National History Day is not just a day, but an experience that makes history come alive!

National History Day takes you beyond learning facts in a text book. You become a history detective! You figure out what the history is concerning an event, person, idea or community. You express what you have learned through creative and original performances, documentaries, papers, exhibits or web projects. With National History Day you are the historian, the writer, the actor, the creator!

Through National History Day you will learn the skills and techniques of the historian and discover new insights. You will explore rich treasure troves of little used primary materials and form your own ideas and opinions on a topic of your interest. You become the authority!

Explore More…

Seven Steps to a Quality Project

Brainstorm Topic

Choose a topic that is not likely to be selected by others. Check this website and ask your teacher for advice.
Google your topic and visit your library. Make sure it interests you and that there’s enough information for you to research further.
Develop a hypothesis. Like a scientist, you will be analyzing and synthesizing the information you gather to develop answers to your hypothesis.

Research Your Topic

Use the NHD Philly website to find the sources to build your evidence. It is important to use primary sources, which are first hand evidence to prove your hypothesis. You can also use secondary sources to help you learn more about the subject and also learn about the hypotheses others have developed on the topic you selected.
As you conduct your research, take good notes and begin writing your annotated bibliography. You will need to submit this bibliography with your project at the competition.

Pick a Project Category

Decide on the category you want to present your research. You can select an exhibit, documentary, performance, paper or website. You can improve your chances of going to the State Finals by selecting a category that has less competition. These are in order of least competitors: paper, website, documentary and performance. Exhibit has the most people competing. Consequently, there are more losers than winners in this category.
Follow the category rules in the Contest Rule Book. The judges will be checking to make sure you have followed the rules.

Write/Design Your Project

Begin outlining and drafting your final project before you complete your research. This will help you to determine how much more evidence you need to present your hypothesis effectively.
Great projects require refinement. Discuss your ideas with friends, teachers, neighbors, a librarian or archivist, a subject expert, or anyone who you think can help you think through your ideas. Contact the NHD Philly coordinator if you need assistance finding someone.
Follow the category rules in the Contest Rule Book when putting together the final version of your project. The judges will be checking to make sure you have followed the rules.

Write Your Process Paper

This is a 500 word essay about how you did your research, what you discovered, and why your topic would be of interest to others. Judges will be looking for your process paper at the competition.
If you are competing in the paper category, you will not need to prepare a process paper. Papers must be completed and submitted by the deadline with the entry form.

Submit Your Entry Form

Your entry form must be submitted by the deadline. If you are competing with a paper, send three copies of your paper with your application.

Make Your Project Shine at the Competition

Come to the competition with a complete project. Don’t leave parts of it at home. The judges will never get to see all of your hard work.
Be confident and enjoy the day!! You are the expert and can speak with authority!!

Using Museums and Historic Sites

Prepared by the Atwater Kent Museum

Identify a museum or historic site with a collection or objects useful to your research topic. Our Partners (see Partner’s List) have agreed to be available for students participating in National History Day. Or, you can use others throughout the area.

Call the curator or registrar and identify yourself as a National History Day Student Researcher. Describe your topic. Ask if they have resources related to your topic on display or available for study in the collection. Inquire about their policies and procedures to see objects not on display (e.g. research fee, permission for documentary photography). If there is a fee, ask if it can be waived for you. Arrange an appointment.
Bring appropriate ID, camera if permitted, admission and research fee, pencils, notepad, eraser. Prepare your questions (written) in advance.

Meet the curator at the appointed time; repeat your interest in the object(s) and what you want to learn. Listen to what he/she says about the object(s) shown to you. Record the museum data about the object (title, acquisition number, etc). Ask the curator your questions. Take notes. Ask where you might learn more (primary resources, where they are, others to interview); where are other objects like the one(s) you are studying. If allowed, take photographs for your report.

If you are on your own and your object is already on display in an exhibition, ask for and study a museum floor plan to know the location. Ask about permission to photograph for documentary purposes. To understand the object’s context, read the title and information panels that explain the purpose and scope of the exhibition. Follow the intended route of the exhibition, usually organized by chronology or by theme, to see where your object fits in.

