History Day research is a long process. Starting with a plan is key for not getting lost in a vast sea of information! As a researcher, there are lots of different categories of sources you will use as you learn about your topic and construct your thesis. In general, most students start with the broad, general sources at the bottom of the pyramid. This gives you a solid foundation of knowledge so that when you read or view a specific, historic primary source you are better able to extract your own unique inferences.
So let’s look at the...
PYRAMID OF RESEARCH
When in the research process might you use sources in each category? What are the pros and cons of each category of sources?
My students helped me come up with the following list of pros and cons. There are many more- think about what YOU’D add!
What they are: Articles in general research publications. Example: Wikipedia article
Pro: easy to find, provides context, may have bibliography that can lead you to other sources
Con: very general, does not contain unusual or unique knowledge.
Consider using common knowledge sources to investigate potential topics. These sources are not considered “academic” and shouldn’t be included in your annotated bibliography!
What they are: sources about a time period, movement, or place. Example: Women’s History in Global Perspective by Bonnie G. Smith.
Pro: easy to find, provide context, usually vetted by multiple authors, can give you ideas of where to investigate further
Con: lack of specificity, often don’t contain quotes/primary sources yet
It is important to get a sense of how your topic fits in with its time period and what events preceded and followed it. General secondary sources can provide this necessary context.
What they are: sources focused on your actual topic Example: Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave by Ernest B. Furgurson. The book is about a specific Civil War battle.
Pro: Contain specific details, often contain primary source excerpts in terms of quotes or photographs, may summarize multiple perspectives on your topic.
Con: Could have unnecessary details (think of biographical details about a person that aren’t relevant to the History Day theme!), author bias (biographers sometimes overemphasize the importance of their subjects!)
What they are: Eyewitness accounts. Can be documents, autobiographies, newspaper articles, photographs Example: Transcript of the speech by Theodore Roosevelt, delivered in 1883, called “Duties of American Citizenship.”
Pro: lens to the past, can draw your OWN conclusions and inferences. The historian’s craft centers around drawing your own conclusions from primary sources. They are the beating heart of your research!
Con: can be biased or difficult to interpret, do not provide context, have ONE point of view
Overall, make sure you use a wide variety of sources that showcase different viewpoints on your topic. There’s more than one version of any story! Remember that certain viewpoints are often left out of the more general, common source types. You want to develop a full and complete picture of the past so that you can best prove that your topic represents a significant conflict and/or compromise.