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National History Day in Massachusetts


Finding sources for your National History Day project can be both fun and challenging! You will need to use a variety of primary and secondary sources for your project, which will provide the evidence that you will use to build your historical argument and create your project. To develop your knowledge, NHD recommends that you begin with secondary sources and then move on to primary sources. You can find more information from NHD in the Contest Rule Book

On this page, you'll find information on working with primary and secondary sources, how to conduct NHD interviews, and links to begin your research.

Research Links

Ready to start your research?  Check out this page for links to Massachusetts digital archives, libraries, historical organizations, museums, and other tools to find the sources you need.


What Is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources are created after and about a historical event. Begin building your knowledge of the historical context of your topic by starting your research with secondary sources that are written by credible authors, such as professional historians, whose work reflects thorough research and analysis. Reading secondary materials prepares you to understand and analyze primary sources from the historical event you are researching. Read as many high-quality secondary sources as you can before you look at primary sources. The knowledge you gain from secondary sources forms the foundation of your research and helps you to analyze the primary sources you find.

Types of secondary-source materials include:

  • History textbooks
  • Articles in professional journals and books written by historians
  • Biographies
  • Articles found on credible internet sites

What Is a Primary Source?

The National History Day Contest Rule Book defines a primary source as something created during the time period that you are investigating.

A primary source might be someone who experienced the event you are researching, like a diary written by a soldier in the Revolutionary War. A primary source can also be from the time period, like a newspaper, broadside or poster.  Finally, a primary source can be an oral history account from someone who lived through your time period and remembers it.

Keep in mind that primary sources can come from the time you're researching and still show bias or incorrect information. Historians use multiple sources from many perspectives to gain a balanced view of the past.

Types of primary sources may include:

  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Written materials, such as letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles, and other documents from the time
  • Verbal testimony, such as oral history interviews with people from the time, and oral traditions
  • Visual and oral media like TV, movies, music, radio, and other recorded materials
  • Images and artifacts such as photographs, paintings, drawings, maps, and objects from the time
  • Unedited copies of primary materials found on credible internet sites, such as the websites of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress
  • Anything else that provides a first-hand account about your topic

Check out the New NHD Contest Rule Book for more examples of primary and secondary sources, as well as how to cite them.

Examples of Primary and Secondary Source Materials:

  • A letter written by President Lincoln in 1862 about the Civil War, found on the National Archives and Records Administration website, is a primary source.
  • An oral history with a Japanese American who was interned during World War II is a primary source for a project about Japanese internment.
  • An article about the Vietnam War published in 2015, written by a historian who was not involved in the war, is a secondary source. By contrast, an interview about the Vietnam War with a Vietnam War veteran is a primary source.

How to Find Primary Sources In Your Secondary Sources

What do you do when you find a great primary source (like a photo, a quote, or a work of art) shown in the secondary source you're reading (like in a textbook or quoted on a website)?  Watch this video and learn how to mine those secondary sources for great primary sources!


Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Your NHD Project

Looking for guidance on how you may use (and may not use) AI tools when creating an NHD project? Check out this handout!

Please note: This is guidance as of September 2023. NHD will continue to update the guidance as the research and technology develops.


NHD Student Nora's Student Interview Tools
Podcast: How Do I Conduct an Interview?
Email/Voicemail Template: How Do I Request an Interview?

While interviews are not required for an NHD project, oral history interviews often offer unique and exciting opportunities to add to your primary sources.  Learn more about interviewing subjects for your NHD project with the NHD Guidelines for Interviewing, which has suggestions for developing interview questions, interview etiquette, email templates, and more.

Interviewing an expert who was not involved in the event is a form of secondary-source research. Interviews with experts are not required for NHD projects. NHD does not recommend that students interview experts for secondary-source material and recommends that students read their written works instead.