Since a museum is a place where you can think and talk with yourself about what you see, take your time to look at the object; ask yourself what it reminds you of, what it resembles. Is the object machine or hand made? Does it have decoration? Are you able to determine what it was used for? How it works? Without looking at a label, attempt to determine how old the object is. Note what you think about as you examine it. Don’t be afraid to get as close to it as permitted and to examine the smallest details. Make sketches. An object has specific, unique characteristics: note the material(s) from which it’s made, the general shape, size, condition. Take some guesses about why it was saved and why it was included in the exhibition. Take note of your observations and your thoughts.

Were you a good detective? Read the label which will provide the name of the object; who made it and when, if known. Often the label includes who gave it to the museum or to whom the object belongs. Sometimes, there is an Acquisition Number (e.g. 54.32.1) which tells you the year it was acquired (54) the source (32) and its discrete number (1) to catalogue it within the museum’s inventory system.

Compare your own guesses with what is known already about this object. Do you need to learn more? You can obtain additional information in the exhibition, from books in the library or bookstore and from internet searches. You can ask a specialist (contact the curator, for example). Note the information on the label in order to accurately identify the object.

Keep track of the ideas and questions that came to mind as you investigated your chosen object. These are useful starting points for an assignment or to do further interesting reading.

Using Rare Materials

Prepared by the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL)

Don’t be fooled by the quiet look of a special collections library. There’s real excitement in tracking down information in old documents. You’ll find that the special collections library research for your National History Day project is part detective work and part treasure hunt.

With a little information and some advance planning, you can be researching with the best of them. Here are ten tips to help you research like a pro at your very first visit.

Planning Your Visit

Research the library on the web and call, if necessary, before you go. Identify yourself as a National History Day student.

  • Search for materials related to your topic on the library’s online catalog. But remember, some libraries don’t have records for all of their materials in their electronic catalogs. Look for web pages with titles such as “collection description” or “finding aids” — these will tell you more about materials in the library’s collection. Looking at their online exhibitions or digital materials will also help.
  • Check to see if there are age restrictions. Some libraries will not allow users under a certain age, and others require younger users to be accompanied by an adult. Many libraries require a photo ID for admittance.
  • Find out if laptops are permitted. Many libraries allow this and even have electrical outlets in the center of the tables.
  • Read through the library’s other policies — hours, photocopies, limits on how many items you may consult at one time, etc. Many special collections libraries are not open evenings or weekends; others have only limited evening/weekend hours.
  • If the library’s hours are “open by appointment,” or if they ask users to set up an appointment, e-mail or telephone the library with your request.
Allow plenty of time for your research

It takes longer to work with special collections materials than with books that you can pull off your regular library’s shelves. If the materials you are working with are old or fragile, it will take you longer to handle them properly, to decipher faded or unusual handwriting, or to follow old-fashioned ways of phrasing things. It will also take more time for you to get materials or arrange for photocopies than you may be used to.

Bring the appropriate ID and/or adult; be prepared to sign in and to be asked to put your things in a locker.

Special collections libraries contain rare and unique materials, which are more valuable than ordinary books and magazines. Unfortunately, this makes theft a problem. Small books or important documents can be easily slipped into a jacket, a purse, or a notebook. Most special collections libraries will require you to put these personal possessions into a locker and will only let you bring a small notebook into the library. Some will also check this notebook as you leave.

Bring pencils, writing paper, and eraser, and money for photocopies

Most of these items are self-explanatory, but why pencils? Most special collections libraries do not allow you to use pens because of the danger of accidentally marking a book or manuscript. The librarian can provide you with a pencil if you forget yours, but you may want to bring a mechanical pencil so that you don’t need to make trips to the pencil sharpener.

Talk with a reference librarian about your project.

Whether you have made a reference appointment in advance or not, it’s a good idea to talk with one of the reference library staff about your project. He or she may be able to suggest sources that you might not find on your own, and give you tips on how to use the online catalog, a card catalog, or a manuscript finding aid. In some cases, you may also be referred to other special collections libraries in the area.

