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Researching Your Topic

Students using laptops
Students using laptops

Once you’ve chosen your topic it’s time to dig deeper! Keep in mind why you are doing the research:

To learn more about your topic

To develop and defend your thesis statement

Check out the sections below for research tips and tricks!

National History Day has released information about the use of AI in projects. Check out the document below to review how AI can and cannot be used when creating a National History Day project!

NHD and AI

Tips for Research Success

Research takes practice Here are some tips to make sure you’re getting the most out of the time you spend on your project.

  • Don’t rely on the internet! It’s a great place to start, but it won’t have everything. Other sources will typically give you more information and deeper analysis.
  • Be critical. Not all sources should be trusted. Use great discretion on the internet. Make sure your books are written by credible authors. When in doubt, ask a teacher or librarian.
  • Have balanced research. Use a variety of sources from different points of view. Sometimes sources will have conflicting information or missing parts.
  • Use footnotes, citations, and bibliographies in books and other secondary sources the author used. See if you can find those sources for your own research.
Primary and Secondary Sources

Remember, not all sources are the same. Historians classify sources into two different categories – primary and secondary. It is not only important that you use both, but that you use a variety of each. While you research:

  • Determine what types of sources you need.
  • Consider conducting an interview.
  • Find your sources.
  • Analyze your sources.
  • Cite your sources.

A primary source gives you first-hand evidence about your topic. They usually come from the time period or around the time period in which your topic takes place. Primary sources can also come from an interview with an individual who participated in or witnessed events from your topic or a memoir written later by someone who had involvement with your topic.

These sources tend to be but are not limited to:

  • Diaries
  • Newspapers
  • Manuscript collections
  • Letters
  • Photographs
  • Government records
  • Interviews
  • Autobiographies

You can find primary sources in libraries and archives, historical societies, museums, or even people you know!

A secondary source is a piece of information that was not created later by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events you are researching. People who write or create these sources often use other secondary and primary sources in their own research.

These sources tend to be but are not limited to:

  • History textbooks
  • Encyclopedias
  • Scholarly journals
  • Scholarly books
  • Websites
  • Scholarly articles
  • Documentaries

Why are primary sources so important?

  • Primary sources provide insight into how people felt the time, what their personal experience was, their emotions and their reactions.
  • Primary sources can fill in holes left by your secondary sources.
  • Primary sources can give you information that other people might not have found yet.
  • Primary sources allow you to make your own interpretation and analysis rather than relying on what other people think or have said about your topic.

Primary sources can help in ways that secondary sources can’t, but that doesn’t mean they’re more important. Keep in mind that:

  • While primary sources can sometimes be more reliable than secondary sources, you still need to be just as critical when determining their credibility, especially if you found them online.
  • It was be tricky to determine whether a source is primary or secondary. Be careful not to cite them incorrectly in your annotated bibliography.
What makes a source a good source?

Remember the big 4 when determining if your sources are going to be helpful to your research:

A credible source is one in which the author can be trusted to provide his or her own ideas and be able to back them up with evidence. If your source is a book, pay attention to the publisher as well as the author. Books published by universities tend to be safe.

Your source may lack credibility if:

  • The author is anonymous.
  • The source seems excessively negative or biased.
  • The grammar is poor and words are misspelled.

An accurate source will provide factual information that can be backed by evidence.

Tips for determining your source’s accuracy:

  • Look for information that is up-to-date, meaning that it will have more recent ideas and interpretations about your topic.
  • Make sure the information in your source can be backed up by other sources. This is why a variety of sources is so important.
  • Avoid sources that make vague or grand generalizations, for example: “Everyone felt the same way about this issue…”

Balanced sources are fair and reasonable in their discussion of the topic at hand.

To determine whether or not your source is balanced, take these points into consideration:

  • Watch our for its tone and language. If a source resorts to name calling it could be biased and unreasonable.
  • Look out for statements of excessive significance, for example: “This was the most important event ever.”

Good sources are evidence-based, meaning the conclusions are supported by facts. You should be wary of a source that doesn’t show its use of evidence or identify it sources.

