Other Wise

Odobenus rosmarus

Daughter, beginning student of Latin: “Mom, does that mean the walrus smells good?”


Recently, I heard a scholar explain his inability to supply information with what I think of as the “oral history excuse:” knowledge on that subject must be closely held within a Native community because he’d never heard of it.

I tried not to smile as the thought flew through my head: That’s the inverse of  the “white purge excuse:” primary sources can’t possibly exist because of the long-standing conspiracy to cover up.

Both paraphrase: “I can’t find any evidence for or against my theory, but it is pointless to inquire when the sources are controlled by secret forces.”


The ground is shifting beneath our feet in the research world. On good days it feels disconcerting. On bad days it feels scary. Or maybe I was just naive. Five years ago someone with a PhD assured me that I could write a book, and if I did a solid job of research, count on the story having “ten-year legs.”

Thanks to digitization and connectivity, stories change every day.  To get to my next book I will have to rig mental blinders to block out leads that were not available to me two years ago, researching the first one.

Doesn’t that sound like another excuse? “Been there, done that. Onward and upward.”

It’s the conundrum others try to explain away with the idea that nameless, faceless Boogeymen control the sources. To produce a product –presentation, documentary, book –we must call an end to information collection.

Who wants to think that the research was stale even while it was being conducted? Far gentler to posit that we are smart people thwarted by a more powerful, invisible Other.

Otherwise we’ll have to own up to the fact that none of us is an authority. And if we are not an authority, why would anyone hire our services? Consider our grant? Read our book?


There is dawning recognition that what is good for us (as authors) is also good for history. The perceived prestige of  authorial “authority” is beginning to cede to the good –to the breadth –of our work.

We can’t not collaborate. Unless the point is to produce a dry, wholesome cracker of a story. Even if we manage to sell it, we’ll have our socks revised off by the people with whom we might have collaborated to our mutual benefit.

Why? Not because sources are so rare we must hoard them or so difficult only professionals can interpret them. Rather, there are so many sources to consider that if we don’t open our arms to give and  to receive, it will be hard for any of us to tell a meaningful story.

Collaboration is also a path of reconciliation. It says, “I want to listen. Your stories enrich mine.” Even if it takes years.

It is the opposite of making excuses that let us off the hook –excuses that leave us, walrus-like, insulated in the blubber of our own authority.

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