Primary Source Activity: Manuscript and Rare Book Grab Bag

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Grade and Level: United States and Virginia History Grade 8 - 11

Instructional Time: Flexible, approximately 20 minutes

Essential Learning: Students will practice analyzing primary sources.

Essential Question: How do primary source documents inform us about events in the past? What different types of primary sources exist?

Classroom Organization: Students in small groups of 2 - 3 students.

Materials and Resources: Computers with Internet Access (Alternatively you could print out the primary sources) and Copies of the Primary Source Analysis Sheet.

Documents: Primary Source Analysis Sheet

Website for Assignment:

  • A Manuscripts and Rare Books Sampler, [1].

Description: We are pleased to present this website of a sampler of treasures from the Manuscripts and Rare Books Department. These treasures represent gifts and purchases over the last ninety years. Many of the items are classics in their own right; others are representative of larger collections. All are landmark works which reflect Swem Library's diversity and strength. Unfortunately, this website cannot convey the strength which the Department has in collections of materials relating to non-elites: ordinary people whose contributions are the fabric of our republic: cabinetmakers, carpenters, slaves, servants, women. In choosing to exhibit what curators refer to as treasures, we chose single works which are highlights of our holdings. We invite researchers to visit our library and dip into all of our collections.

Standards, Benchmarks and Indicators Objectives

National Standards for History

Standard 3: The Student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Standard 4: The student conducts historical research.

Virginia Standards, Benchmarks and Indicators USI.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to a) identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history to 1877;


1. Begin this assignment with a brief review/ presentation on primary and secondary sources.

Suggestion: Free Write - List Primary Sources that a future historian might find from your life, or create two lists of examples of primary and secondary sources. Remember: To explain the difference between primary and secondary sources, ask students when historians might use each type of source. Introduce the idea of bias in sources, ask students how the speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, or tone might change the meaning of the document.

2. Directions for Students: Give students an overview of today's assignment. As historians use primary sources, today you will be analyzing a variety of different primary sources.

3. To the computer lab: Place students in small groups of 2-3. Tell students to access the A Manuscript and Rare Books Sampler', [2], at While students are accessing this site, hand out a Primary Source Analysis Sheet.

Give students a few minutes to become familiar with the website. Ask students what type of information is available, who are the authors, what organization is this website connected to, where could you find information about...etc. You might ask students the difference between a .com and .edu or .org and which one they think would be more useful in research.

4. Once students are familiar with the website, have students either pick one primary source, or assign one. If you are planning on culminating this with oral reports, you might assign different primary sources to ensure variety.

5. When they finish the first document, have students complete the [Primary Source Analysis Sheet].

6. In the computer lab or back in the classroom: Instruct students to create a brief summary of their primary source for their classmates. Encourage each group member to describe what they learned about history from this document. What did they find surprising in the documents? What seems different or similar to today? As group discussion continues, end by summarizing what the next steps of a research project would be: choosing questions, developing a thesis, organizing research, and writing or presenting the information.

Differentiation/Enrichment: Scaffold the activity by assigning dates with largely visual primary sources for low reading levels or shorter primary sources with background information. For enrichment, encourage students to follow links to other Special Collections materials and offer opportunities to write their own analysis or design their own research project.

Assessment Criteria: Students will be assessed through collecting the Primary Source Analysis Sheets, in addition to class discussion following the computer activity. The Primary Source Analysis Sheets should be graded on quality, but teachers should not presume a single correct answer for the open ended questions.