Be prepared to fill out requests for materials and to wait until the librarians can get them.
  • Special collections libraries are different than your local library. After you consult the catalog or finding aid to find the “call number” of the materials you want, you must fill out a call slip. The librarian will then bring you the materials. (Librarians call these requests “paging requests” and they call the process of getting the materials “paging.”) Many libraries will let you consult materials in the reference section or look at items on display while you wait.
  • You may be assigned a specific seat in the reading room. If this is the case, be sure to note your seat number so that you can include this on the call slip.
Learn how to handle fragile items.
  • You may be asked to put on special white gloves to handle certain materials, such as photographs, or even some books and manuscripts. This is to keep the oils on your hands from damaging the materials.
  • If you are consulting a fragile book or a bound manuscript, you may be given a book support or “cradle” to help protect and support the book. You may also be provided with a “snake,” which is a velvet tube filled with buckshot, to help to keep pages open.
  • Library staff will almost certainly instruct you in the way to handle your materials and to use book supports and snakes, but if you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to ask! They will respect your desire to help care for their special collections by handling library materials properly.
Be prepared: photocopies are rarely self-service, and some things can’t be photocopied.
  • Special collections libraries hardly ever have self-service photocopying. Be sure to ask about the procedure for requesting photocopies, and how long it will take, when you hand in your call slips. Depending on how busy a library is when you visit, you may have to return another day for your copies, or arrange to have them mailed to you. Photocopies are sometimes more expensive in special collections libraries, because they must be copied by trained staff on special copiers that help to protect old and fragile books and manuscripts.
  • Some materials are too fragile to be photocopied at all. You can ask about having them photographed, but this will be expensive and will take time. If you have items photographed, you will probably also have to sign papers saying that you understand how you may use the photographs.
Be sure your notes include everything you’ll need for your bibliography.

Before going to the library, check with your instructor about how to refer to rare and unique materials in your bibliography. Then, be sure that you have noted everything about the library materials that you will need. It’s very easy to get so wrapped up in your research that you forget this important step, especially when you are working with new kinds of materials.

One last thing: be a considerate researcher.
  • If you stop to think about it, common sense will tell you that there are two important things that make a considerate researcher.
  • One is taking steps to protect the rare, unique, and fragile items you will be consulting. This means no food, no drink, no gum, and no ink — and of course careful handling.
  • The second is taking steps to be considerate of other users. Many public libraries these days are more relaxed about noise and distraction than in the past, but a special collections library is still a place where most users are serious researchers, and they may have trouble ignoring background noise. Try to keep noise to a minimum (leave your Walkman or iPod in your locker).
  • Leave your cell phone and pager in your locker as well, or turn it to vibrate and don’t answer it in the reading room. If you receive an important call or message, go to a public area or outside the building to return the call.

For further information on PACSCL’s member libraries and their participation in National History Day, see PACSCL’s National History Day Page

Your Bibliography

The two accepted styles for citations and bibliographies in NHD projects are:

Students may choose either of these style guides, but must remain consistent with a specific edition of that style guide. While the NHD Rule Book indicates the 5th edition of the MLA guide (edited by Joseph Gibaldi), students may use the 5th, 6th or 7th edition, as long as they remain consistent to that edition’s guidelines throughout their project’s content and bibliography.

Changes in MLA’s 7th edition

Some of the changes in the 2009 7th edition of the MLA handbook are quite different from previous editions. A few examples of these changes include:

  • URLs are no longer required for citations of web sources.
  • For each citation, it is required to indicate what type of source it is by placing the medium of publication at the end of the citation; “Print,” “Web,” “Film,” “Personal Interview,” etc.
    This website highlights the main points of the new MLA 7th edition.
Documenting Sources

History research is like having a conversation with other thinkers who are also asking some of the same questions you are. At National History Day we want to see where you got your information, the sources you used, and the basis for your own original ideas.

Acknowledging sources in history research is done through the practice of citation. Citations can take the form of attributions (or giving credit) in the text of a paper, footnotes at the bottom of the page, or endnotes.

When do you need a citation?

You need a citation for:

  • Direct quotations
  • Opinions, judgments or insights of others that you summarize or paraphrase
  • Information not widely known
  • Information that is open to dispute or not commonly accepted
  • Tables, charts, graphs or statistics taken from another source
    You don’t need a citation for:
  • Your own ideas, observations and conclusions
  • Common knowledge, like facts readily available in many reference works
  • Familiar quotations, like “Early to bed and early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” can be attributed to Benjamin Franklin without indicating source
What should the citation look like?

Different fields have different styles of footnotes. For National History Day, we use the MLA style, named for a professional academic society, the Modern Language Association.

