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Finding the Performance in Primary Sources: Tips for Succeeding in National History Day

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This is a guest post by Alli Hartley-Kong, an Educational Programs Specialist in the Library’s Informal Learning Office. 

Although I am only weeks into my new role as an Educational Programs Specialist with the Library of Congress, I’ve been a user of the Library of Congress for over half my life. Other kids in high school were sports kids or marching band kids, but I was a National History Day kid, competing in the performance division. I spent countless hours during my formative teenage years pondering how to turn historical manuscripts into factually-accurate and compelling ten-minute plays. Considering that, it’s no surprise I work for the Library of Congress today!

Student in a long red dress with black lapels smiles while standing in a hallway.
Alli Hartley-Kong competing in National History Day in 2010. Photo courtesy of the author.

I was excited to learn during my onboarding that in 2019, the Library of Congress awarded National History Day a grant to develop educational programming and resources as a member of the Library‘s Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium. Funded by this Library of Congress grant and working with staff in the Library’s Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives office, National History Day has developed a co-produced and co-branded guide for teachers, and is currently writing a guide for students. Click here to access the Teacher Guide and other materials that connect NHD teachers and students to the Library’s vast resources.

My main project at the Library is developing a new onsite experience for youth. One of the questions we’re exploring is how research feeds the creative process. As I look back on how research sparked my own creativity as a teen, I wanted to share some tricks and tips for success in the performance division, inspired by his new resource, the Library collections, and my own experiences.

Develop your argument first

Historical research—a multiplicity of sources and a thorough analysis—count for 60% of a NHD score. Presentation elements are another 20%. But it’s important to remember that relation to the theme—in essence, the “so what?” or thesis—is another 20%.

Start your research with primary and secondary sources. Check out our primary source sets from for inspiration, then explore secondary sources that put your primary sources in context! Remember, use your research to determine what your thesis will be, rather than coming up with a thesis first and then trying to find evidence to support it.

The first year I did National History Day, I tried looking for documents that seemed “performative”—looking for words I could quote, and references to characters I wanted to play. When it came time to put it all together, my project lacked a clear thesis—and I had to go back and redo my research from the beginning. Over the next years, the process was much easier when I devised my thesis first.

Primary sources create an authentic environment

When I was developing my performance on Abigail Adams, I went down a research rabbit hole about the type of serving china the family had in the White House. Little details can make a performance environment immersive and create a sense of authenticity. Based on my research, I borrowed colored sharpies from my school’s art room to decorate a simple ceramic plate. With some guidance from an art teacher on a coating spray, I fabricated my prop for under $3. It seems silly that one prop could have such a large effect, but when I held that prop, I felt a deep historical connection to my topic.

Student in colonial dress with quill pen on table, reading from a paper.
Alli Hartley-Kong competing in National History Day in 2009. Photo courtesy of the author.

Think about all the little, ancillary things people do that make them human—humming a song absent-mindedly, or whistling while they work. In order to make your performance more authentic, consider incorporating background music or have your characters hum something from the period to set the time as they walk onstage. Are there any songs in the National Jukebox that you can incorporate?

One year when I did a performance on settlement houses, I painted a “backdrop” on an old bedsheet, inspired by the Chicago skyline. It wasn’t the best—memorably, it fell during one performance—but creating an accurate background forced me to look closely at historic photographs in a way I never had before. If you’re planning on creating scenery, get inspired by the Prints and Photographs division or the collections of the Maps and Geography Reading Room !

Include multiple points-of-view

Any good historical resource project includes multiple points of view. I often found that while I encountered a multiplicity of sources from different perspectives in my research, it was sometimes hard to get these sources to “talk” with each other in an individual performance. One trick I learned over time to introduce other ideas and add conflict—an important dramatic element—was to read letters and newspapers out loud during my performance.  

Chronicling America is an incredible resource that the Library provides to anyone with an internet connection, but it can be overwhelming. Topic guides provide an accessible place to start finding newspaper sources. Even in an individual performance, it’s easy to include newspapers! I wrote a monologue for a museum a few years ago. In it, a character read a newspaper editorial from the time period she was portraying and reacted in-character. By the end of the piece, the audience was also sharing their own perspectives every time she put the newspaper down to deliver her commentary. It was fun to write, interesting to research counterpoints to the editorial, and even more gratifying to see an audience react in real-time to hearing a primary source read out loud.

It takes a community

My final tip for NHD is more personal—but probably the most important. Even individual projects in NHD rely on the efforts of many people. Always be open to asking for help, because adults may know of a resource you hadn’t yet encountered. When I was working on my first NHD project, a secondary source I was reading had footnotes that directed readers to a newspaper article. I mentioned to my teacher Mr. Porter that I couldn’t find this particular newspaper, and he showed me how to browse on a relatively-new resource: Chronicling America. Since then, I’ve never stopped using Library resources for school and personal projects.

Although Mr. Porter passed away a few years ago, his voice lives on in the Library of Congress. He spoke about his experience in the Persian Gulf War for the Veteran’s History Project. It’s comforting to know that maybe one day, a student will use his words as a primary source for their own History Day projects.

If there are any fellow National History Day alum out there, or anyone working on a performance, please feel free to drop a note in the comments. Performance may seem like an intimidating division, but it can be incredibly rewarding to share directly with an audience, hear them applaud, and feed off their energy.

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