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'Writing the stories of change'

Regional researcher: 'Golden, beckoning'

Deborah Morse-Khan at work in an archeological site.
Deborah Morse-Kahn here is surveying rock art (petroglyphs) on the sandstone bluffs above the Mississippi River near Winona, Minnesota, not far from La Crosse, Wisconsin.  


I'm director of Regional Research Associates (RRA), Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I started RRA in 1993 in response to a growing need to support cultural resource management (CRM) studies through the Upper Midwest. I supply project management, field research, publications development, and cultural resource studies in specialized land usage and stewardship, urban-rural geography, cultural and natural resources, ethnic and religious communities, demographics, corporate and/or community relations, historic preservation, architectural history and archaeology.

I'm also a published writer, contributing articles to many regional periodicals on aspects of regional history, corporate history and/or political history. I've published one regional history study which did very well, and have three more books in various topics -- archaeology, American history and regional history -- in the pipeline.

My research area is primarily in the "driftless" (unglaciated) areas of southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa.

Age and zodiacal sign

graphic As a regional researcher, particularly in archeology, Deborah Morse-Kahn has a special appreciation and understanding of the natural features of her surroundings. Would you enjoy this kind of work?

Definitely. Get me close to the land any day.
Maybe as an avocation but not full-time.
Not me. I'm a concrete-and-city-parks type.
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I'm 49 and thrilled to be so, what a great age. As for my sign: Pisces/Aquarius cusp sun, Capricorn moon, Sagittarius rising.


I have a BA in comparative cultures, 1979. I started law school and left (ewww!) in 1979. I have an MA in American regional studies and historiography (approaches to writing history), 1993. I'm, in essence, a historian-sociologist.

How did you get your current job?

I created it out of need. The bottom dropped out of federal funding for nonprofit institutions in the early 1990s and those of us in positions at state historical societies and research institutions saw drastic personnel budget cuts. I'd just finished graduate school and there was no way I was going back to my old life after working so hard for the new one.

So I took a 50-percent time appointment with a small endowed historical society in Minnesota and used the other 50 percent of my time (and 150 percent of my energy) to make a name for myself in the Upper Midwest. Ten years later I'm happily self-supporting, although in truth it often means no more than having just enough money after rent, insurance and cat food to go out to a movie. But it's a great life.

How many hours do you work per week?

As any independent contractor or free-lancer reading this knows, there's no such thing as a week -- or a weekend. Client deadlines are everything, and you work until you're through if those deadlines are a point of honor for you. But there are compensations in my work life: I go for mid-morning walks by the lake when I wish; see family or friends when I wish; have the freedom to play hooky in the middle of the week if everything is looking good. I never was able to adapt to a 9-to-5 job at a desk -- I'd go quite mad.

So this is a better mode for me. I do frequently take on large projects for institutions that require a fair commitment to on-site time but I negotiate well for myself and generally have as much freedom of movement as I need. So the client gets good work from me as a result of leaving me free to reach the objectives in my own way.

What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?

I have a home office so the first thing I do after coffee, cats and three newspapers (local, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal) is turn on a first-rate local news channel and listen while I'm reading beaucoup e-mails and scanning news sites:, Washington Post, C-Span (when Congress is in session).

What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?

I eat pretty much when I'm hungry. The day is really structured around one precious hour every day that I can walk for exercise, and that hour is quite variable depending on client meetings, coffee dates, administrative tasks, collections research, and family needs. If it's a client lunch, we're on sushi or pasta and glass of wine. If it's out at the home office, it could likely be cereal and milk and the last cup of the morning coffee. And some tuna for the cats. Homey, yes?

What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?

Truthfully? They don't much. I live an enchanted life. I work with a great range of specialists in related fields but they're not in my work space. We gather for meals or beverages to talk out plans, or meet up for field work if they're invited or subcontracting partners on a project I've taken on. It's a remarkably social existence but my work space being here at home is wonderfully sheltered.

If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?

Deborah Morse-Kahn
Deborah Morse-Kahn  

The absolute joy of controlling my work life, and that comes back to me every day when I look up from desk to the lake across the road and watch ducks fly in over the trees.

How much work, if any, do you take home?

Since my work is in my home, there's always the danger of endless piles of project research taking over everything. So I 'm constantly sorting and tidying to avoid becoming one of those dreaded junk house ladies you read about in the newspaper. You know, the ones with 75 cats?

What does your work contribute to society?

A very great deal, I hope. The time is passing quickly when we can point to a person, a spot on the Earth, a building, indeed anything and pretend we can "know" about it outside the context of its surroundings. So, the recent (decade-old) field of regional history studies the issues of era, community and culture while also focusing on particularly significant images from those times.

An excellent example would be studying a small town on the growing fringe of a large metropolitan area. At one time, perhaps in the post-World War II era, the farms and the families and the churches were as they had been for 100 years. With the sweep of the third- and fourth-tier suburbs coming out of the metropolitan city center, life is changing quickly for these small towns. Cornfields sprout starter castles; rail lines are taken up; fast pass-through roads are being built; big-box stores are coming up against Main Street farm-town shops. Writing the stories of this change -- what was and what is -- is vital.

Work of this kind is necessarily collaborative. It takes the cooperation of many differently skilled individuals and many supportive educational and community organizations. It is exciting, and sometimes saddening, but usually enormously rewarding. I meet so many fine people in my work, from every walk of life.

Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?


If you could have two more careers, what would they be?

Deborah Morse-Kahn tells us that in addition to her direction of Regional Research Associates, she's a co-founder and co-editor on the Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association, or UMRARA. That's one of four regional rock art (petroglyph) research associations in the United States. And we met Morse-Kahn when she used our submission form to tell us about her day on the job. You can do it, too. Just click here   and let us know you'd like your day considered for coverage at

A baroque vocal soloist (a career I walked away from 15 years ago), and a fiddle player -- Celtic and bluegrass, of course.

What's an unforgivable trait in a colleague?

(1)Territorialism. (2) Deceit.

What do you do to relieve stress?

I walk around the lake, I take long day-trips; I sing or listen to music.

What have you been reading lately?

I'm a rarity in that I am a woman who loves military history. I just finished Peter Fleming's 1957 study called "Operation Sea Lion," a consideration of Hitler's abortive plans to invade England in the summer of 1940. I've just started Shelby Foote's "Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863."

When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?

I'm blessed with work that has endless facets to it. On a day when I can't bear one more moment writing summary reports on historic preservation processes -- or another day inside the archives when it's golden and beckoning outside -- I make some sandwiches and grab my atlases of Minnesota and Wisconsin and bail out the door for a road trip to some other part of the state.

One hour east of St. Paul gets me down the Mississippi Great River Road in Wisconsin. Three hours southeast of Minneapolis brings me to my beloved Amish communities. Three hours directly west takes me to the high gravel shores of ancient glacial Lake Agassi where the prairie drops off so fast and so far that you can see storms coming in for uncountable miles.



• Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association (UMRARA)

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