By Juliana Adelman
A very small item caught my eye in the Irish Times‘s weekend magazine. Turtle Bunbury, a freelance historian, is offering to write personal histories on commission. Those of us who won’t be appearing on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘ can still get the same service. You give him the names and professions of each generation of your family and he will produce an illustrated history. Essays of undergrad length (2,000 words) cost €495. A ‘book’ of 25,000 words costs €6,500 plus printing costs. Genius: you write the equivalent of an MPhil dissertation except you get paid for it. Compare this to the grants in aid of publication which most of us will be asked to find for academic books and it seems like Bunbury is on to a winner. Sharpening your pencils? At almost €4/word this is definitely on the high end for freelance writing. I understand from a freelance journalist friend that she gets about €0.30/word. And it’s not like she can just make it all up, she has to do research as well. Perhaps genealogical research might be somewhat more time consuming, but more than 10 times as difficult? I doubt it. What are you getting from Mr Bunbury in return for his hard work? Writing samples from his book on the D’Arcy family are available on his website. These are at the level of an advanced undergraduate. There is no doubt that Bunbury understands how to do genealogical research and he seems to have managed to amass quite a bit of material on the family in question. But check out the ‘Origins of the D’Arcy Family‘; it’s what you might call essay-by-google. Presumably he need not rewrite this essay if he gets another D’Arcy client. On the other hand, Bunbury has managed to unearth a lot of detail about individuals which it would be quite difficult to replicate, one would think, for every client. For example, a man who was to marry into the D’Arcy clan left a journal of their voyage to Australia which appears to have been included in a collection of diaries printed by Lilliput in 1998. In fact, the bibliography to the piece tells most of what you need to know. Among the nine works cited are two peerages, two dictionaries of biography and a book on Irish generals. This is not the biography of Famine emigrants, but of generations of professionals. I imagine after a few books Bunbury can simply slot new names and details into an existing framework. Nevertheless, I think Bunbury is on to something and I expect he’ll get a good few clients before Christmas. And he’s certainly made me think about how historians might put their skills to commercial use. Obviously there are plenty of professional genealogy services, but Bunbury is offering something more. The more sophisticated version of the ‘history of me’ he offers has been facilitated by digitising and opening many sources to the public. I’m not sure if enabling commercial history is exactly what funding bodies had in mind when they gave millions to digital projects. On the other hand, there are now so many PhDs that we may all need to think outside the academic box. By the way, the picture is not of me, it’s of Karl Marx’s daughter Laura and it can be found on Wikimedia Commons. In fact, there’s quite enough pictures of the Marx family on Wikimedia for you to produce your own illustrated history of them. I don’t think they’ll pay you €4 per word, though.