Find out if your source is supported by:

  • Checking the sources’ sources. Are the facts backed up with legitimate evidence?
  • Looking at the source’s bibliography. Are they using a variety of sources?
Finding Primary Sources

Check out some of our suggestions for primary sources below! Remember, these are just suggestions and you might discover new ones on your own.

Archives and Libraries in Indiana

Crispus Attucks Museum, 1140 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.

Eiteljorg Museum, The Stephen and Sharon Zimmerman Resource Center and the Watanabe Family Library, 500 W Washington St.

Indiana Deaf History Museum, 1200 E 42nd St.

Indiana Historical Bureau, 315 W Ohio St.

Indiana Historical Society, 450 W Ohio St.

Indiana State Library, 315 W Ohio St.

IUPUI University Library, 755 W Michigan St.

Ruth Lily Special Collections and Archives, IUPUI University Library 0133, 755 W Michigan St.

Archives of African American Music and Culture, 2805 E 10th St.

Indiana University Lilly Library, 1200 E Seventh St.

IU Oral History Archive, Radio-TV Building #314, 1229 E Seventh St.

Notre Dame
Cushwa-Leighton Library, Saint Mary’s College

Heshburgh Libraries, 221 Heshburgh Library

Medieval Institute Library, 715 Heshburg Library

University of Notre Dame Rare Books and Special Collections, 102 Heshburgh Library

West Lafayette
Black Cultural Center Library, Black Cultural Center – Library 1100 Third St.

Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, Stewart Center, 4th floor of HSSE Library 504 W State St.

Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, Archives and Special Collections Bracken Library, Room 210

Minnetrista Heritage Collection, 1200 North Minnetrista Parkway

Fort Wayne
Allen County Public Library, 900 Library Plaza

Hanover College Duggan Library, 121 Scenic Drive

University of Southern Indiana David L. Rice Library, 8600 University Blvd.

South Bend
The History Museum, 808 W Washington St.

Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, 536 5th St.

County Historical Societies and Public Libraries

Indiana Public Library Directory locations

Indiana historical societies and historians

Some institutions have digital collections available online. These can contain various types of archival materials such as official documents, journals, maps, and letters. Digital collections are also a fantastic source for images. If you are in need of higher quality images than what is available on the website, some libraries will offer you higher resolution images upon request. Be sure to check out other library websites to see what they offer online!

Online Databases

Conner Prairie, Rural History Project

Crispus Attucks Museum Online

Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archives

Indiana Historical Bureau, Find a Marker

Indiana Historical Bureau, The Indiana Historian

Indiana Historical Society, Destination Indiana

Indiana Historical Society, Digital Collections

Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection

Indiana University Lilly Library, Image Collections Online

Indiana University Press, Indiana Magazine of History


IUPUI Digital Collections

University of Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archives

National Sources

Ancestry Library (not a free website at home, but is available for free at most public libraries)

Civil War Database

Cyndi’s List


Internet Archive

Library of Congress

Library of Congress-Chronicling American

National Archives

National Archives, State Archives listing

Smithsonian Libraries, Digital Collections

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Digitized Collections

Check other out-of-state libraries and museums to see if they have collections online.

Analyzing and Interpreting Your Sources

As you conduct your research, you will be analyzing and interpreting your sources.

Analyzing a source means to break it down and dissect your source in order to better understand your source. It’s taking a deeper look into that source.

Interpreting a source means taking what you have analyzed about that source and using that knowledge to explain what YOU think about the source.

Analyzing Your Sources

In order to ask good research questions, answer those questions, and form and defend your thesis, you must understand your sources. To do this, you will want to carefully analyze your sources – and keep track of what you know by taking good notes.

Questions to consider as you look at your sources:

  • What type of source is this?
  • Who created the source?
  • When was the source created?
  • Why do you think the source was created?
  • For whom do you think the source was created?
  • What do you think is most important about this source?
  • What do you think the author of the source finds most important?
  • What does this tell you about your topic?
  • What does it leave out? What else do you want to know?
  • How do you think people might have felt about this source at the time of its creation?


