Research Tips

Research is exciting, but it can also be challenging. Here are some questions and considerations to keep in mind as you or your students work. Students, be sure to take detailed and organized notes about your findings, observations, and questions.
Black-and-white photograph of students sitting at long tables in a large room with a high ceiling and tall windows.
KU students studying at Watson Library, 1939. Call Number: RG 32/0.

Choosing a Topic

Think about what you know about your topic and conduct some basic, preliminary research using a source like Wikipedia.

  • Can you describe, explain, or summarize your topic? Can you answer these questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Significance?
  • Is the topic one you're still interested in and excited to explore?
  • Does your topic fit within the History Day annual theme?

Think about how your topic could be analyzed from multiple perspectives and through multiple lenses.

  • How might your topic have affected groups of people differently? Consider individuals and families and members of an organization, religion, or cultural group as well as communities, states, regions, and nations.
  • What were short-term and long-term outcomes or consequences for different groups of people?

Assess whether your topic is too broad.

  • Are you finding an overwhelming quantity of sources?
  • Does your topic contain multiple component parts, subtopics, events, ideas, or arguments?
  • Can you narrow your topic – and improve your access to primary sources – by focusing locally?

Conduct a preliminary survey of available primary sources.

  • Can you get a sense of what primary sources are important for this topic?
  • Can you realistically access relevant primary sources within the amount of time you have to complete your project?

Finding Print and Digital Primary Sources

(Note: This pertains more to unpublished sources like letters and diaries and less so to published sources like books.)

Check the notes and bibliographies of your secondary sources. This includes the lists of references and external links at the end of Wikipedia articles.

  • What primary sources did the author use, and where are those materials located?

When searching online, pair the name of the person, organization, or event you’re researching with words like “archives,” “collections,” “records,” “letters,” or “photographs.”

Identify other potential search terms based on the preliminary research you conducted about your topic (see above).

  • For example, say you’re researching an individual person. Make a list of (1) the important people who were in this person’s network, (2) the organizations with which this person was affiliated, (3) where s/he went to school, (4) where s/he worked, (5) where s/he volunteered or worked with non-profits or community groups.
  • If you can find primary sources associated with those individuals or organizations, you’ll probably find information about the person you’re researching.
  • Using the answers to these questions as search terms may not reveal specific primary source documents or collections, but they may point you towards potentially helpful libraries and archives.

Think about the realm of potential primary sources and brainstorm what might be available.

  • What types of sources would you ideally like to find?
  • What types of documentation was – or might have been – created during the time period you're studying?
  • Where would those sources have been housed at the time they were created?
  • Can you extrapolate from the above answer to determine where the sources are located now?
  • Have the primary sources been digitized or published?
  • If the original documents are in a non-English language you cannot read, have the documents been translated and published?
  • If the sources are located at a non-local library or archives, what are your options for accessing them? Is a research trip possible? Can the repository provide digital copies? If so, there a fee associated with this service?

Reading Primary Sources

Start by quickly examining a source or document, without reading it.

  • What type of source is it? For example, is it a letter or diary?
  • Was the source published or unpublished?
  • Who wrote the document?
  • When and where was the document written?
  • Is the document handwritten? Would creating a transcript – typing out the content – help?

Next, slowly and carefully read the source or document. Another source or a parent, teacher, librarian, or subject expert may be able to help if you're unsure about something.

  • Can you better answer the questions asked above?
  • What is the main idea or argument being presented or made in the document?
  • Are there words in the document you don’t understand?
  • What was the perspective of the author of the document? How might this have affected what the author said and how s/he said it?
  • Who was the intended original audience for the document? How might this have influenced what the author said and how s/he said it?
  • Does the document contain any untruths, misinformation, or exaggerations? If so, why? Remember that what we know in hindsight may be different from what was known during and shortly after an event took place.
  • What were the historical contexts in which the document written?
  • What other perspectives on my topic are not captured in the document? Why might that be? How can you find other documents that capture and reflect those other perspectives?

Analyze how all of your primary sources fit together to tell a story.

  • What information or perspectives are missing? Why might this be?
  • What information or perspectives are contradictory? Why might this be?

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