MLA Style
In the MLA style, sources are indicated in parentheses within the text and linked to a bibliography at the end of the paper. You indicate your reference by writing out the author and page number, like this:

By the 1790s, African American families began to cluster in two areas of the city of Philadelphia (Nash 164).
If you are citing more than one work by the same author, then indicate which one by including a few key words from the title, like this:

By the 1790s, African American families began to cluster in two areas of the city of Philadelphia (Nash, Forging Freedom 164).
Finally, if you are including the author and title in your actual sentence, then just indicate the page number:

According to historian Gary Nash in his work Forging Freedom, African American families began to cluster in two areas of the city of Philadelphia in the 1790s (164).

Where should the citation go?

Place a citation as close to the quoted or paraphrased material as possible without disrupting the sentence. When material from one source and the same page numbers is used throughout a paragraph, use one citation at the end of the paragraph rather than a citation at the end of each sentence.

Parenthetical citations usually appear after the final quotation mark and before the period. An exception occurs, however, in quotes of four or more lines since these quotes are presented as block quotes: that is, they are indented and use no quotation marks. In such cases, the parenthetical citation goes at the end of the block quote after the period.

How do I format my Bibliography?

Each of the citations in your text are then linked to a bibliography at the end of the paper. In MLA style, a bibliographic entry has three parts: the author’s name, the title, and the publisher information. Like this:

Nash, Gary. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Entries vary by kind of source. Here are some of the kinds of sources and how they are cited:

Book by Multiple Authors/Editors

Trotter Jr, Joe William. and Eric Ledell Smith, eds. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1997.
Article or Essay in a Collection or Anthology

Sumler-Lewis, Janice. “The Forten-Purvis Women of Philadelphia and the American Antislavery Crusade.” In African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives. Ed. Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1997. 166-176.
Journal Article:

Alnutt, Brian E. ” ‘The Negro Excursions’: Recreational Outings Among Philadelphia African Americans, 1876-1926.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 129 (January 2005): 73-104.

Fogarty, N. Personal interview. 2 July 2003.
Unpublished Manuscript Source, like a letter:

Sarah Wister to Jeannie Field, 1 October 1863, Wister Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Comparing Secondary and Primary Sources

by Melissa Callahan, education outreach coordinator, Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

For any historical research project, you need to use evidence in order to support your thesis. Evidence can be drawn from two different types of sources – secondary and primary. Before you begin your research, it is important that you understand the differences between these two types of sources. Check out the handy information below to get started.

Below the tables, we have answered some additional questions you might have.

Basic Questions about secondary and primary sources.

Secondary SourcePrimary Source
What is it?Any text or object that analyzes, interprets, comments upon, or evaluates primary source material. Your completed NHD project, for example, will be a secondary source! · The author or creator of a secondary source was not there – in fact, s/he probably wasn’t born yet!Any text or object that provides a firsthand account of the event, time period, or person in question. · The author or creator of a primary source was actually there or knew someone who was.
Why should I use this type of source?to get a general overview of or basic facts about your topic; · to help you place your topic within the larger historical context in which the event happened or the person lived; · to learn about and evaluate interpretations that other researchers have developed on the topic you selected; · to identify primary and additional secondary sources related to your topic (using the citations or bibliography).to understand what it was like to live through or take part in an historical event or time period; · to connect more directly and personally with an event or person from the past; · to examine multiple viewpoints about the event or time period from the people who were there; · to help you understand not only what people in the past did, but also why they did it; · to develop important critical thinking skills and draw your own conclusions about the past.

General Examples of each type of source.

Secondary SourcesPrimary sources
Text: An article from a scholarly journal; a book (especially one written by a professional historian, social scientist, biographer, etc.); reference books such as a textbook or encyclopedia; a poem, novel or short story written about an event, a time period, or a person in the past.
Objects: A current work of art that depicts or interprets an event from the past.
Audio/Visual: A documentary film; a popular film, play, or piece of music written about an event, a time period, or person in the past.
Text: A speech; legal or government documents; an eyewitness statement or interview; newspaper or magazine article written at the time or shortly thereafter; a memoir or autobiography; diary or journal; correspondence (letter, email, text message, etc.); a poem, novel, or short story written by a participant or eyewitness.
Objects: an original work of art; clothing from the era; communication devices; household items.
Audio/Visual: Film, audio, or a photograph of an event taken as it happened or depicting the immediate aftermath; music from the era; an oral history or recorded interview.
Statistics/Data: A census; a survey; results of a scientific experiment; weather reports.

