How To: Research

Tips for Research

You have your topic. Now what do you do?

  1. Get organized! Keep all of your materials in a binder/folder/notebook, and as you locate information and sources, add this new material to your compilation in an organized manner.
  1. Double-check your topic. Is it specific enough? Topics that are too broad will be difficult to research and will not make good projects. Again, double check to make sure your topic fits the theme of National History Day.
  1. Establish a thesis statement. This is the main argument that you are going to support with your research.
  1. Begin gathering secondary sources by reading books, websites, and other materials that will increase your general knowledge and understanding of the topic. 
  1. Construct a list of 5-10 questions that you must be able to answer about your topicExamples:
    • How was this event an example of the theme?
    • What were the short- and long-term causes of this event? 
    • What were conditions like before this event? 
    • What were the short- and long-term effects of this event? How did conditions change after the event?
  1. Use these questions to guide your note taking from your secondary sources. Make sure that you gather the bibliographical information from each book, website, etc… It is a good idea to begin your annotated bibliography at the start of your research and add new sources as you continue your research. Alphabetize your sources as you go, and separate your sources into two groups, primary, and secondary.
  1. As you take notes, keep a list of related people, places, and topics. Be sure to note how each of the related subjects affected or interacted with the History Day topic.
  1. Identify potential primary sources. This is crucial! Primary sources are what will make or break your History Day project. Seek out your teachers’ help if necessary to identify potential primary sources.
  1. Identify other people outside the school who will be useful contacts, i.e. college professors and local historians. Use these contacts to establish a network of people who can offer useful information or help you locate it elsewhere. Be sure to do this early on in the research process so that there is adequate time for people to get back to you.

Annotated Bibliography Help:

An annotated bibliography is required for all categories. It should contain all sources that provided usable information or new perspectives in preparing your entry. You will look at many more sources than you actually use. You should list only those sources that contributed to the development of your entry. Sources of visual materials and oral interviews must be included. The annotations for each source must explain how the source was used and how it helped you understand your topic. 


For example, take these two primary sources from a sample Annotated Bibliography:

Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. 1st ed. New York: David McKay Co. Inc., 1962. Print.
Daisy Bates was the president of the Arkansas NAACP and the one who met and listened to the students each day. This first-hand account was very important to my paper because it made me more aware of the feelings of the people involved.

Fine, Benjamin. “Arkansas Troops Bar Negro Pupils; Governor Defiant.” New York Times. 4 September 1957: Page 1. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/ learning/general/onthisday/big/0904.html#article>
Fine documented a fantastic resource of quotes from a variety of sources, most especially the Governor of Arkansas and those who were eyewitness accounts of the Little Rock 9. The influence on my paper was minimal, but helped to provide a fair variety of perspectives on racial integration in Little Rock.

Notice how the first line of the source (book, website, article, etc.) is the only thing NOT indented? Everything else (second line of the source and the annotation, or notes on the book) is indented?


An annotation length normally should be between a few sentences minimum and 150 words maximum. The more important the resource, the longer the annotation should be.

You might be tempted to create page-long annotations to impress people. Don't do it! Lengthy annotations are usually unnecessary and inappropriate, and might be considered an effort to "pad" the bibliography. 

The Contest Rule Book states that the annotations "must explain how the source was used and how it helped you understand your topic." Do not recount what the source said. 

In addition to explaining how you used a source or how it helped you, you sometimes need to include some additional information in an annotation. Here are some examples:

  • Classify by primary or secondary source. You should separate both primary and secondary sources into 2 different groups and lists.
  • Documentaries, exhibits, and websites should have separate photo sources. While they need to be cited properly (not just web links, folks!), they do NOT need to be annotated (notes afterward). That’d be silly.

Secondary source which included primary sources. You also may use the annotation to explain that a book or other secondary source included several primary sources used for the paper. Examples: "This book included three letters between person X on the frontier and person Y back in New England, which provided insight into the struggles and experiences of the settlers." "This book provided four photos of settlers on the Great Plains and their homes, which were used on the exhibit."

  • Fuller explanation of credits for documentaries. You are supposed to give credit in the documentary itself for photos or other primary sources, but you can do this in a general way, such as by writing, "Photos from: National Archives, Ohio Historical Society, A Photographic History of the Civil War" rather than listing each photo individually in the documentary credits, which would take up too much of your allotted 10 minutes. You then can use the annotation in the bibliography to provide more detailed information.

How many sources should you have for your annotated bibliography? You should have at least 10, and at least 33% of them should be books. Beyond that, we can't tell you a specific number of sources, as that will vary by the topic and by the resources to which you have reasonable access. For some topics, such as the Civil War or many 20th-century U.S. topics, there are many sources available to you. For other topics, such as those in ancient history or non-U.S. history, there likely are far fewer sources available to you. The more good sources you have, the better, but don't pad your bibliography. Only list items which you actually use.

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