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Identifying Possible Primary Sources

Mine your secondary source for primary source ideas:

Scan the text and footnotes for references to key organizations, individuals, publications, dates  and events related to your topic. These may provide leads to specific documents, or types of documents, you can look for.

Incarcerating "Bad Girls": The Regulation of Sexuality through the Female Refuges Act in Ontario, 1920-1945

Some examples of primary sources on the theme of the moral regulation of girls in Canada:

General Advice For Finding Primary Sources

  • Finding primary sources is time-consuming and requires a lot of reading. Have patience and plan ahead.
  • The Primary Source tabs on the top left of this guide includes excellent primary document collections. Use them.

  • Google is an excellent tool for finding primary sources. With Google, add a term to your search that might be used to describe an online primary source collection (to avoid secondary content), such as:

    • primary sources, sources, primary documents, documents

Sample Google search: Chinese head tax Canada "primary documents"

  • Note that the older a document is, the less likely you will be able to find it via a simple Google search. If you have a known item and can't find it via Google, try some of the library search tools.
  • Individual primary sources are often stored inside a database or search tool internal to a website, making a Google search ineffective. First, try finding a website that is likely to hold the content you need, then search more specifically within its collection.​

Once inside a primary source collection, search using terms common to the historical period you are researching. For example:

  •  Great War vs. World War I

  • North-West Territories vs. Alberta

  • Note that this advice is particularly important when researching topics related to racial or ethnic groups

Good Starting Points for Primary Sources

Not sure where to begin? Try one of the following tools:

  • Primary Sources For Canadian History - An extensive list of primary document collections available at MRU. See the tab at the top of this research guide.
  • Historical Canadian Newspapers - Newspapers are a great starting point. Try limiting searches to a specific date range or section of the paper, where possible.
  • Early Canadiana Online - Canadian periodicals/magazines, government documents, Canadian literature, health and medicine, Native Studies international publications, and women's history. This is a very large collection, be sure to limit by date. Includes content up to the early 20th century only. Includes early legislation - it's best if you can limit to the specific year your legislation was published.
  • Historical Debates of the Parliament of Canada: Word-for-word accounts of the debates of the Senate and the House of Commons, from the first session in 1867 to 1994. Also called "hansard." It is helpful to know the year your topic may have been discussed in Parliament and to limit your search accordingly.
  • Peel's Prairie Provinces: Documents relating to the settlement and development of the Canadian West. Includes historical newspapers.
  • Residential Schools - MRU Indigenous Studies Research Guide: Lists numerous collections of primary AND secondary sources, including National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation documents. 
  • MRU LibrarySearch: Published collections of primary sources available at MRU in paper and ebook format. Add the term sources to your search query, which will narrow results to primary documents.
    • For example: Canada Immigration Sources.
    • Or try adding specific terms such as correspondence, diaries, speeches

Evaluating Primary Sources for Credibility

Primary documents - particularly those found via Google searches rather than via a library-based collection - need to be evaluated carefully for credibility. Consider the following questions as you evaluate these sources:

  • Who has made the primary source available (as in, who published or is otherwise responsible for making the content available to you)?
  • Can you determine the provenance of the original source (as in, who created it, and when)?
  • Can you determine how well the duplicated source (known as a surrogate) represents the original? 
  • Has any information been provided about the transcription/editorial process?

See Lafayette College Library's guide to Evaluating Primary Sources for more excellent advice.

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Alice Swabey
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