Interpreting Your Sources

Even after you have created your thesis statement, you should continue to do research on your project. If you find new sources, continue to analyze them. You should also be interpreting your sources to see how they fit into your topic and support your thesis. Use the tips below to help guide you through interpreting your sources:

Think Like a Historian

Compare and contrast different ideas

  • What were the values, personalities, and behaviors of people and groups related to your topic?
  • How were they different?
  • How were they alike?

Draw comparisons across eras and regions

  • How do the important events and ideas in your topic compare to what was going on in other areas of the world?
  • How do they compare to another time?
  • How did ideas and events of the past affect your topic?
  • How has your topic affected ideas and events?

Consider multiple perspectives

  • Much like ideas, what were the differing perspectives of the time?
  • Who viewed important events in your topic as triumphs? Why?
  • Who viewed them as tragedies? Why?

Hypothesize the importance of the past

  • Come to your own conclusions about why your topic is important. What do you want people to learn?
  • What lessons should your audience take away?
  • Why should it be remembered?
  • Does it have any effect on the world today?

Analyze cause and effect

  • Did these differing perspectives lead to the main event of your topic?
  • What are the important moments within your topic that led to the main event?
  • What were the lasting effects and why?

Challenge existing historical narratives

  • Do you agree with your secondary sources? You don’t have to – just be able to prove why you don’t agree.
  • Have you drawn your own conclusions? With good research, you will very likely come to your own conclusions.

Tell your audience what you think
Answer these questions:

  • What is the source telling me?
  • How does it compare to my other sources?
  • Does this source help me to support my thesis?
  • How does this source change my way of thinking about my topic?
How to Email Professionals

During your research, you might find that there are people you can reach out to who can provide you with valuable information related to your topic. These people could be teachers, historians, lawyers authors or even people who were around at the time of your project. It is important to be professional and considerate when contacting these people. Carefully formatting your email is not only courteous but will increase your chances to work with this person on your project. Follow these guidelines below when sending an email inquiry to a professional.


  • Have an informative subject line. Assume this person gets a log of emails a day. If there’s no subject line, it’s likely they’ll pass it over or assume it is spam.
  • Be clear and concise. Share all necessary information, and make it clear what you want from them, but don’t write them a book about it. No one has time or wants to read a super long email if they don’t have to.
  • Be formal. Use correct honorifics, such Dr., Mr., or Ms.
    Tip: For women who do not need to be addressed as Dr., default to Ms. rather than worry if they are married or not.
  • Use correct grammar. Do not use slang or abbreviations.


Subject: National History Day Research Request

Dear Mr. Boomhower,

My name is Hermione Granger and I am a student at Hogwarts. I am currently conducting research on a project for National History Day in Indiana. NHDI is a program for students grades 4-12, where they research and present a project on a historical topic that fits the annual theme. This year’s annual theme is Communication in History. For my project, I am creating a documentary about May Wright Sewell and how she communicated a need for change in Indiana through her work in the women’s suffrage movement. I recently read your book Fighting for Equality: A Life of May Wright Sewell, and it has been a very useful source.

I would like to request a time to speak with you further about May Wright Sewell, and more specifically, conduct an audio-video interview with you for my documentary. I understand that you work at the Indiana Historical Society. Would you be available to meet there on one of the following 3 Saturdays: November 9, 16, or 23? We could do morning or afternoon, whichever you prefer. The whole process should take about 2 hours. Thank you so much for your time!


Hermione Granger




Dear _____,

My name is (your name) and I am a student at (school name). I am currently conducting research on a project for National History Day in Indiana. NHDI is a program for students grades 4-12, where they research and present a project on a historical topic that fits the annual theme. This year’s annual theme is Communication in History. I am doing a project on (your topic)(Briefly explain what you already know about your topic. You want them to know that you have done your research and are serious about this project. Explain how you found out about this person and how they or their work relates to your topic.)

I would like to request a time to speak with your further about my topic. (Make sure you say why you would like to interview them in particular. Be specific about what you would like from them. Do you want an in-person interview? Will you record it? How long do you estimate it will take?) Are you available (Give at least 3 options for a day to meet. Make sure you are scheduling at least a week in advance from the time you send the email.) Thank you for your time!

