Myra Billund-Phibbs remembers coming to Wilson Library for National History Day when she was a middle school student in Bloomington, Minnesota.
“I had never been here, and my mind was blown. It was really cool. I remember the wonder, and I looked at microfilm, and I had never seen that before, so that was fun,” said Billund-Phibbs, a doctoral student and teacher’s assistant at the University of Minnesota’s Department of History. “I loved working on my History Day project at that time, and I had a lot of fun with it, and this was a big part of stimulating my interest in history.”
Starting in the fall each year, students begin a year-long research project related to an annual theme designated by the educational nonprofit, National History Day (NHD), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
This year’s theme is Turning Points in History. It’s a broad topic encompassing seemingly small moments, like the personal choice in one historical figure’s life, or monumental moments that changed entire nations.
Emily Yang and Ian Hoogheen, two eighth grade students at Fridley Middle School, decided to research the first crewed international space mission, Apollo-Soyuz, a joint endeavor by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1975.
“It was a big breakthrough in the international space mission and led to a lot of things that are on the International Space Station–” Hoogheen said.
“–and we just really like space,” Yang added.
To find primary and secondary sources for their projects, over 1,150 students from 17 different schools will visit Wilson Library this year. And at the Gopherbaloo on Saturday, Jan. 13, 104 students attended to receive one-on-one help from History Day staff members, undergraduate mentors, and Libraries staff members.
For these young students, the Libraries offer something that can be difficult to find otherwise — chiefly books and online resources — but also inspiration.
“Many of them are in awe of just being on campus,” said Aaron Cuthbert, a teacher at Fridley Middle School.
Cuthbert has been teaching for 12 years and has participated in History Day for nearly as long. He thinks students need these library visits, and they’ve been desperately missed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Fridley Middle School hasn’t held an in-person visit since 2019. In the past, the school has taken whole grades, but now they’ve scaled back, bringing only a small group of students.
“It’s important for them to learn how to interact with a physical library and how to find resources and books. It’s an experience that many of them don’t have,” Cuthbert said. “Probably only half of the kids have even spent any time in a normal public library, let alone an academic library.”
“It’s a socially responsible way to make this collection more accessible and engage with K-12 students who are not normally going to either know about an academic library, or feel like they can come here.”
—Myra Billund-Phibbs, History Day Mentor
Billund-Phibbs agrees, and added that the Libraries has always been supportive of National History Day, in particular Theresa Heitz, the Student Experience, Learning, and Accessibility Specialist, has been “incredible and really wonderful to work with.”
Billund-Phibbs likes history, but becoming a historian wasn’t part of the original plan. During her undergraduate years at the U of M, she ended up taking a lot of history coursework. She started volunteering at the Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, later working as the project manager for the Transgender Oral History Project. It was through that work that she seriously considered history as a profession.
Billund-Phibbs joined History Day first as a mentor, helping a group of seventh graders at Maplewood Middle School, even though she’d never worked with kids before.
“I was terrified, but I just jumped in. I was helping them with their projects, and it was a lot of fun,” she said.
Now, Billund-Phibbs helps organize the same History Day visits to Wilson Library that inspired her years ago.
She understands that an academic library can feel big, and even intimidating. For eighth-grade student Duan Addelaal, who’s researching The Black Death, Wilson Library feels “really big. I got lost like a bunch of times.”
But Billund-Phibbs remembers how important and wonderful it was when Wilson Library welcomed her as a middle schooler. It made her feel that the library was for her.
“It’s a socially responsible way to make this collection more accessible and engage with K-12 students who are not normally going to either know about an academic library, or feel like they can come here,” Billund-Phibbs explained. “In a way we’re continuing that work, and we’re showing middle school students that this collection is for them too.”