Forgotten Names Recalled: The Singapore Cenotaph Project


After 1,200 hours of unpaid work I've decided to stop keeping count. A record was necessary because the project's small amount of financial support was given on the basis of S$58k--S$59K total cost. My time alone has far exceeded that amount.

The cost of printing, photograph sourcing and permissions payments, website hosting, genealogical, archival and other site memberships for accessing records and payments for those records to be downloaded and used, not to mention having a couple of part-time assistants to take on the cropping, resizing, watermarking of said documents to be uploaded have swallowed our miniscule allowance. Book design, cover, typography are all donated by my tiny company, in other words me again.

The airfare from Singapore to London were never a factor in the grant application since I was going anyway and in any event overseas travel is disallowed as a recoverable cost.

None of this is in any way a complaint. While keeping tabs on spending is a nuisance it is a necessity. To do it neatly for a grant report is a bit of a worry but it will be done.

No, what this blog post concerns is a celebration of other people like me who for reasons known only to themselves -- or perhaps, as in my case, not altogether certain -- are spending thousands accumulating into collective millions of unpaid hours tracking down the names on their local war memorials and sharing their findings.

These people aren't newly motivated by the surge of interest brought on by the World War One Centenary, as the snide little quips of television presenters imply. My own home town has a book Portadown Heroes: A Tribute to the Men Commemorated on Portadown War Memorial by James S. Kane published in 2007. For some reason  -- Not stocked in local shops? -- it passed me by.

This, I'm sure, is a familiar scenario all over the world where the bins and shelves at the entrance to book shops are filled with the books of big names from big publishers who have big budgets to pay the book shops to place their products there. Books aren't different, they are products to be sold for profit ... except when they are produced to be a permanent record of almost forgotten history.

So, the lessons in this blog post are:
  1. Don't assume there are no books on a local history topic that interests you. They're just not on the shelves.
  2. Don't assume that a grant means the person who produced the book actually made any money -- as one stupid woman said to me yesterday, 'I see you got loads of money.' A local history book will cost the writers/researchers a great deal more in cash from their own pockets and time spent volunteering not earning than they will ever make back on sales or from grants.
  3.  Don't assume that if the book shops are actually stocking the books that the writer earns anything like the amount you are paying for it. More likely s/he will get 10% or less, probably 6 to 12 months after you've bought it.
  4. Don't assume the publisher is making any effort to market the book. If a grant was used to pay for publishing then the publisher has made his money already and any profit (up to 40% of sales price) is just a bonus. Something that has 'only' local interest often means the writer has to do the marketing and distribution.
  5.  Don't assume that self-publishing is a bad thing. If publishers have no up-front financial motivation they won't touch the book, not matter how well researched, well written and well presented. Rejection is not the same as unfit for purpose. Financially unviable is the most common reason for rejection
  6. Don't assume that the book cover and format are at all important for a book on local history. The title is what you're interested in. The content is the most important of all. Know that if a book is self-published, then you're getting a bargain because there's no cut for a design artist, publishing staff and, if you buy direct, the book distributor. In fact, it's highly unlikely that a book distributor would lower himself to take on a self-published book, so only the writer, the printer and the bookseller get their cut.
Local history books are not about bestsellers and big names. They're about your people, their past, your future. They're about securing a record of documents in one volume and making them accessible to you and to your descendants. Even if the book ends up in a charity shop ten years from now it has and will continue to share knowledge and keep informing. How it came into being is entirely thanks to one or two or a few people who gave up time and put in effort and took nothing from it except the satisfaction of creating a record for the future -- book shops, printers, publishers, distributors aside.
Rosemary Lim has a Master of Philosophy in Publishing Studies and a Master of Arts in Writing.
Rosemary Lim