Fondren Library helps high school student win national history contest

Rice students, faculty and staff aren’t the only people who know that Fondren Library is an ideal place for conducting research and studying.

Matthew Broussard, a student at Impact Early College High School at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, credits Fondren for his string of successes at the National History Day contest. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

For many members of the Houston area community, the library is also a prized resource for personal and school-related research projects – from genealogical research to budding inventors and patent-seekers doing research on patents. With a collection of approximately 2.5 million print volumes and approximately 72,000 print and electronic serial titles, Fondren is considered one of the state’s premier academic libraries.

Matthew Broussard, who just completed his sophomore year at Impact Early College High School at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, credits Fondren for his string of successes at the National History Day contest.

National History Day is a yearlong academic program focused on historical research for sixth- to 12th-grade students. This year more than 600,000 students from all 50 states and some foreign countries participated in local and state competitions. Of those, 2,800 students advanced to the National History Day contest, which was held in June in College Park, Md.

Broussard competed with about 80 students in the Individual Performance category for grades 9 through 12 to win his third first-place honor. He also came in first in 2013 and 2011. Working under the direction of his teacher, Steve Koester, Broussard gave a 10-minute performance titled “Writs, Rights and Responsibilities: Franklin on the Origins of the Fourth” in which he tried to impersonate an elderly Benjamin Franklin speaking on the importance of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Dara Flinn, right, an archivist and special collections librarian in Fondren's Woodson Research Center, and Broussard discussed some of the rare books and manuscripts accessed for his research.

To prepare the presentation, Broussard conducted extensive primary and secondary research at Fondren. In particular, he drew on the rare books and manuscripts housed in the library’s Woodson Research Center and on the center’s staff. Broussard analyzed and interpreted his sources and drew conclusions about the topic’s significance in history. He said Fondren houses all of Franklin’s written materials — books, diaries, letters and manuscripts.

Broussard said his introduction to Fondren stemmed from a need to improve his performances when he first began competing in National History Day contests as a sixth-grader in 2010.

Initially, he didn’t expect much to come out of his participation. “The attitude of most people, including myself, was to just get it over with, do the project and finish it,” Broussard said. “I wanted to quit at the school level, but I got first place, so my teacher said, ‘Why don’t you just go ahead and do it?’ I went to regionals, got first place, wanted to quit right there. My teacher said to just keep going, a little further. I went to state and won first there. Now I was invested and going to nationals. I did not make it to finals at nationals. One of the comments the judges had was that my research wasn’t balanced enough and I didn’t have enough primary sources.” A retired teacher at the contest suggested he look into Rice’s library.

One year later at the age of 12, Broussard walked into Fondren Library with his parents, Mark and Bonnie Broussard. “It was a little intimidating at first,” Matthew Broussard said. “But the staff was very helpful; even the students were helping. It was just a very good environment.” He would win the 2011 contest with a performance titled “The Treaty of Paris: The Ultimate Game of Chess,” which highlighted Franklin’s role in negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris with Great Britain.

Obtaining and sifting through primary sources is time-consuming but well worth the effort, Broussard said. For this year’s performance, he underscored the remarkable feat of obtaining a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation dated 1863 and recalled searching Boston newspapers dated 1760-1761. The task required more than the allotted one-hour log-in pass he received for the database. A Fondren librarian provided him with an extended log-in pass. “You lose track of time,” Broussard said. “I was so happy to have a three-hour password.”

Bonnie Broussard said judges at the national contests are routinely impressed with the sources her son is able to find. “They can tell we’re not from the East Coast and they ask, ‘Where did you get your hands on these sources?’” she said.

“The Fondren Library is proud to serve as a resource to researchers in the Houston community,” said Vice Provost and University Librarian Sara Lowman. “For many years, the library has worked with high school international baccalaureate and honors programs who use the library for intensive research on their extended essays, including Bellaire High School, Eisenhower High School, Westchester Academy and Duchesne Academy. We consider outreach to the public to be a valuable community service and are very pleased to learn that Matthew’s research skills and use of the Fondren Library’s collections and services helped him earn his first-place medal.”

About Jeff Falk