So you have an idea of the history you want to unearth. What’s next? It’s time to do some digging!
Research can feel intimidating sometimes, particularly when you’re trying to find images, quotes, and film clips worthy of appearing in your movie. But, before you can create your documentary, you need to become an expert on your topic. The first step is research. At its heart, research is about unearthing treasure. Some of these treasures might appear as images or clips in your documentary, but don’t worry about that yet. Start with learning all you can about your topic and keeping good notes for your bibliography. As you see images or clips that might fit in your documentary, make a note of them and continue reading.
It can be helpful when thinking about researching to divide your hunt for primary sources and your hunt for secondary sources (for more ways to tell a primary from a secondary source, check out our worksheets below!).
When you’re researching, once you’ve decided on a research topic, it’s time to hit the secondary sources! What has been written about this topic before? Who has said what, and why. The search for secondary sources needs to be a discerning one. Only some secondary sources are going to be useful. In fact, you may not find many secondary sources on a lesser-known or local topic, but do not despair! Secondary sources also are important because they provide you with the context of the time and a broader picture, which you’ll need to analyze your topic’s significance in history. For example, if your topic is on a local civil rights event, you may not find a lot of secondary sources about it. However, reading such sources on the broader Civil Rights Movement is important in helping you analyze your topic’s place and significance in the movement. There are a lot of people on the internet who might think they know something about your topic, but it’s up to you to determine if their perspective is worthwhile. Will it help you tell an accurate and well-researched story?
When you’re searching for primary sources, though, you get to throw your research web more broadly–every letter from someone written during the time period you’re researching, and every photo from the street you’re digging into over time, can all be a useful source for understanding your story. So when you’re hunting for primary sources, the key is coming up with as many kinds of sources that might be useful as possible and knowing where to hunt them down. Check out the Library of Congress link below to get started on this where to hunt. And remember: you can also manufacture your own primary sources by conducting oral history interviews and taking photos and videos of your topics today when it’s relevant.
Together your primary and secondary sources will help you narrow down the story you want to tell.
Begin your secondary research at your school or local library, or online. Consider some keywords to type into the search bar. Use a variety of keywords as you get started and add additional keywords as you learn more.
Helpful Links for Research
Using the Library of Congress Online
A great introduction to researching using the Library of Congress.
National History Day
A list of primary source research guides
Library of Congress newspaper archive
Smithsonian's virtual archives
Mina Rees Library
An amazing compilation of free research guides, from digitized library resources to African American history archives, and tips on how to best use different search engines.
National History Day
A National History Day specific resource for secondary source articles