First-time visitors to special-collections libraries and archives across the city are often greeted by an unexpected sight: high school students flipping through manuscripts and other primary source documents.

Far from being the exclusive preserve of leather-elbowed academics, these cultural repositories are the point of departure for hundreds of Philadelphia students as they assemble their National History Day (NHD) projects.

NHD is an academic competition for sixth to 12th graders designed to improve their research, writing, and critical thinking skills. Its name, however, is a bit misleading: NHD is in fact a yearlong program, involving students from across the country. It began in 1974 as a local initiative in Cleveland. Today, a half-million students participate each year, aided by more than 30,000 teachers.

Working either individually or as a team, students research topics based on a different annual theme - this year's is "Taking a Stand" - and create a documentary, exhibit, essay, performance, or website. Entries are judged by volunteers, first at the local and regional level, and then at the national competition in Washington.

While researching their topic, students are encouraged to visit local repositories to explore primary sources often absent from the classroom, including letters, diaries, and other firsthand accounts from the past.

"In a normal history class, you always get to see the big picture," said Alicia Parks, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's education manager. Through primary source research, students "can see an individual's life, and the things that mattered to them."

Researching in a special-collections library or archive can be daunting for teachers, let alone high schoolers. For one thing, many primary sources are in cursive, something students now rarely encounter.

For a softer landing for NHD projects, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania offers a free after-school student mentor program.

"Being able to have a mentor to introduce them to archives is really an eye-opening experience for them and us," Parks continued, because "often students don't realize these resources even existed."

After competing at the state level, a Philadelphia NHD participant reflected: "History is a never-ending story, and there are so many different perspectives."

For the fifth year in a row, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania will host Philadelphia's National History Day kickoff Oct. 17. Representatives from more than 20 cultural institutions will share their resources for student research during this free workshop. Visit hsp.org/Calendar to register.