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National History Day: Choosing Standout Topics Using Library of Congress Primary Sources

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This time of year, thousands of students are selecting topics for their 2014 National History Day projects. In this guest post, Lynne O’Hara, Director of Programs for National History Day, offers pointers for using free online primary sources from the Library of Congress to choose a topic that stands out from the crowd.

Lynne O’Hara, Director of Programs for National History Day

National History Day is a program in which over 600,000 students around the world in grades 6-12 will engage in meaningful historical research and present their findings to panels of experts at the school or regional level.  The most successful will present their work at the 57 affiliate contests (fifty states, Washington, D.C., Guam, American Samoa, Korea, Puerto Rico, China and South Asia) and the best will compete at the (inter)national contest held at the University of Maryland in June 2014.

Right now, many teachers and students are gearing up for National History Day’s 2014 contest, featuring the Rights and Responsibilities in History theme.  As the new Director of Programs for National History Day, my job is to be a resource for teachers and students across the country.

With that in mind, I wanted to share some ideas for using the unique primary sources at the Library of Congress to choose a topic that’s a little off the beaten path. Please know that there is no “right” or “wrong” topic—these are just a few examples that I generated with a few quick searches at

  • When we think about Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin and George Washington come to mind, but sometimes we forget about Alexander Hamilton.  Why did he think having a strong federal government, at the expense of individual liberties, was so important?  Look at his notes and see.
  • During George Washington’s administration, he fought long and hard with Thomas Jefferson to create a stable economic system, despite the fact that it included very unpopular taxes.  Why did he think this was necessary?  What were Thomas Jefferson’s objections? How do they compare to the debates of today?
  • Suffrage is a topic that jumps into many students’ minds with this theme.  Many Americans know about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, but what about Mary Church Terrell?  She was the head of the National Association for Colored Women and she argued that all women deserved the right to vote regardless of race, a radical idea in the late 1800s.  By the way, September 23 is Mary’s birthday – check her out!
  • Students interested in Native American rights often turn to the stories of the famous (or infamous) Indian Schools.  But what defines citizenship?  Did you know that during the Great Depression the Federal Writers Project, famous for interviewing former slaves in the American South, also interviewed Native Americans on the Great Plains? When were Native Americans granted full rights as US citizens?  Sadly, not until 1924 under President Calvin Coolidge.  See his picture here.
  • We often consider rights and responsibilities to be a domestic topic, but what about US foreign policy?  When President James Monroe declared the Monroe Doctrine, former President Thomas Jefferson was very unhappy about it, and told him so in this letter.
  • Consider this 1902 letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Secretary of State John Hay about the Panama Canal as a potential topic starter.
  • Japanese American internment was a controversial decision of World War II.  But could young men interned in the camps be drafted?  Hmmm, now that’s interesting….what would men like this have said about it? How did some Japanese Americans use their military service to prove their loyalty to the US?  Jimmie Kanaya knows.
  • As women entered the military in greater numbers, they had to fight for equal pay.  Jeanne Holm tells her experiences.

These are just a handful of the hundreds of topics that fit the theme.  Happy researching!

If you’re interested in developing an NHD program at your school, please contact Lynne O’Hara, Director of Programs at [email protected]

For more classroom resources, visit NHD’s teacher resource page.

While you’re there, consider applying to our Normandy Institute – fifteen student-teacher teams will explore the Normandy Campaign in Washington, D.C., and Normandy, France.


Comments (5)

  1. Love, love, love this blog posting! How timely and preparatory for 2014 NHD teachers and students.

  2. Well written, and insightful.

    Students often benefit when they do something as simple as use a modifier such as or with a Google search.

    In some ways, it’s ridiculous how easily students can get primary documents if they persist at looking the right way. Good examples, Lynne.

  3. My granddaughter is in the 8th grade and needs to choose a topic for a National History project at school. She wants a topic that no one else in her class or school would pick. How do we go about choosing a unique topic for this type of project. We were thinking of maybe doing something on how immigration from other countries into America has changed from the time of the Pilgrims and other early settlers to the process that is gone thru today to come to America and become a citizen. We are not sure if this would be a topic that would apply to National History.

    Can someone maybe contact me to and let me know if this is a topic that would be considered national History? [email protected] and note National History in the subject line

    Thank you

  4. Debbie, this is a great question!

    Rather than tracing the entire history of immigration from the Pilgrims to today (a topic that would require volumes of books), you could focus on a particular group or time period. You might want to look at a group who settled in a particular town or left their home nation for a specific reason.

    This is a great example of taking a large trend in history (ie, Irish immigration, Jewish immigration, etc) and personalizing it to a local area to see the impact that these immigrants had as they chose to remain in the US and become citizens (or not).

  5. I found Lynn O’Hara and the Normandy project while searching for information about my deceased uncle Willard U Begel who is buried in Normandy. Is there any way to get further information about him and the projects results. My father always talked lovingly about his big brother Willard who never came home from the war. I am so pleased that he was discovered by a student through this project.

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