Kathi Ann Brown
Milestones Historical Consultants, LLC
Studio IX: What is it that you do?
Kathi Brown: I use the term historical consultant. In a nutshell, large companies or organizations hire me to research their histories and then (usually) pull together a book. I also write CEO biographies. Bill Marriott of Marriott hotels is probably the best-known of the CEOs I’ve worked with in the past. Sometimes I work on exhibits. Sometimes I do freestanding oral history programs where there's no final product in mind. The client simply wants to capture key people on tape before they’re no longer with us. I've been a consultant now for more than 30 years.
Studio IX: What's an example of one of the exhibits?
Kathi Brown: The most recent major one was a museum for U.S. Steel in Houston. They wanted an exhibit about their pipe making process. Sounds like a snoozer, right? For me, it was fascinating because I knew absolutely nothing about steel. So I got to tour one of their plants and then pull together a permanent exhibit that an average person can walk through and learn how pipes are tailor-made to suit geology, geography, depth, pressure, distance.
Studio IX: What aspect of the work do you enjoy the most?
Kathi Brown: The research. I call it detective work. I love digging into the past. I can spend hours happily chasing down information. The Internet has been a boon to me because a lot of archives and libraries have been uploading their collections, particularly old magazines, newspapers, journals.
Studio IX: What are you most passionate about? How does that play a role in what you do, if it does?
Kathi Brown: That's a good question. I'm naturally curious and think of myself as a perennial student. If I could retire right now, I would spend my time taking classes and traveling. I love learning about something totally new to me. That's where my career has been just amazing. I know how to go about doing research and I know how to pull it all together into a book, but I often don't know the subject matter in depth. So I have the challenge and fun of mastering a new topic. I actually think it's a benefit to the client because I approach a client’s history with fresh eyes and few assumptions. I often say I'm paid to be a student.
Studio IX: What's an aspect of your work that might surprise people? Or maybe even surprises you about it?
Kathi Brown: Surprises me? How often certain events in history play into my clients' lives or a company’s history. The Great Depression, for example. I have clients whose organizations started before, during or after the 1930s, but the Great Depression touched all of them in some way. Maybe the company struggled to survive the bad economic times. Or perhaps an entrepreneur grew up during the Depression years and the experience affected his attitude about using debt to finance expansion. I often find echoes of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in my clients’ stories. A lot of cool cutting-edge technology was showcased at that world’s fair in Chicago. World War II also often figures heavily in my research. The war and its aftermath permanently affected tens of millions of lives.
Sometimes I run into the attitude that the past doesn’t matter. Tech companies, in particular, often like to think that they’re too busy inventing the future to care about what happened years ago. But no organization or effort or invention occurs in a vacuum. Every success, every innovation has a long list of people and precursors who laid the groundwork, often decades earlier, which allowed the current generation of inventors to do what they do. I findthat continuum fascinating.
I always tell my clients that there’s a good story to be told about why any particular individual or group of people at a particular moment in time came up with a particular idea and ran with it. Personal factors. Economic factors. Social factors. Political factors. Digging out that story is what jazzes me. Many times I can surprise my clients by the connections I find that predate what they think of as their history. I wrote a 125thanniversary history of Northern Trust Bank in Chicago a few years ago and they were bowled over by the long-forgotten gems about the bank’s founder and early years that I dug out of public sources.
Studio IX: Why do you liking working at Studio IX? At least I assume you do!
Kathi Brown: Absolutely! I had a home office for about 30 years. It seemed liked the most sensible thing to do. Why rent office space when I've got a spare bedroom at home? But I struggled to separate home and work. I was not being as productive as I needed to be. When Studio IX started, it took me about a year to come take a look. I finally popped in one morning to do a free trial day. Within an hour I went up to the front desk and told your predecessor that I was ready then and there to sign on. I used to go to the libraries on Grounds occasionally to get away from home, but here at Studio Ix, I’m surrounded by fellow professionals, not students, so it feels like a real workplace. And for two years now I’ve sat at the same desk every day…a bit like Norm, who had ‘his’ bar stool on “Cheers.” J