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PrimaryAccess User's Guide
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A guide to PrimaryAccess v3.0

PrimaryAccess is a web-based tool that offers teachers and students frictionless access to digital images and materials that enable them to construct compelling personal narratives.

The connected world of the internet offers unprecedented opportunities for students and teachers to access an impressive archive of primary source historical documents from the convenience of their web-browser. It is widely agreed among educators that students who effectively use primary source documents will develop better historical thinking skills than they would using another author’s interpretation.

PrimaryAccess offers students and teachers the opportunity to use primary source documents to create digital movies (historical narratives) that provide a compelling and meaningful learning experience. Historical Narratives A historical narrative is a short digital movie that explores some facet of history. It is typically 1-3 minutes in length, contains a montage of images, text or movies accompanied by a narration done in the students own voice.

Since much of our history occurred before the invention of movies and television, many of the primary sources available are photographs, still images, and documents. With easy to use tools provided by PrimaryAccess, narrators can add motion to these otherwise static images (i.e., the “Ken Burns effect”).

These narratives typically follow a story structure, with a beginning, middle, and end, providing an educational and entertaining experience for both creator and viewer alike. The act of producing the narrative provides a strong active learning experience, in which the learner must research the topic, actively construct meaning from the primary documents available, craft a written story that conveys that understanding to others, and finally, create a movie that uses the documents to accompany the narration in a visually compelling manner.

Write Your Script

Your first step in creating a digital movie is to write your narrative or script. To do this, you may want to start by creating an outline of topics. As you create your movie, you can flesh out each topic with narrative.  You will see example text already on the script panel. To create your own narrative, click on this text to remove it and type in your own script.

You can also use our text to speech option to dictate your script instead of typing it in. This is useful for ESL, and special needs students. To use it, hit the Alt-T key. The first time you do this, a dialog box will appear asking if it is OK to use the microphone. When the ding sounds, dictate the script. When you stop talking, that text will be added to your script when you last clicked.

The Picture Bin

Your teacher will have selected some pictures for you to use in your movie and will appear in the bin panel beneath the script panel. You can drag them around to put them in any order you want. Clicking on on will being up a popup, giving information about the picture, an icon to see the picture larger, and a link to more information that will pop in another window,

Adding your own Pictures

If your teacher has not enabled this option, you can add any picture to use in PrimaryAccess by selecting the Add new picture option in the Picture options pulldown menu. There you can add a title, description, link for further information, and the full url (with the http part) of the image to use. Clicking on the green Find Picture button will bring up the picture finder. There you can search a number of image collections including:

Type a search term in the Search for box, and any images that match are displayed below. Clicking on that image will add to the boxes above, and clicking on the OK button will add it to your picture bin. When searching the PrimaryAccess images. You can also limit the results to the NCSS era. Putting nothing in the Search for box will bring up all images for that era.

Removing Pictures from the Bin

If you drag a bin picture to the far-left-bottom corner, it will be removed from the Bin panel. You can restore this picture by hitting the Control-Z key to undo the removal.

Adding pictures to your Script

Once you have a draft of your narrative together, you are ready to begin adding pictures. Drag an image over to the left of the script. As you move the image up and down, a small blue underline will show where it will start in your script. (Note that the first picture always starts at the beginning). Each subsequent image you add will start where you place it in the script. When you click on the picture, the time it will cover will be shown in red in the script. You can change the picture’s framing using the Set Motion option.

Timing pictures in your Script

Dragging a picture up and down will change where it starts in the script. The start is indicated by the blue mark, and when the image is placed, it will be active until the start of the next picture, or the end of the script. If you drag the first picture atop any of the other ones in the script, they will be exchanged.

Removing pictures from your Script

To remove a picture from your script, drag it beyond the top of the screen. You will hear a delete sound.

Playing your Movie

Click on the green Play button to play your movie and make sure the images and narrative are in the order in which you want them. The movie will play until you click on the Play button again. Pressing the spacebar will also cause the movie to play. You can scroll through your movie by dragging the little green triangle under the screen. Clicking on the time indication on the left will bring you to the start of the movie.

Playing your Movie Full-screen

Click on the Full screen in the Picture options pulldown. Only the player will show. If you have added a title, it will appear in the center of the screen, and will fade out after a second, when playing starts. Clicking in the center of the image area, or typing Esc will return to the regular view.

