Primary Sources in History

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Primary sources refer to first-hand accounts of a period or an event that the author directly experienced or observed. Secondary sources on the other hand, are generally based on primary source material and involve analysis of this material. Examples of primary sources are letters, diaries, correspondence, newspaper articles (written at the time), interviews, government documents, autobiographies, memoirs, speeches, videos, photographs, maps and art.

Locating Primary Sources in the Library

Library Catalogue

Some primary sources are reprinted in books. Do a keyword search on your topic and combine your keyword(s) with any of the following terms, using the word "and" -:

  • sources
  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • letters
  • personal narratives
  • interviews

For example, type:

  • World War 1914 and sources

Please note when doing a keyword search, some of the items in your results list might not be pertinent to your search. Check the subject headings of the various titles to ensure that one of the above headings is appended to at least one of the subject headings.

Reference Collection

Some primary sources may be held in the Reference collection. Examples of these are:

Historical Documents of Canada REF FC 163 H58 v.5
A Source-book of Canadian History REF FC 10 R436 1964

Periodical Indexes

Use print indexes that cover the period you are researching. For example:

Canadian Periodical Index 1920 - 1996
British Columbia Provincial Library Newspaper Index PN 4728 Z92345 1900/1970-1971/80
International Index to Periodicals  1907 - 1955
Readers Guide to Periodical Literature 1900 - 2000


Newspapers are a good source of primary information. Find related newspaper articles published at the time of the event or during the period that is being researched. The Library has the following titles:

Columbian 1861 - 1889, 1899 - 1983
Financial Post 1907 - 1997, and current 6 months
Globe & Mail 1849 - present
Province 1894 - 1983, and current 4 months
Daily Colonist 1858 - 1896

Online Sources

  • Early Canadiana Online: Contains "primary sources in Canadian history from the arrival of the first Europeans to the late 19th century, with particular emphasis on literature, women's history, native studies, and the history of French Canada".
  • Canadiana: Focuses on the history of Canada with emphasis on Canada's constitutional history, treaties and relations with Aboriginal people, and its pioneers and immigrants.
  • Democracy at War: Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War: The Canadian newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator, kept a collection of more than 144,000 newspaper articles taken from various Canadian newspapers during the Second World War. This collection is now available online. The database also contains short historical articles on key topics from 1939-1945.
  • Canadian Images, 19th and early 20th century: Library and Archives Canada
  • Peel's Prairie Provinces - University of Alberta Libraries: This site contains books, newspapers, images and other materials related to the development of the Prairies, 1871 - 2013.
  • The British Colonist (also called the Daily Colonist): Covers 1858 - 1910
  • CBC Digital Archives: Coverage goes back to 1930's.

Note:  Some sources are more acceptable than others as primary sources. If in doubt, ask your instructor.

Need help? Ask a Librarian.

Last Updated: 2017-06-12 11:56:56 AM