Detailed Comparisons of several types of sources.

Secondary SourcesPrimary Sources
Crusade for freedom: William Still and the real Underground Railroad by James Oliver Horton, in Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David Blight (2004)Journal C of Station No. 2 of the Underground Railroad, Agent William Still, 1852-1857, available online from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Lynching by Dennis B. Downey. Article available online from the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching, Original Rights Magazine, vol. I, no. 4 (June 1910): 42-52. Available online from the University of Chicago Library.
A Brief History of Japanese American Relocation During World War II, available online from the National Parks ServiceInterview of Dillon S. Meyer on the Relocation of Japanese – Americans, audio file available online from the National Archives
Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust by Matthew Baigell (1997)Night by Elie Weisel
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) article available online from the Encyclopedia BritannicaText of Reorganization Plans 3 and 4 of 1970, available online from the National Archives

Additional Questions:

How can I tell the difference between a primary and secondary source?

This can be tricky! However, the date the source was created is often a determining factor. For example, if the topic of your research is the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, then a newspaper article that reports the liberation of Dachau published in May 1945 would be a primary source while a newspaper article commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau published in 2015 would be a secondary source. However, if you are researching the ways in which people commemorate events that are associated with tragedy, the 2015 article would be a primary source.

How can I determine whether or not I can trust the information I get from a secondary source? In other words, how do I know if the source is reliable?

A good secondary source usually includes citations and/or a bibliography. Check the author’s references and make sure that most of his or her evidence comes from primary sources. In addition, research the author. Find out what qualifies this person to write about this particular topic. For example, a history professor at Rutgers University who specializes in the Early Republic probably would be qualified to write an article about Thomas Jefferson. If you have difficulty finding information about the author, or if the author’s credentials do not seem to relate to the topic in any way, the source might not be reliable. Finally, the publisher can serve as a clue. Examples of sources that you can probably trust based on the publisher include an article published in a scholarly journal; a book published by a university; an article or blog posted on a university or government agency website.

How can I determine whether or not I can trust the information I get from a primary source? In other words, how do I know if the source is reliable?

It is important to remember that people everywhere and in every time period have their own thoughts, feelings, and perspectives about the world in which they live. All sources (both primary and secondary) reflect the opinion or bias of the creator. In some cases, the author or creator may provide false or misleading information (either intentionally or unintentionally). Just because it is old and written down does not mean that it is true! Therefore, it is important to analyze multiple primary sources in order to get a more complete and accurate picture of what actually happened. It also is important to research the author or creator. Information about his or her background might give you some clues about their possible biases. Background information might also tell you whether this person would have a motive to provide false or misleading information. Finally, the intended audience is important. Think about it this way – if you wrote a letter to your parents, a letter to your teacher, and a letter to your best friend describing what you did at camp this summer, would you include exactly the same information in all three letters? Probably not! In what ways might these three letters be different?

Where can I find secondary sources related to my topic?

Your history textbook is a great place to start! You also can visit your school or local library – be sure to speak with the librarian about your topic and your research goals. Finally, there are many reliable secondary sources on the Internet -but you must be careful! Since virtually anyone can post anything online, the Internet is also a haven of misleading and false information. Government websites (sites that end in .gov) and the websites of educational institutions (sites that end in .edu) can be trustworthy sources of both secondary and primary sources. You can also check the websites of historical societies for secondary source information. Here are some specific examples of trustworthy sites:

Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia
Digital History
Encyclopedia Britannica

Where can I find primary sources related to my topic?

Many institutions including libraries, museums, historical societies, colleges and universities, and government agencies collect, preserve, and make primary sources available for research. Oftentimes, you can search the catalogues of these institutions online. Through the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) website, for example, you can search several institutions at once. Some institutions have digitized a portion of their holdings and made them available online. Many presidential libraries such as the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Massachusetts offer digital collections. Other examples include:

National Archives: DocsTeach
National Archives: Our Documents
Library of Congress: Photos, Prints, and Drawings
Library of Congress: Chronicling America
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania: Digital Library
Temple University Libraries: Digital Collections
Drexel University College of Medicine: Digital Resources
Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries

Scroll to Top