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What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are documents or other artefacts that were created at the time an historical event occurred. They are the "raw material" used by historians to study the events of the past.

Some examples of primary sources include diaries and letters, photographs, news articles, advertisements, speeches, government and legal records, radio broadcasts and films from the period under study to name a few.

Tips for Finding Primary Sources

  • Examine secondary sources on your topic carefully - look at the footnotes and bibliographies for primary documents mentioned there; examine the text of the secondary sources for mention of key reports, pieces of legislation or other primary documents you can look for; look for the names of important organizations or historical figures who may have created primary documents on your topic.
     
  • Use MRU's LibrarySearch or the Search for articles, books, & more box on the the Library homepage. Add the term sources to your search, or use specific terms to describe a type of primary source: letters, correspondence, diaries, posters, etc.
  • When searching WITHIN electronic primary source collection, use terminology common to the historic period you are researching, rather than the modern terms. E.g “Great War” versus "World War I," or  “Dominion Day” versus “Canada Day.” 
  • When searching FOR collections of primary sources - usually via Google - include a term that might be used to describe an online primary source collection, such as: primary sources, primary documents, or use specific terms: letters, correspondence, diaries, posters, etc.
     
  • Individual primary sources are often hidden inside a database or search tool internal to a website, making a Google search less effective. Try finding a website that is likely to hold the content you need, then search more specifically within that collection once you land on a relevant website
  • Think of who might have collected the type of primary source you are looking for, then search that specific website e.g. historic British government documents? Search the British National Archives website.

  • Limit Google searches to web addresses that are likely to collect the sources you need by adding site:___ to your search terms. For example, the search war posters site:gc.ca will search the Canadian government websites for war poster collections.

    • Government of Canada = site:gc.ca,  or site:canada.ca
    • Government of Alberta = site:gov.ab.ca
    • United States Government = site:archives.gov, or site:ourdocuments.gov, or site:cia.gov
    • British Government = site:gov.uk ; site:nationalarchives.gov.uk

Evaluating Primary Sources

Assess carefully the sources you find. You should be able to easily determine who made the source available, and when and where the source was originally published or created. Look for sources being offered by credible organizations like libraries, universities, museums,  or other organizations with expertise in the field.

Visit the American Library Association for more advice on evaluating primary sources.

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Alice Swabey
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Email: aswabey@mtroyal.ca