Primary sources are the raw materials that researchers, historians, archeologist, and others use to study history. They are the original documents and objects that were created from the period you are studying. Examples include government documents, censuses, letters, diaries, newspapers, objects and artifacts, photographs, cartoons, posters, artwork, poems, video recordings, sound recordings, and maps.
Maybe you are asking yourself, where can I find a historical map from the 1830s of St. Thomas? Government documents? Paintings of Christiansted, St. Croix? Artifacts from Amerindian settlements on St. John? Old Newspapers? Photographs of Water Island? These items exist, and are available. Primary sources relevant to the history of the US Virgin Islands are found largely in archives, museums, and libraries in Denmark, on the US mainland, and in the US Virgin Islands.
In recent years, digitization combined with online access to digitized collections, have made it easier for researchers, educators, and students to view primary sources related to US Virgin Islands history. The largest collection of relevant digitized primary source material is available from institutions in Denmark. They include documents, maps, photos, artifacts, paintings and newspapers from the Danish period of US Virgin Islands history (Danish West Indies, pre-1917). Some digitized primary sources for the US period (US Virgin Islands, 1917 to present) are available online, mainly through institutions on the mainland. Very little of the documents and objects held by the Territorial Archives, and by libraries and museums in the territory have been digitized.
This website was developed to encourage the use of the existing and growing collections of digitized primary sources related to the US Virgin Islands. By introducing students to primary documents and objects you can prompt their curiosity, improve critical thinking, foster analysis skills, and give students a greater sense of connection to past events, people, and times.
Before You Begin
Familiarize yourself with primary sources as needed. Review the definition, become familiar with examples, and be aware of the differences between primary sources, secondary and tertiary sources.
There are many major national institutions that in recent years developed programs, including guides, on using primary sources. The Library of Congress has a Teacher’s Guide and Analysis Tool related to primary sources. It is a good place to start. Another good resource is from the Smithsonian, they have a detailed booklet called Engaging Students with Primary Sources.
On this Website – Primary Source Activity Ideas for Teaching US Virgin Islands History
On this website you will find 42 classroom activities to get you started using primary sources related to Virgin Islands history. The activities can be used as they are, or you can adapt them to suit your teaching objectives, and your students.
Introducing Primary Sources to Students
Introduce what a primary source is, give examples, and compare it to secondary sources. This should be done the first few times students work with primary sources.
Provide brief background information, as needed, to put the primary source in context.
Use a Primary Source Analysis Tool or Worksheet. We provide nine of them on the Worksheets page. They provide guiding questions that students will use to analyze the primary source. You may want to add additional questions like:
- What did you see first when you looked at the item or document?
- Are there any words or ideas you do not know that need to be explained?
- Is there anything you didn’t expect?
- What thoughts do you have about the primary source?
- What questions does it raise?
The idea is to encourage students to work with their classmates to discuss and to interpret the primary sources that you present to them.
Difficult and Sensitive Topics in History
There are primary sources that deal with difficult topics such as slavery, racism, human rights, war, and disease/death. Students may be upset by the content and have difficulty processing the primary sources related to these and other topics. It is helpful to talk to students about sensitive topics before showing them the related original source material. Additionally, there are terms used in some primary sources that describe race and people that are not acceptable to use today. These terms, when encountered, should be discussed prior to looking at the primary source with students.
Promote Inquiry and Questions through Discussion
When students work with primary sources, they will likely have questions. They may find some things contradict what they previously learned or thought. They may find there are different points of view between them and their classmates. Discussing their questions and views can help students to confront the complexities of the past and foster skills that help to understand current events as well. Encourage students to think about the following questions as applicable.
- What was happening during the time?
- What was the purpose of creating the primary source?
- Who was meant to see or use the primary source?
- What biases or stereotypes do you see?
Finally, help students identify questions, theories, judgements that they formulate while analyzing a primary source, and discuss how they might further investigate. Develop strategies for where they might find more information, and how they might find answers to their questions.
Developing Lessons with Primary Sources On Your Own
This website includes 42 activities built around primary sources related to US Virgin Islands history. They are intended to serve as an introduction to the possibilities that exist for bringing primary sources into the classroom. There are large amounts of original sources, from photos to documents, and artwork to poems, that can be used to research and teach history.
The first step in creating your own activities is to select one or more primary sources that support the learning objectives that you have, and that are accessible to you and to students. Visit the Resources page of this website to find institutions with digitized collections and material related to the US Virgin Islands. It is recommended that you use materials in archives, museums and libraries because they typically contain information related to who created the item, the time period the item is from, and other pertinent reference material. Information that is helpful for the next step.
Next, primary sources require context to help understand them, therefore you must include a brief background of who wrote it, when, where, and what was going on at that time. Sometimes this information is in the metadata included with digitized primary sources online. After preparing the background, you will develop discussion prompts and activities related to the primary source(s) you selected. And finally introduce the material and activity to your students.