Let’s Get Ready to Research!
Beginning Your History Day Research: Getting the Topic Right
Now that you’ve selected a great History Day topic, it’s time to begin your research!
Look at broad secondary sources that summarize the historical period and help you understand why your topic is important. (Hint: You’ll probably have to broaden or narrow your topic to fit your research findings. Don’t worry: some of the best projects expand and contract and shift several times before you compete.)
Help Me, There’s Too Much Information: Narrowing the Topic
Pretty often, we initially choose a topic that might be too big. Here’s a real-life example:
Researching the theme “Taking a Stand,” one student started with a general interest in the Pacific Theater of WWII and thought he wanted to focus on the marines taking one of the Pacific Islands, probably Iwo Jima.
However, he soon found more information on Iwo Jima than a single History Day project could hold. After considering a lot of angles, he realized that almost all the books and stories he liked best were written by one journalist, Ernie Pyle. This quickly narrowed down his broad WWII Pacific Theater topic to something more specific and more interesting to him. He narrowed his approach even further by looking at Ernie Pyle’s life to see how he took a stand and ended up with an award-winning project!
Check out the final result: The Typewriter Heard Around the World
Help Me, I Can’t Find Resources: Broadening the Topic
Sometimes the initial topic we choose is too specific. It can be difficult to find information on very ancient history, or from foreign countries, or about minor historical events. (Hint: If you can’t find eight to ten quality primary and secondary resources through a good library, or electronic search, you probably need to revise your topic by broadening it.)
Here’s another real-life example:
I once had a student very interested in the movie Metropolis made by Fritz Lang during the Golden Age of German Cinema. She very much wanted to do a project on the making of the movie during the theme year “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding.”
She quickly found numerous resources and citations on the movie, but no English resources on its making. However, she did find many resources on how the movie reflected the attitudes of a chaotic post World War I Germany, so she shifted her topic to a broader subject of Metropolis as a key to understanding Germany in the 1920s.
A Few Key Points to Remember:
• Find a general topic that genuinely interests you
• Keep researching until you find just the right topic
• Don’t get too discouraged (this stuff can be hard work)
• Have the courage to make a big change in your topic (if it seems right)
• Go back to your initial thoughts and question what you think is really important about a topic
• Do something that truly inspires you (it will show in your work and be more fun to do!)
• Talk to teachers and parents about your ideas and consider what they have to say
• Try to be creative and think “outside the box”
Where to find Resources:
• Feel free to start your general research using Wikipedia, but never use it as a resource in your final bibliography. You should follow and verify the footnotes to find real primary and secondary resources.
• If you are going to use Google, use Google Scholar
• Use some of the online resources suggested on the Maryland Humanities Council website which includes links to the Library of Congress, National Archives, and many others.
• Talk to your school Librarian or Media Specialist who have access to some amazing resources and are just waiting to show you how to use them
• Interview people who might know about your topic (history professors at a local college, a civil rights worker from the 1960s, the “Rosie the Riveter” in your community, a local historical society, veterans organizations)