Adding moves to your pictures

Click on the Set motion option in the Picture options pulldown. A yellow special effects box will appear over the image and two boxes for setting the and the end of the move will appear.

Drag the yellow box to the area on the image where you want to start your zoom. Drag the yellow triangle in the lower right corner of the special effects box and drag it out or into the size that you want it to be. That image area will appear in the start box. You can also use the arrow keys on the keyboard for finer control.

To set the ending position, click on the End box and position the yellow box as you did for the start .Use the green Play arrow to test the effect to see if you like it. You can go back and forth from start to end until the move is as you want it. Click on the Done button to return to the full movie with the zoom added.

You can copy the start position to the end (or vice-versa) by dragging the start box over the end box.

If the picture you’re moving on is the same as the last picture, a Match button will appear. Click on it will make the start position be the same as the end of the previous move, making continuous moves on the same picture easier to set up,

Adding Sound to your Movie

There are two ways to add narration to your movie. Selecting an MP3 file will play a narration you have recorded in sync with your images. You can adjust the rate in which it plays. Select the Use MP3 file option in the Voice pulldown menu, and provide a full URL to the MP3 file.

We have a built-in MP3 recording tool for recording narration. Click on the microphone icon and a new dialog will pop up below. The first time you record, you will need to authorize it with the browser via its popup. As you speak, volume bars will show.

  1. Click the Record button to record.
  2. Clicking the Pause button will pause recording until you press Record again.
  3. When done, click on the Stop button to make the MP3 file. This process can take up to 3 times the time of your recording, so please be patient.
  4. Click on the Save MP3 File link to save the M3 file to your computer’s download folder.
  5. You will need to upload the MP3 file somewhere online to use it, such as Google Drive or DropBox. Make sure you set it publicly accessible. See below for more information.
  6. Use the uploaded link in the MP3 file box to the left of the microphone icon.

The second way to provide narration is through a computer generated voice. Choose whatever voices your particular computer has from the Voice menu. You can adjust the rate in which it plays as well as the pitch of the voice.

Saving projects

Your project is automatically to the cloud every 5 minutes. It is saved under the title name, shown at the top of the script. To begin a new project, change the title name to something else.

You will be asked to type your email and a password. The project will be saved under a specific project ID number to the cloud. On subsequent saves, you can choose to resave into the same number (recommended) , or start a new project number to begin saving to.

Loading a Project

When you start the app and log in, the last project you were working on is automatically loaded. To load a different project, click on the down arrow button to the right of the title name, and a list of all the projects associated with that   email will appear in the dialog. Clicking on one will load that project.

Sharing your project

You can get a link to a full-screen version of your project selecting the Get link to project option in the Picture options pulldown menu. A popup box will contain the link, which you can copy and paste.

Teacher Chat

If you have had a project assigned to you by your teacher, you can send messages back and forth. Selecting the Chat option in the Picture options pulldown menu will bring up a draggable chat dialog that keeps a record of the back and forth between the two if you. The teacher’s comments appear on the left in gray and the student comments appear on the right in green.

To add another comment, type in the box below and hit Enter. When you save your project, that comment will be available to your teacher, and any new comments they have made will be available when you refresh your browser.

Saving audio to Google Drive and Dropbox

Even though we can record an MP3 file and store it on your local drive, you need to upload it to an online site in order to use it. Two free and easy places are Google Drive and Dropbox.

The PrimaryAccess Backstory

PrimaryAccess was initially released in 2005, at the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia by Bill Ferster and Glen Bull. PrimaryAccess was used by thousands of students and teachers. It was honored by the American Library Association as one of the best educational websites in 2009. The first version was built using Flash, but this version is a native HTML5 webapp.

PrimaryAccess was funded from grants and support from the Dupont Foundation, PrimarySourceLearning, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and UVA’s Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI). It is now supported by a new grant from the Library of Congress through Hunter College

For more information, please contact

Bill Ferster


Rhonda Bondie

Hunter College


My pictures are always cropped. 

The images always have a default move set. You change the picture’s framing using the Set Motion option.

How do I return to editing from full-screen viewing? 

Click on the center of the image or hit the Esc key

Last updated: 11/15/22