in Kansas City
Hints for choosing a History Day topic and doing research
Choose a subject that interests you!
The entries that win use primary sources -- sources of first-hand information. Local topics may work better than national or international topics because primary sources are more readily available.
A primary source is information from someone who was in a position to know what happened first-hand − someone who was there. A secondary source is the second-hand telling of information − a historian in the 1920s writing about the Santa Fe Trail of the 1820s is a secondary source! Just because a source is old does not mean it is a primary document. Sometimes it is the question you ask that makes a source either primary or secondary. If you ask, "what happened at the Continental Congress?" then a letter by Thomas Jefferson is a secondary source because he was not there and could not know first-hand what happened! But if you ask, "what did Thomas Jefferson know and think about the Continental Congress?" then his letter is a primary source because he was expressing his first hand views.
News papers, magazines, and books from the period can be problems but are often used as primary sources. As a rule of thumb always look for at least three sources that independently report the same information before you assume it is true. That may be hard to do which explains why some facts about the past are never certain.
Carefully choose your sources. Encyclopedias are good for background information but are not good sources for doing your entry. Instead look for the sources the encyclopedia writers used to write their articles. Whenever you read an article or book on your topic pay special attention to its bibliography. Listed there is where its information and ideas came from − those are the sources you want to look at and base your work upon.
The Internet, too, can be a problem since you cannot always be sure from where the information came or if it is correctly reported. The Web is a wonderful tool to find both information and relationships of facts, but always go beyond it − there is a wealth of sources that are not on the Web, and probably never will be.
The History Day judges read the bibliographies. They want to see if you covered the bases in your research. If you wrote a paper on Thomas Jefferson and never looked at anything he wrote (such as his letters, which have been published and are available in local libraries), then the judge might wonder how much you really knew and understood about the man.
Carefully consider your method for presentation. If you want to do a performance, then choose a topic that can be readily developed in that medium. On the other hand, if you have a really terrific topic, let the research determine the entry you will have. If your research has not yielded many photos, pictures, and maps, you may want to stay away from doing an exhibit panel or an audiovisual presentation.
Talk with your teacher, librarian, and people at the local archives and historical society about interesting stories that might be researched. People are important resources − not just as subjects for oral history, but as guides to your research. The local librarian, archivist, or museum curator have priceless pieces of information stuffed in their brains about where things are and how to find them. No book, card catalog, or computer program can replace making friends of someone who knows the 'straight skinny'.
Look for something a bit unusual, or at least a new twist to an old story. Some topics are used over and over again each year. History has many points of view and you should try to make your contribution to historical research something more than just retelling old tales. Again, this is where local topics may be useful because they are often fresh information that have not been picked down to the bone.
Look for topics which can be framed in a bigger context. Historians ask a series of questions: who, what, where, and when, are basic factual questions with which you must begin. But more important are the interpretive questions of why and how. These explain process − remember History is "change over time". There is one more question to answer: so what? Answers to this question give context and significance. A good story is not necessarily good history − it should tell us something useful about the past, and also help us understand the present, and maybe even anticipate the future.
What a historian does is try to recreate the past in her mind, and then convey that vision to others through her writing, exhibit, or performance. The historian is making an argument, logically presented, that what she understood about the relationship of people, places, things, and events, mirrors what really happened. It an art to create (or really re-create) the past that way. But it is a science too because there are rigid rules you must follow − the most important being that the story you tell must be based on facts.
Documents come in all shapes and sizes. Many people think of documents as being only letters and papers − maybe books, magazines, and newspapers, too. But documents can be just about anything that tells us something. A house can be a document because it tells us about how people lived, how they decorated their space, what things they valued, which things were common, and why things are the way they are. As an example think about the big houses built in Kansas City at the turn of the century. The rooms had high ceilings and the doors had windows above them that could be opened. This tells us something about the technology of house construction because buildings without air conditioning used those high ceilings and windows to let the hot air escape. Also in that house the smallest room might well have been the kitchen. It was not a place for the family to gather; it was a place for the servants to work. And it could be small because they did not own all the appliances we have in our kitchens today! That fact tells us something about the society as a whole.
As you do your entry, think about other kinds of documents that reveal information on your topic. Does the location of a river represented on a map suggest why a trail went one way rather than another? Historians of the Civil War always go the battle field the walk the ground where the history happened. They do it not to talk with ghosts, but to understand how the lay of the land effected the flow of the battle. Boundaries, such as state and country lines, rivers and mountains, divide people into groups. Roadways can carry people both toward and away from places, and can, like some of highways in Kansas City, be barriers that no one can safely cross. Understanding the obstacles people faced may explain a lot about the actions they choose to make.
