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History: Primary sources


What is a primary source?

A primary source is a piece of evidence. It is a by-product of an event, or a recording of an event as it happened. Here are some examples:

  • Personal journals, diaries, letters
  • Interviews, speeches (either the recording or the transcript)
  • Photographs, cards, maps
  • Manuscripts, such as official publications (of political parties, organizations, etc...) or other unpublished materials
  • Newspaper articles (often, but not always)
  • Magazine articles when used for the purposes of social history or as documentary evidence
  • Meeting minutes, receipts, or other adminstrative documents
  • Court transcripts
  • News programs that were recorded from television
  • Research data that were collected but not yet interpreted
  • Documentary film, etc...

Why use a primary source?

Primary sources allow direct entry into an historical event. Sometimes they are difficult to understand. Having even a surface understanding of the context in which they were produced helps to interpret primary sources.

How to find primary sources?

Use the bibliographies of books, as a starting point. Historians routinely cite their primary sources in the books they write. Journal articles can also cite primary sources, and knowing how to find historical newspapers or other library collections of primary sources is important. You can use this guide to get started.

If you would like to find books that are based on primary sources, use the library catalogue and add the word "sources" to your keyword or subject search. You could also use other keywords such as "interviews," "letters," "oral testimony," "archival records," "correspondence," "memoirs," or "photographs." 

In any database, start by using a keyword search on the topic, and then add the keywords listed above to find primary sources. Using a historical database will increase your chances of finding articles with keywords for primary sources. Other databases, such as historical newspaper databases, will not use the word "sources," since everything is a source. The same goes for a database such as "Readers Guide Retrospective" (indexes popular magazines since the 19th century).

Here are some examples :

  • "World War I" and diaries
  • "Berlin wall" and sources
  • "Mackenzie King" and speeches

*Don't forget to combine your different keywords with the appropriate boolean connector.

Cross Searching Primary Sources

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