Primary resources are the secret to unlocking history. Primary resources include eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, legal documents, photographs, and artwork (such as World War I posters.) They are "first-hand accounts," while secondary resources, such as textbooks, are "second-hand accounts." For the National History Day project, students are required to sort their resources into two lists: primary and secondary resources. For many students, this simple exercise opens their eyes to the significance of historical documents. They learn the value of ad fontes, the Reformation concept of going "to the fount" or source of information.
Primary resources can be found in libraries, on the Internet, or in your attic. If the topic concerns something that happened in the last sixty years, you may even be able to find someone to interview about their experiences related to the topic. This is a great way for a student to spend time with a grandparent or great-grandparent. For example, my son interviewed his grandfather about the changes in telecommunication that he witnessed during his years working in the field.
Interviews may be verbal or written. One useful technique is to interview by email so that you have the complete interview in written form.
To develop a research project with depth and analysis, students need to carefully choose their topic. They should ask themselves:
* Can I find a way to relate this topic to the theme?
* Is this topic so broad that I cannot adequately research it?
* Is this topic so narrow that I will be unable to find resources for researching it?
Students should read about their topics and make sure that they have ideas for finding primary documents. When they are satisfied with a topic, they should seek a variety of sources, including both secondary and primary documents. The Internet provides a wealth of information. Teach students to record bibliographic information for their resources as they do the research, because it will be difficult to reconstruct this data later. Also, teach them to look for references to primary documents within the secondary documents that they are studying. Often an encyclopedia or textbook will refer to a diary, letter, or document which the student can find for himself.
Analysis and Interpretation
When we first began participating in history fairs, we took a "strict constructionist" view of history. We thought that the simple truth should speak for itself. We soon learned that no matter how many interesting facts are presented, the project is not complete without analysis and interpretation. For example:
* Why is this topic significant in history?
* What conclusions could you draw?
* How does this topic relate to the History Day theme?
* How was the topic influenced by the events of that time period?
A large part of a student's score will be based on the quality of analysis and interpretation demonstrated in the project. As the project develops, it is useful to ask these analytical questions again and again.