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Ramp up the Research

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

This is the time to start really diving into research, because as far away as it sounds, March will be here before you know it. And the time has most certainly passed for relying on Google for the bulk of your resources. A new year means a new approach, and thus new sources.

Take a look at the sources and information you have gathered so far. Are they mainly from websites? Are the books you’ve read mostly general histories about your subject? Do you find that you need pretty specific information to fill in some research gaps?

If the answers are yes, then it’s time to move on to primary sources and narrower secondary sources. For example, if you are researching the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, and you have used mainly websites and books about the Civil War, it is time to find some books just about the Battle of Gettysburg and perhaps some letters or journals written by soldiers who were there. To find these resources, check the bibliographies of your other sources; authors will often list the books and resources they used to do their resources. You can also ask librarians or teachers for help.

If you find that you need the words of someone involved in your event, don’t just search quote websites such as Brainy Quote. Technically, these quotes are not primary sources because they are only one piece of a larger document, and when someone else has edited a larger document, it becomes secondary. See if you can find your historical figure’s personal papers online or at a library. For example, if you need to find quotes from Abraham Lincoln, check out the Library of Congress American Memory site, which has digitized hundreds of Lincoln’s papers.

You may get frustrated trying to find sources, but in most cases, the sources are out there somewhere. Search government and university websites, ask for help, and check the bibliographies of your sources — one of those will usually lead you to your goal.

And Here They Are … The Top Ten History Day Research Tips

Monday, November 1st, 2010

As we roll into November, more students across Minnesota are beginning the History Day research process. Whether you are knee-deep in primary sources at this point or have just opened your first encyclopedia, here are some helpful hints to guide you along your research path.

  1. Start your research with secondary sources. Once you have a basic understanding of your topic and its context and impact, it will be easier to find and comprehend the primary sources that you discover.
  2. Be wary of Internet sources. Wikipedia is convenient, but not 100% reliable. Make sure that the information you are collecting from the Internet is from reputable sources.
  3. Learn how to use sources as springboards. Most scholarly works will have bibliographies in the back that you can use to find other relevant sources.
  4. Read sources with a wary eye. You will find sources with information that conflicts with other sources, sources that have bias, and sources that force you to read between the lines. A wide variety of sources will help you draw conclusions when you run into these research difficulties.
  5. Don’t forget that primary sources can be a variety of different things. Newspapers and letters are primary sources, yes, but so are government documents, diaries, pamphlets, advertisements, commercials, historic sites, telegrams, paintings, court case decisions and autobiographies, among others.
  6. Use interviews if you can get them. Primary interviews, with witnesses to your event, are outstanding sources, and secondary interviews, with professors or other experts, can give you direction.
  7. There is no magic number of History Day sources. A solid project with good research will probably not be based on one or two sources, but that doesn’t mean you have to have 100 sources, either. Research until all your questions are answered to your satisfaction and you can prove your thesis.
  8. There is no perfect source. You will not find an 1850 diary entry from Harriet Tubman that explains exactly why and how she decided to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It is your job, as a historian, to find the information you need from various sources.
  9. Continue researching, even if you think you’ve found everything. You never know where you might find an amazing source. Visit public and academic libraries, archives, and historical societies to seek out additional sources.
  10. Ask for help. Don’t hesitate to ask if you feel stuck or frustrated or lost. Librarians, archivists, teachers and the History Day staff are all here to help you, and chances are you’ll be more successful if you have someone help you than if you ignore your questions.

Going to State? Do more research!

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

If you have been chosen as a regional finalist and are headed to state on May 1, it would be a really good idea to polish and increase your resources. Although it is important what your final project looks like, it is even more important that your research is as solid as it can be. Judges will be surveying your bibliography very critically to make sure that you have sought out a variety of reliable sources. Take these next few weeks as an opportunity to improve not only the look of your exhibit or the costumes of your performance, but also the primary and secondary sources that have illuminated your topic.

This is also a good time to reevaluate your bibliography and make sure that your sources are listed correctly. Make sure that all of your primary sources are actually primary. Remember that a primary source is a source that was created at the time of an event or created by a witness to an event. Timelines, general information websites, most biographies, individual quotes and sources that are current but have given you a lot of information are not primary. The judges will be checking to make sure that all your sources are listed properly, so ask a teacher, parent or History Day staffer to determine if your sources are correct.

Chronicling America - Minnesota Newspapers Digitized and Online

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

There is exciting progress in the effort to digitize historic newspapers in Minnesota!

The Minnesota Historical Society has been working with the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), thanks to a grant made possible by NEH and the Library of Congress.  They have just finished their first grant cycle and have digitized and made available online 25 years of The Saint Paul Globe Newspaper (and its earlier titles: Daily Globe and St. Paul Daily Globe), from 1880-1905 and one year of the Minneapolis Journal newspaper (1901).

These newspapers can be found on the Chronicling America website –

In the next grant cycle more years of the Journal will be added, as well as several other newspaper titles from around Minnesota.  About 15 other states also have newspapers up on Chronicling America. Compared to the days of looking at microfilm, Chronicling America is an amazing resource – both for the ability to view the newspapers and to search their content online.  Images can be downloaded and printed out.

You can search by newspaper and year, and can search individual newspaper pages using a keyword search.  The keyword search is particularly neat and is an extremely fast way to search for information on your topic. This is a great way to access primary sources and find visuals for your projects in the form of newspaper headlines and political cartoons.

If you are doing a Minnesota topic be sure to check out the website!

Happy Researching! - Laura

Primary Resources Online

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Some of you may have students who are already thinking about primary sources for their History Day projects. But even if that step is far in the future for you and your students, it’s not a bad idea to start compiling a list of reliable websites where students can access some excellent primary sources. Of course, we always encourage students to get their hands on actual primary sources at libraries and archives, but the Internet is becoming a better and better resource for young researchers.

Here are a few sites that have some excellent primary sources available:

Library of Congress American Memory: Encourage your students to narrow the field as much as possible by choosing specific collections. The Teachers’ section of this website also has some excellent, subject-sorted sources.

National Archives History Day Resources: The Archives assembled some of their sources related to particular Innovation topics, as well as connections to other topics within the subject areas.

Harvard University Library Open Collections: Harvard has collected some intriguing sources based on four different topics — Women and Work, Immigration, Diseases and Epidemics, and Expeditions and Discoveries. Women Working is particularly helpful.

Yale Law School Avalon Project: The documents from Yale Law span several thousand years, although more are available in recent centuries. The topics are mainly law and diplomacy.

Famous Trials: A law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City has assembled documents and context about more than 50 famous trials, from the Trial of Socrates to the Trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

American Journeys: This collection contains thousands of documents related to the exploration of America, from 1000 to 1844, including the journals of Lewis and Clark.

There are many more fantastic websites with extensive primary sources, but these are a few reliable sites with vast holdings. If you encounter others, feel free to pass along the tip!