Commissioning a history

Work that relies on an input of historical information is best placed in the hands of an accredited professional historian.

Every person and every organisation has a story to tell. A recorded history is a tangible way of both preserving and sharing the story of your school, business, company, charity, church, union, community group, local or regional council, government department, family or local area. Recording your history contributes to a better understanding of our society and our world. While you may only want to mark a specific event or anniversary, you need good historical research, writing and presentation to provide a clear understanding of your role, culture and significance.

Anyone may commission historical work but care must be taken to find the right person for the job. The compilation of good history is a specialised activity that requires sound historical knowledge, and research and writing skills, combined with an appreciation of how to present information. So go for the best the accredited professional historian!

Professional historians are adept at preparing material for specific audiences, and they do more than write books and articles.

Apart from commissioning a publication, you may wish to have a professional historian undertake specific historical research, write a report, conduct a heritage survey or an individual heritage study, manage or contribute historical research to heritage conservation and other projects, obtain documentary evidence, conduct an oral history program, undertake research on a legal matter or for a court case, present an evaluation, or provide advice on a historical matter. Professional historians can provide advice in areas ranging from modest displays to complex, long-term exhibitions, along with associated supporting material. They play a critical role in producing heritage booklets, walking trail or driving tour guides, museum exhibitions, promotional material, film and radio presentations, and multi-media productions.

In selecting a professional historian, the client needs to be mindful of the purpose of the work being commissioned. Some historians will be more skilled than others in specialist areas; for example, biographies, historical overviews, particular subjects or themes, the preparation of a statement of evidence in a court case, or thematic storylines in heritage registers. Some of the other specialist areas where historians skills, particularly in research and analysis, are crucial are in preparing texts for school and other educational purposes, background briefings, native title cases, patent searches, writing or assessing heritage citations and resolving disputes over heritage significance, determining geographical boundaries, identifying sites of environmental damage, assessing sites for mining operations, resolving genealogical dilemmas, providing evidence in court cases and so on.

Why employ an accredited professional historian?

Professional historians accredited by Professional Historians Australia prepare and present historical material under accepted standards. They are qualified to bring broad historical knowledge, objectivity, and strong research and writing skills to a history project. The process of producing accurate, thorough and lively history is time consuming and complex. That is why you need a professional historian who has the skills and experience to identify, collect and interpret research materials, obtain oral history and visual materials, and produce an engaging manuscript that places your story into a wider historical context.

The skills of a professional historian complement those of other professionals such as archivists, archaeologists, anthropologists, architects, planners and lawyers. Professional historians can also play an integral role when implementing records management and archival practices; for example, in advising on appraisal and disposal of records.

Who is your intended audience?

Your intended audience may be determined by the purpose of your history, particularly where a specific report is required or in legal cases. Where the purpose of commissioning a history is more general (e.g. a history of an organisation, a local history, a family history, or a historically-based exhibition), the potential audience needs to be considered.

The principal audience may be people within a specific organisation or family. Such historical work will be presented in a very different way to a history commissioned to underpin or accompany an historical display, or for a widely-distributed publication or other product where a variety of people will need explanations of or orientation to the subject of the history. A history aimed at a specific community will be very different to a history aimed at professional or commercial peers, or potential clients.

A professional historian can help identify the audience and the most appropriate end product to suit your intended audience.

What is the best way to tell your history?

Those commissioning a history often think first of a book, be it coffee table or scholarly. However, a booklet or a collection of oral histories might best suit the purpose. Or would a radio program, audio-visual production or exhibition tell your story better? Perhaps a CD-ROM, multi-media presentation or website would reach more of your audience, or you may be planning a series of seminars or public talks, or a celebratory event themed around the purpose of the history (e.g. an anniversary).

Regardless of your desired end-product, you will be able to find a professional historian with the necessary skills and experience to present your history. Indeed, professional historians can provide sound advice on appropriate presentation techniques. They can also oversee or advise on the production of an attractive end-product be it a book, exhibition, website or primarily visual formats such as illustrated histories or comic strips for children.

What resources do you have?

An organisation or individual may have written records and photographs. You may also have information about other sources such as people of interest, or knowledge of other sources of information. You may also provide equipment, office space and administrative assistance. In cases where little information seems to be available, it is not uncommon for a professional historian to uncover material that ultimately proves to be valuable. Historians are well versed in seeking out a wide range of material in libraries, archives, museums and private hands.

Importantly, you need to consider how to fund the production of the history.

What will a history cost?

The cost of employing a professional historian will depend on the scope of the history you decide to commission. Some organisations and individuals find it helpful to engage a professional historian to assist in designing the project and in selecting the person who will undertake it.

The budget should include the historians professional fees, fees for any research assistance, a allowance for research outlays (for example, for photocopying, obtaining documents from research repositories and government departments, audio or video-cassette tapes and CDs, scanning, copying or purchasing photographs, maps and other visual materials) and the cost of any travel or associated expenses. The expenditure on the finished product may include printing and associated publication costs, the payment of reproduction fees, editing and/or proofreading, indexing, marketing fees for a publication, programming and reproduction costs for a CD-ROM, fees for website presentations, the copying and distribution costs for reports and documents.

The Professional Historians Association of Queensland (PHA Qld) website includes an up-to-date recommended Scale of Fees, as recommended by our national body PHA. The fee charged by a professional historian will depend upon their qualifications and experience, and the type and time period of the specific project.

Briefs and contracts

After discussion with the professional historian selected for the work, a clear brief and contract needs to be drawn up. Generally a brief needs to be agreed upon before the formal contract is finalised.
A brief could include a short account of the background of the project, an outline of the scope and scale of the work, the timetable, method of presentation, archival resources known to be available, requirements for consultation with or briefing of interested parties, and budget.

A contract needs to include deadlines, schedule of payments, royalty payments, particular conditions, access to records, rights and obligations of both parties (including copyright), confidentiality provisions, coordination responsibilities, insurance requirements and a procedure for dealing with any disputes that may arise, including circumstances where the client is unwilling to accept the historians recommendations.

How to find an accredited professional historian

The PHA (Qld) website includes a directory of consultant historians who are qualified and experienced to undertake commissioned historical work. You may decide to invite proposals from registered individuals. In particular, PHA (Qld) offers a fast track employment service to members and to assist potential clients, by electronically transmitting information and queries about potential contracts through our regular eBulletin which is sent out to all members.

PHA (Qld) members can assist you to determine the type and length of history you need and a budget that takes into account the Scale of Fees recommended for the engagement of accredited professional historians in Australia. PHA (Qld) can provide advice regarding contracts, timeframes and so on. In effect, PHA (Qld) can help you to ensure that appropriate professional standards are maintained.

PHA (Qld) can advertise the position on your behalf direct to its members. If you decide to advertise or call for tenders through newspapers or other media, your organisation should consider specifying that applicants must be eligible for accreditation as professional historians. Consideration could also be given to engaging a professional historian to assist with the interview and employment process and/or to sit on the committee overseeing the project.