

I was unable to find any Desygner templates available in online market places but you are able to use the blank canvas to create your own.

Images

Desygner has quite a few options for accessing your images without leaving the program.

  • Upload pictures directly from your device
  • Also integrate Desygner with your Facebook account or pages you manage
  • Connect to Google Drive or Dropbox to access images stored there

Desygner also has a library of frames, stock images and icons to add to your design. And yes, there are photo filters you can apply to your pictures to create a cohesive look and feel throughout the document (e.g. greyscale images).

Stand-out features

  • You can import and edit existing PDF files (max. 10 pages)
  • Also resize any design with one-click
  • Remove backgrounds from images
  • Create folders to organise your designs
  • Easy to duplicate and reorder pages

You can also export print-resolution PDF with bleed and crop marks.

Desygner also has some of the best text formatting functionality, such as:

  • Add single lines of text as well as text boxes
  • Highlight words or blocks of copy
  • Convert text blocks from single to multiple columns
  • Add an adjustable outline to text or shapes

Limitations you need to know

  • No automated page numbering, headers or footers.
  • Using designs from different templates may add multiple page sizes to your file.
  • The Help Centre isn’t obviously available from within the editor.
  • At times the program can be sluggish to respond to requests.

4. Google Docs

Cloud based graphic design app Google Docs suitable for creating family history books
Cloud based graphic design app, Google Docs

Google Docs is a cloud-based word processor for creating short or long text-based documents. Short like letters or long like reports or family history books. You can access it via your favourite web browser or download the app to your smart device. Plus, all your files are saved in your Google Drive, so you can access them from any computer or location.

Level of difficulty

Easy to learn. Google Docs comes with a plethora of support. You’ll find a searchable knowledge base available via the Help menu, plus a series of training modules to improve your skills. If you can’t find the answer in Google Docs, try either relevant forums or YouTube.

Cost

Free. You can access all the features of Google Docs for free. The only limitation is storage, and you receive 15 GB for free when you register for a Google Account. Additional storage can be purchased if required.

Family History Templates

Google Docs does have a variety of templates available via the gallery but nothing precisely for family history books. Of course, you can use any of the report templates and adapt them to fit your project.

You can also use templates purchased from the Creative Family Historian store. Follow the instructions provided with each template to add it to your Google Drive.

Can’t find anything you like? Start with a blank page, add text, apply styles and add elements (shapes, tables, charts, images and graphics) to create your own design.

Images

Google Docs has many options for accessing your images or stock photos without leaving the document. Whenever you insert or replace a photo, you’ll have the chance to:

  • Upload pictures directly from your device
  • Search the web for a specific topic
  • Use images saved on your Google Drive or in Google Photos
  • Add pictures via its URL (e.g. add photos from Facebook)
  • Take photos with your device’s camera

When using images other than your own, always check the copyright licensing to ensure that you have permission to include that photo. Instead if in doubt, leave it out.

Stand-out features

  • Google Marketplace has a library of valuable add-ons to increase functionality
  • Easy-to-add header, footer, and page number
  • Access to the entire Google Fonts library
  • Find and replace words or phrases
  • Ability to see and restore historical versions

Furthermore, if using the Chrome web browser, you have access to the voice-to-text functionality

Limitations

  • No option to export as an image file.
  • Can’t add bleed or include crop marks in the PDF.
  • The number of styles you can create is limited to nine.

5. Google Slides

Cloud based graphic design app Google Slides suitable for creating family history books
Cloud based graphic design app, Google Slides

Google Slides is a cloud-based presentation program, but it’s capable of creating so much more than slide decks. It’s suitable for online graphics, social media images, invitations and workbooks, and creating family history books. You can access it via your favourite web browser or download the app to your smart device. Plus, all your files are saved in your Google Drive, so you can access them from any computer or location.

It provides similar advantages and features to Google Docs and has a unique functionality that makes it worth considering on its own merits.

Level of difficulty

Easy to learn. Google Slides comes with a plethora of support. You’ll find a searchable knowledge base available via the Help menu, plus a series of training modules to improve your skills. If you can’t find the answer in Google Slides, try either relevant forums or YouTube.

Cost

Free. You can access all the features of Google Slides for free. The only limitation is storage, and you receive 15 GB for free when you register for a Google Account. Additional storage can be purchased if required.

Family History Templates

Google Slides doesn’t come with inbuilt family history book templates. However, Family History templates for Google Slides can be purchased from Etsy and Creative Family Historian stores. Search “family history google slides” to see what’s currently available. 

Can’t find anything you like? Start with a blank page, add text, apply styles and add elements (shapes, tables, charts, images and graphics) to create your own design.

Images

Google Slides has many options for accessing your images or stock photos without leaving the document. Whenever you insert or replace a photo, you’ll have the chance to:

  • Upload pictures directly from your device
  • Search the web for a specific topic
  • Use images saved on your Google Drive or in Google Photos
  • Add pictures via its URL (e.g. add photos from Facebook)
  • Take photos with your device’s camera

When using images other than your own, always check the copyright licensing to ensure that you have permission to include that photo. Instead, if in doubt, leave it out.

Stand-out features

  • Firstly, no known page limit
  • Easy-to-change the page size
  • Add repeatable elements to master slides
  • Invite collaborators to view or edit
  • Instant access to the Google Fonts library

Limitations

  • Can’t add bleed or include crop marks in the standard PDF export.
  • There is no ability to create custom styles, though fonts can be set in the Master slide.

Creating family history books

Not that long ago, there were limited options available for creating family history books for print. Generally, it meant an investment in expensive software that wasn’t easy to use or hiring an equally costly designer.
Now, we’re spoiled for choice. Of course, premium or paid software is still the best option for providing the most flexibility and features, but it’s no longer the only one.

You can produce a beautiful family history book using a free cloud-based app. These are generally easy-to-use and an excellent solution for family historians who prefer to format their own books. And there is plenty of help along the way as these apps usually have a plethora of tutorials and support.

Another upside is the growing market of ready-to-use family history book templates that you can purchase in trusted online marketplaces (or The Creative Family Historian Template Store).

At the start of each project, assess what you need and take the time to select the right app for the job. Start with the print shop requirements, create a list of necessary criteria, and finally assess each app against it. Don’t forget to consider whether there’s a learning curve before you can get started.

It’s much easier to get the foundation right in setup than have a messy resize. Or worse, you have to change apps halfway through your project. So, if several apps meet the base requirements, go with the one where you have the most experience.

Your next step

Finally, download the Heritage Book Design Roadmap to get the six-steps to follow on your next next family history book project.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Select your currency
EUREuro