Photographs and pictures are documents. But remember that photographs can lie, and sometimes you need to explain in words what you see in a picture. Pictures are a lot like quotes − they can add color and interest to your work, and they can express ideas and facts in ways that words may not be able to do. Imagine the difficulty of telling someone what your bedroom looks like − its shape, color, the relationship of the furniture, or your possessions to one another, not to mention all the small things you might forget to list and describe. A photograph records all those things and more.
But pictures do lie. When you look at a picture of a street in downtown Kansas City, you must not think that it is downtown Kansas City, because it isn't. It is only a picture. That may seem like a silly thing to say, but think about it. Downtown Kansas City is a large, diverse place which is always changing. What you may see there one second is gone the next. That is not how it is with a picture, however. Photographs represent a slice of time − a moment that is gone, but recorded for us to examine. Moreover, the camera is a very limited eye. It sees only what is in front of it and has no perception of things and happenings outside its view.
When looking at photographs, as well as evaluating other documents, there are four values that are worth considering:
The technology of the document. Thinking of photography you might ask was the world only in black and white until the 1930s? If you take a look at photographs in an archives or library you might draw that conclusion because many the photos will be without color. Also, in the early days of photography the film (which was actually glass) was slow to register its image and therefore had trouble recording motion. The earliest 'snapshot' of a person was in fact of a man on a Paris street in 1839 who had stopped to have his shoes shined. He stood still long enough to be caught by the camera − but the rest of the street appeared deserted because everyone else moved too fast for the camera to record them. Looking at this picture should we assume that no one lived in Paris in the 1830s? One more example: For years historians have thought that Billy the Kid was left-handed because of a picture that showed his gun slung on his left side. But some types of early photographs reversed the image you see in it − like a mirror does when you look in it − something those historians did not think about. Understanding the limits of the technology helps us avoid drawing the wrong conclusions.
The custom of the day. Have you ever had your picture taken with your new bike, or with your family next to a new car or home? Have you had your picture taken on Santa's lap, or on the back of a pony? Generations of kids have. Walt Disney, who lived in Kansas City in the 1920s earned money by taking pictures of kids in a goat-drawn cart and selling them to the proud parents. Taking a picture is like freezing a memory so you can carry it around and share it with others and relive it whenever you want. Photographers, and those whose pictures they took, knew this from the beginning. Particularly when having your picture taken was expensive, and therefore a big deal, the act of being photographed demanded a certain style, a certain expectation. Pictures were posed to look like paintings. People dressed up in their best Sunday clothes. And they tried hard to show off. It is not much different today when your mother makes you dress up for the school picture. Or it was not much different for the Civil War soldier to have his photo taken holding a wooden rifle in front of a backdrop of a battle field. He send it back to his loved ones to show them he was well, and patriotic and brave − so they was have something of him in case he did not return. This was the custom and it may or may not represent the fact of the situation.
The purpose of the document. Before the 1890s photography was a difficult craft left almost exclusively to professionals. These were men and women who made their living by making pictures. What they choose to point their cameras at usually had a purpose, often related to money, but also related to their sense of art. Understanding why a picture was taken can be very revealing as to what and how the photograph relates information. This is very similar to knowing to whom a letter is written: a note from camp to your mother will likely tell stories in ways (including content) that would be different from how you might tell or write the same stories to your brother or sister or friends. Were things intentionally left out or put into the different letters?
How we see things. Lastly, when a historian, or anyone else, looks at an old photograph or reads an old letter, diary, or newspaper, he sees it from the perspective of a person of today. He interprets the images in the photograph or the words on the page first as he understands them with today's meanings. But sometimes the meanings of words change, and the way we 'read' a picture may be different that someone a hundred years ago would see it. Context of the document is important and that is why good historians are time-travelers who try to understand documents as though they we alive with the document − are the person that received the letter, wrote the diary, or took the picture. Then the historian journeys back to the present and explains in her paper, exhibit, documentary, or performance about the past experiences.
History Day can be great fun for, among many reasons, you will draw "testimony" from the past that will cause you to see the world, your world, differently. Good luck with your research!
Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City
© WHMC-KC, University of Missouri
Friday, February 27, 2009
Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City
(816) 235-1543 WHMCKC@umkc.edu