Sincerely or Best (or any other cordial farewell you prefer),

Your Name



You will most likely have to maintain contact with people you reach out to. The times you suggest might not work for them. If so, suggest additional times. If it seems like meeting in person is not going to work, try another option such as a phone or email interview. Be sure to ask permission to record the interview. If you do an interview over the phone, you can include the audio in your project. If you do it in email form, you can include quotes from the interview in your project. Don’t get discouraged if things happen to not work out as you initially intended.

If they can meet at one of the times you suggested, send a confirmation email. In that email, thank them again for their help and finalize the time and place of your meeting. Include some questions that will be in your interview, so they have an idea of what to prepare for.

Send an additional email one or two day before your scheduled meeting as a gentle reminder or your upcoming interview.

Make sure you look up the directions to your meeting location. Allow extra time for traffic, parking, etc. If you do not or cannot drive, be sure to keep your parent or guardian informed in the planning process.Arrive several minutes before your scheduled time. When you tell them how long the interview will take, round up your estimate. If you think it might take around an hour and a half, tell them two hours. It’s better to end a little earlier than planned than to keep them later than they expected.

After the interview, thank them verbally for their time and help. Offer to share your project with them when it is finished. If they express interest, send them your project after the contest.

Send them another thank you email within the next 24 hours of the interview. In this email, don’t just thank them. Tell them how their help has contributed to your project.

Conducting an Interview

Interviews can help you gain historical context or primary source information, but they are not required. In fact, they may not even be necessary!

To determine if an interview is necessary, you should take a look through as many secondary sources as you can and keep a list of things you want to find out about your topic. As you find things through your primary and secondary sources, cross things off your list. Make sure to look for oral histories and interviews to see what else has already been produced about your topic. If you still have unanswered questions, then you may want to look at talking to a historian or people who were present at the time of your topic.

Helpful hints:

  • Plan out your request; ask for their time thoughtfully.
  • Thank your potential interviewee regardless of a yes or no response to your request.
  • Ask permission to record the interview. Don’t forget to get their written consent if possible.
  • Do some research on your topic and your interviewee before the interview.
  • Plan out your questions ahead of time.
  • Ask more than yes or no questions – a yes or no doesn’t tell you anything! You need and want more details than that.
  • Send a thank-you note after the interview to thank them for their time and information.
  • Ask if they’d like to see your finished project!

These are just a few tips. For more step-by-step guidance on conducting an interview, make sure to check out National History Day’s guidelines on conducting interviews at

Interview Consent Form *COMING SOON*

Using an Archive

Asking for materials

Libraries, museums, and archives are excited about helping others with their research. However, it can be very frustrating for a librarian or archivist when someone calls and asks for information on too broad of a topic.

For example, if you call a library of archives and say, “Hello, I’m doing a history project on the Civil War Do you have any materials that I could come see?” The response might be an overwhelming number of sources. A more appropriate question would be to ask about your narrowed topic. For example, “Hello, I’m doing a research project on Camp Morton in Indianapolis during the Civil War. Do you have any materials related to this?”

Narrowing your request is essential. It will save librarians and archivists time and work pulling items for you to see that don’t fit with your topic. In turn, this also saves you time. If the library or archive has an online catalog, you can see what materials they might have before you even call.

This applies to internet searches as well. Your research will start broad and get narrower as you go along, but you should have more specific terms in mind before looking for sources.

What is an archive?

Like a library, an archive is a place where people can go to find information. Unlike a library, the information in an archive does not come from books, but first-hand, primary sources. These can be letters, notes, reports, memos, photographs, audio and visual sources, and even artifacts. Archivists must take special care of these sources to ensure that they are around for a very long time.

Archival materials are divided into collections. These collections are separated by topic and are organized and stored in a special way. To know what materials are in a collection, you can refer to a collection guide or finding aid. Most archives will have these guides and are often available online. Use these to find what primary sources can help your research.

Reading a collection guide *COMING SOON*

Finding Indiana Historical Society collections online *COMING SOON*

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