Good question!

I’ve had a few teachers, students, and parents call me the last couple of days with some really good questions.  I thought it might be befenicial for everyone if I put them here, so here we go!

Q: How do I cite a primary source quote that I got out of a secondary source book?

A: This is a really really really good question, and I bet every single researcher in the world has run into this situation at least once.  Let’s set up a scenario here:  Say you are doing your project on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  You are reading a great book written by a historian on the time period, and stumble across an incredible quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that proves your thesis statement.  Sure, you could stop right there and use the quote directly out of the secondary source book this way:

MLA in-text example:  Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked, “Human salvation lies in the lands of the creatively maladjusted” (qtd. in McHistorian 123). 

Turabian foonote example: Martin Luther King, Jr., “[title primary source document that quote came from],”[primary source publication information]; quoted in History McHistorian, Really Important Things about the Civil Rights Movement, 123. Cooperstown: New York History Day Press, 2008.

And in your bibliography, you must cite the secondary source.  Yup, sorry.  You can’t count this quote as a primary source because you didn’t find it in a primary source.  You can put in your annotation that what you used was a primary source.

But let me suggest you go about this quote in a different way: go find the primary source and take the quote directly from it.  Sure, it may take a little more time, but you’ll be a better researcher for it.  How do you start your search for the primary source?  Check out the citation of the secondary source author.  Dr. History McHistorian had to find that quote somewhere, didn’t he?  Check his notes pages, citations, and bibliogpraphy.  Oftentimes they will refer you directly to the institution, library, archive, and maybe even website where the original quote is from. 

Trust me, the extra work will pay off.  Teachers will notice, judges will notice, and you’ll feel like you did a more thorough job.

 Q: Is there an official rule that states how old a historical event has to be before it can be picked as a History Day topic?

 A. As far as I know there is no official rule, but there are some strongly suggested guidelines.  In essence, NHD suggests that students pick a topic that happened at least one generation ago, or roughly 30 years.  Why?  Well, as far as I can reckon, there are two good reasons: 1. A sufficient amount of time must pass after a historical event in order for historians, the public, etc. to gain an objective view of it.  Events that happened recently – like September 11 and Hurricane Katrina – are so recent that the full historical impact of these events can not yet be determined.  2: Events that are less than 30 years old tend to have fewer reliable primary source materials available, and primary sources are the thing with History Day. 

Since the 30 year gap isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, judges can’t penalize entries that focus on recent history.  However, the students who pick recent topics will most likely be questioned about it by the judges.  They will ask some hard questions about historical perspective that may not be so fun to answer on the spot.  Students who place a lot of value on the competition aspect of the program should make it easy for themselves and focus on older topics.  However, if you are really interested in studying the history behind a current event and don’t care if you win in competition or not, I’d say you should do what makes you happiest.

As always, let me know if you have any questions.  I am here to help!


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