It’s a common scene across the country – hundreds of students in various grades, one research theme for all grades, and one school librarian trying to assist each student and provide a worthy library collection. Under the umbrella of a national theme, National History Day (NHD) allows students to choose a topic, event, or person from history to research and present upon.
With more than half a million middle school and high school students participating each year, it is competitive, with the final goal being accepted to nationals each summer in Washington D.C. This year’s theme is “Taking a Stand in History.” The format also varies; students can write a paper, or create a website, documentary, presentation board, or create a performance piece, which means a variety of resources can be employed during the research process.
Using NHD guidelines, grade-specific requirements, and resources provided both in the library and online, collection development and content curation for this project has evolved. It’s a collaboration between library and classroom. It incorporates the library’s physical and digital collections and online resources. The goal is to ensure hundreds of students use the library efficiently as well as meet curriculum guidelines by participating in this nationally recognized research project.
Conversation One: What Will Students Choose?
Preparation for National History Day begins in the spring semester for the next year’s theme, which is chosen by the NHD organization. I try to think of the obvious topics as well as ask all teachers what they think will be popular topics for their specific classes, such as American History or World History.
Often, teachers set guidelines for which time periods students can cover or limit how many students can research one topic. This is helpful in sharing library books if there is a limit on how many students can research one topic. Thankfully, there is budget for new books each year, but collection development goes beyond books. I include our online subscriptions and many free online resources listed with the library’s collection for this project. Teachers reserve the library for classes to brainstorm topics and talking with students helps me learn if books need to be purchased. Teachers approve the topic, but I look at a variety of sources to see if students will have enough quality material to meet the requirements – both in content and diversity of primary and secondary sources.
Conversation Two: Updating the Collection In Addition to Purchasing Books
As I tell the students, our library is also a bridge to other libraries and information sources. The library collection of the 21st century goes beyond traditional library tools and beyond these library walls.
Besides books, I suggest databases, museums within the Smithsonian Institute which provide online access to collections and unique primary sources, other local libraries, inter-library loan, and yes – a basic Google search. Students are familiar with search engines and the familiarity with Google in the brainstorming process helps the project seem tangible. Learning background information with a basic search is important in order to find other key people or details. In other words, additional search terms and resources. I teach students to look at the bibliography and footnotes of articles and books and use citations to find more information.
There are many free, online resources that fit NHD each year. For instance, the search for primary sources takes us to the Library of Congress many times. I also show students WorldCat and how to find books from local libraries or how to request through inter-library loan. Museums and Presidential Libraries provide online access to collections and while the opening of The National Museum of African American History & Culture was last Saturday, much of the collection was online earlier. As civil rights fits into this year’s theme, I had one more resource to show students.
Database Instruction and Learning from Experience
When classes want database instruction, I walk students through basis searches with a few class specific examples. My first year as a school librarian I made a few handouts of database tips and reminders, a practice I did in my 10 years working for the public library. I believed students would come throughout the school days and pick up a handout when it was convenient.
I was wrong. Students sometimes will not ask for help, but will rely on Google. So I changed the way in which I taught database instruction. Now in my third year with National History Day, I walk students through a search for a popular topic. I found it better showcased the library’s database collection. Specific topics work better than a general reminder of search strategies and Boolean operators. Also, no one takes the handouts. Instead, I walk around the table of students as they work on laptops and make everyone click along with my step-by-step instruction hoping that after participating in a database search they can do one alone. For students who struggle with research, they are allowed to return later and we work together one-on-one. I also focus on different databases for different ages based on specific tools of each database and whether it was designed for middle grades or advanced researching.
In lieu of handouts, I update the Middle School and Upper School library’s webpage to have an NHD specific page to include online sources, journals, e-books, and primary sources. I had a realization after my first year that to better assist them – at school or at home – a helpful tool would be to create one set page for this intensive project. What appears as a collection of library resources is actually one webpage listing the online catalog and connecting students to other resources available and organizing it based by type of resource or collection.
Organizing Information: A Variety of Sources in a Variety of Locations
By having online resources, helpful links, or the online catalog on multiple parts of the webpage, I have designed it so students can find information using teacher’s terminology, alphabetically for when students know exactly what they are searching for, or list resources under a project name. This way, regardless of their level of research expertise, students can find the same resources based on their individual search habits. This ensures that students, no matter which way they search, get the full resources the library has to offer. Teachers are also able to link my NHD page to their class website which allows students to access my information another way.
Conversation Three: Curriculum Partnership and the Embedded Librarian
Students log into their online school account, which is where they find websites for their classes. The library is listed as a class in order for students to access our catalog and online subscriptions from any computer. This is an amazing chance for me to showcase the library resources. Besides updating project specific pages for NHD, I can create resources for grade specific projects.
Digital literacy and how to navigate the online catalog and the internet are introduced to our elementary students by their librarians and teachers. I am fortunate that when I get students in Middle School, they already have some library and research skills. This benefits their later research since students are familiar with reading a variety of sources, citing information, and organizing their thoughts. The partnership between the library and classrooms is built on a foundation of communication. I have found once the conversation has begun, teachers are more likely to use the library and give up valuable instruction time so that classes can come to the library to learn about the collection. This is the concept of the embedded librarian. I also familiarize themselves with library knowledge and, as a result of a successful experience, respect the library (and the librarian).
— Sarah Carahan, currently between books
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