Skip to Main Content

Types of Sources Used in Academic History Research

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources synthesize existing information on a topic, drawing from primary and secondary sources and summarizing key information in an easy to read format. They can be good starting points for research projects because they provide easily access to key facts, events and issues. They are often known as background or reference sources.

 Types of academic tertiary sources

⇒ Find Tertiary Sources:

  • on the Background Sources tab of this research guide. 
  • by searching in LibrarySearch and:
    -- filtering by Resource Type: Reference Entries OR
    -- doing a simple search and adding a relevant tertiary source descriptor to your search, e.g. world war encyclopedia
  • Use very simple search queries when searching inside a tertiary source,  two to three words maximum, e.g., Joan of Archolocaust.

Secondary Sources

In the discipline of History, secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources, and are removed in time from the events they discuss. They can be scholarly or non-scholarly/popular.

⇒ Types of Scholarly Secondary Sources

Scholarly monographs: Book length scholarly works that discuss a single topic in depth, present original research, and are written by a single author (or occasionally co-authors). Monographs are great for offering both breadth and depth on a particular topic. 

Edited collections: Book length scholarly works that are organized by an editor(s), where each chapter is an essay written by a different person presenting their own research, and where the chapters offer different perspectives on a common academic theme. 

Scholarly journal articlesA shorter scholarly work (~10-30 pages) published in a single issue of a scholarly journal (which is published on an on-going basis). Journal articles tend to focus on a very narrow aspect of a larger topic.

⇒ Find Secondary Sources in MRU LibrarySearch 

Try limiting searches by:

  • using the sidebar options (e.g. limit results to only relevant subjects, or to preferred resource type, e.g., books)
  • using the advanced search to search for important terms in the subject or title fields on the drop-down menus.
  • refining results to only peer-reviewed sources (searches only within scholarly journals and EXCLUDES books)
  • to find edited collections, try adding the term editor to your search
  • Sign in for enhanced results, to save "pinned" favourites lists and search queries.

⇒ Find Secondary Sources in a History Specific Database

Still looking for information or overwhelmed by LibrarySearch results? Use one of history-specific journal article databases on the ARTICLES tab of this guide. Recommended databases:

How to use America History & Life (2:07 min) 
All advice in this video also applies to using Historical Abstracts. Credits to University of Guelph Libraries.

Primary Sources

Historical Primary Sources: Documents or other artefacts created at the time in history under study, generally by a person or group that witnessed, participated in or contributed to the events of the day in some way. 

Primary sources take many forms, and the most appropriate or helpful type of primary source will depend on your topic. Some types of primary sources that are broadly helpful in undergraduate History courses, and relatively easy to find, include:

Laws, policies and official reports: Nazi Nuremberg Laws (Sept. 1935); Royal Commission ... to investigate the facts relating to and the circumstances surrounding the communication, by public officials and other persons in positions of trust, of secret and confidential information to agents of a foreign power. (June, 1946)

Newspaper articles: The Latest War News: A Raid of Stuart's Cavalry Across the Potomac at Williamsport (Sept. 1862)

Organizational records, publications or propaganda: Women's voice against the liquor traffic: Must we wait longer? Has there not been enough of woe and wretchedness . . . Women's Christian Temperance Union 18??.

Memoirs, personal narratives, diaries and letters: Commitment and sacrifice : personal diaries from the Great War

Where to Find Primary Sources

  •  On the Primary Sources tab of this guide, browse for relevant primary source collections. Look for the Primary Sources by Geographical Area of Study heading.
  • On Google - add the terms primary sources or primary documents to your search query e.g., Islamic history primary documents
  • In LibrarySearch :
    • add the word sources to your search query, or search for a specific source type e.g., speeches, correspondence, diaries, royal commission. E.g., World War 1939 sources, or World War II diaries. 
      Try using the drop down menu to search for your terms only in the subject of the results.
    • Use the creation date filter and specify dates or years relevant to your topic
    • Use the resource type filter and do a newspaper search
Primary Source Search Tips
  • Use terminology from the time period you are studying - e.g., Great War vs. World War, North-West Territories vs. Alberta

  • If the search tool offers the option to limit by date, use it. Be very specific to the time period you are studying, especially with newspapers

  • Newspapers are one of the easiest types of primary source to find, and are a good starting point depending on the recency of your topic.

More Advice on Primary Sources In Case You Need It

Primary Sources for History

Video Chapters
1:42 - General tips for finding primary sources
4:03 - Finding primary sources in MRU LibrarySearch
5:29 - Finding primary sources via Google
6:55 - Finding primary sources via MRU History Guide, including historical newspapers


Visit the Primary Sources tab of this guide for more advice and access to MRU's digital primary source collections. 

Finding Books on the Shelf

Call number: The address for a physical library item, so you can find it on the shelf. In MRU's LibrarySearch, it is displayed below the title of the book. You can follow the locate icon for a map to the book on its shelf.

Chicago Style Citation

MRU Chicago Style Citation Resources: Includes a guide for using Chicago style, examples, and instructions for inserting footnotes.

Profile Photo
Alice Swabey
Drop-in help Mondays 12-2 at the Library Service Desk. Appointments available via Google Meet or in-person. Email help is also available.