CARLISLE — Whether it is a factory fire or the atom bomb, researching history begins with a burning question.
Historians young and old are always looking for ways to refine the search for answers that begins with the selection of a topic and ends with the completion of the project.
Carlisle High School senior Emily Keating and sophomore Mary Smith both have experience in the process as participants in the National History Day competition.
“Chose a topic that intrigues you,” Mary said. “You have to have some connection. If you feel emotional toward it, you would be a lot more serious about it. You will learn more about what is important to you.”
Last year, Mary was one of four students who based an entry in the group performance category around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911. On that day in New York City, 146 garment district workers died in one of the deadliest industrial disasters up to that time.
Most of the victims were immigrant women who came to the United States in the search of opportunity, only to die in a fire that served as a catalyst for reform in workplace safety and women’s rights.
To Smith, it was fascinating how workers who were mistreated were given a voice among both survivors and protesters, and that they were able to bring about change.
“You want the topic to be yours,” Emily said. “Look for what inspires you the most and decide on a delivery format that works best for you.”
Emily first participated in National History Day in the eighth grade when she chose the atom bomb as a topic for an exhibit. Last year, she split her time between creating a website about Three Mile Island for the history day competition and participating in the NHD Fallen Soldier Project.
For the fallen soldier project, Emily created a website saluting Medal of Honor recipient John Joseph Pinder Jr. From the start, she was drawn to learn more about Pinder by his likeable personality.
Her enthusiasm for the subject matter earned Emily recognition through the “Silent Heroes: The Sacrifice for Freedom Project” through the National World War II Museum. The project also sparked so much discussion among relatives that the family decided to donate his medals to a museum.
In every case, Emily started by learning the background to put the topic into its proper context. National History Day judges want to see the before, during and after of every topic to track how the history was changed by the person or event.
Mary compared research to a pyramid. The researcher should start with the background contained in secondary sources as a foundation before moving to primary sources closer to the topic. It is always a good idea to pick a topic as close to your hometown as possible, she said.
She explained that proximity increases the likelihood of locating such primary sources as journals, diaries, newspaper accounts and eyewitness testimony.
She said primary sources are important because they provide vivid details on exactly what happened, but it can be a challenge at times to find unbiased material, especially if the topic involves an event or issue that is emotionally or politically charged.
Her advice is to seek out as many primary sources as possible, analyze the material and then sort out patterns in the facts that are given.
“You will find tons of common denominators,” Mary said. She said the researcher should also consult information from either the government agency conducting the investigation or records kept at the National Archives or Library of Congress.
In the case of the Triangle fire, it was important for Smith and her teammates to know the laws that were in place before and after the tragedy to gain an understanding of how the disaster brought about reform. One source they used was the U.S. Department of Labor and Industry.
Emily has been fortunate in all three of her projects. For the atom bomb, she had the opportunity to talk with a World War II veteran who was assigned to the 509th Composite Group on Tinian. This was the Army Air Corps unit tasked with dropping the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The man knew Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay.
For her Three Mile Island project, Emily was able to interview the superintendent of the Carlisle Area School District during the March 1979 crisis. As for Pinder, she exchanged email messages with family members who knew the soldier best.
“Don’t be afraid to share information with other historians,” Emily said. “Also, don’t wait until the last minute. Get it done in a timely manner. Procrastination will come back to haunt you.”
When juggling two or more research projects at once, Emily recommends switching focus periodically from one to the next so you can come back later with a fresh perspective.