Earlier this summer, the Library of Congress awarded the first “Discovery or Exploration in History Prize” as part of National History Day (NHD) to Danielle Johnson of Faiss Middle School in Las Vegas. Johnson was honored for her project, “The Erie Canal: ‘A Little Short of Madness.’” The prize is sponsored by the Elizabeth Ridgway Fund, established two years ago in memory of the former director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress. Ridgway, who served in that position for seven years, died in 2010 of injuries suffered in a fall while horseback riding. She was 41.
Q. Tell us about your research project on the Erie Canal and how/why you became interested in that particular subject?
I first became interested in the Erie Canal when I saw it on the sample topic list for the 2013 National History Day theme, “Turning Points in History.” I had heard of the canal before, but I didn’t really know what it was so I was eager to learn about it. I also felt a connection to the topic because my grandparents lived in Erie, Penn. Out of the [project] options of performance, documentary, exhibit, website and paper, I was drawn to the exhibit because it allows more hands-on learning and shows more creativity. Along with the display, each student/group had to create a process paper showing how their research had been transformed into the project and an annotated bibliography that cited all of the sources used and the importance of each source.
Q. Your research led you to the Library of Congress. What collections and/or items did you find most informative?
The Library of Congress was the first place my teacher suggested for sources and was where I found my first primary source. This source was a letter written by Abraham Lincoln concerning the Erie Canal. In his letter, Abraham Lincoln said he had chosen a certain engineer to enlarge the locks on the canal. Later, I found another letter written by the New York legislature to the president asking him to decide on the engineer that would enlarge the locks on the Erie Canal to keep the people safe. I realized this letter was the original letter sent to President Abraham Lincoln. This was interesting to see the involvement of New York and the president because the Erie Canal was built entirely by New York State, not the government. Another source I used from the Library was a portrait of DeWitt Clinton. DeWitt Clinton was the man in charge of the whole Erie Canal project, so the portrait helped show others the driving force behind the canal.
Q. What did you learn about the canal that you may not have previously known? Any interesting discoveries found through your research?
Because I created a project on a topic I knew nothing about at the beginning of the year, I became an expert on my topic by the end of the year. This was because I had no limits to my research. My goal was to know more about my topic than anyone else, so I went to every source I could find and learned everything I could. Everything I learned throughout the project was new information. I learned everything from the speed limit of the boats to the worker wages. My favorite discovery towards the end of my research was the quote, “America can never forget to acknowledge that they have built the longest canal in the world, in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money, and to the greatest public benefit,” by William Stone. This quote completed my project. It made the whole thing make sense and showed why the Erie Canal was a turning point in history. Although America was so inexperienced in engineering, they made this amazing canal that helped the country in so many ways, including expanding west, improving transportation and creating jobs.
Q. How did you feel when you were awarded the first “Discovery or Exploration in History Prize” from the Library?
That was just pure excitement. I already knew I hadn’t won for the junior individual exhibit category or outstanding state entry, so this was my last chance to win – not only for me but for Nevada, too. Nevada had quietly sat through nearly three hours of other states running on and off stage, so when the “Discovery or Exploration” award came up on the screen, we were on the edge of our seats. Once my name was called we all just freaked out. I hugged my teacher and ran down to the stage while my mom was crying and cheering at the same time she was trying to record me. I have no idea what I was thinking when I was getting the award other than, “Oh my gosh!!!!” I was just very excited to have won an award at a national competition my first year participating in National History Day (NHD). This was such an amazing award to win because of the backstory of it and Elizabeth Ridgway.
Q. Why do you think it’s important for people to have an understanding and appreciation of history?
I believe it is important for people to have an understanding and appreciation of history because it is the reason we are who we are. It’s our ancestors, our roots and our heritage. History shapes us into the people and the country we are. It’s just like America was shaped by the Erie Canal. America went from a young, inexperienced country to a wiser and more knowledgeable country because of all of the events and history that has happened to it.
Q. Why do you think it’s valuable for the Library to preserve such historical collections, and what do you think the public should know about using them and doing research here?
It’s valuable for the Library to preserve historical collections for research projects just like NHD so people can learn more about their project topics or anything that interests them by using the many primary sources the Library has available. The Library of Congress is the most reliable source website out there and it has information on almost anything you could imagine.
More information about National History Day, the annual contest and all prizes is available at www.nhd.org.