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Archives 101: Find Primary Sources in Special Collections & Archives: Get Started

How to find primary sources.

About this guide

Never used archival materials and wondering how it works? Considering using "primary sources" for that paper and not sure where to start?

It's really not that mysterious! Check out the resources in this guide for help.

How to use archives

Using archives: a practical guide for researchers
(Library and Archives Canada)

A guide introducing new users to some of the culture and customs of archives. Includes information about the difference between libraries and archives and planning a research strategy.

Archives Unboxed: a guide to understanding archives
(Archives of Ontario)

Use this guide to learn more about archives: what they are, where to find them, and how to use them. Includes many images of archival documents from the Archives of Ontario collections

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources provide first-hand accounts or direct evidence about the topic under investigation. They are created by participants in or observers of the events or phenomena being studied, and reflect their individual viewpoints. They are created either at the time the events or phenomena are occurring (e.g. diaries, letters, photographs, movies, advertisements, speeches, census records, etc.), or recorded at a later date (e.g. autobiographies, memoirs, or oral histories). Primary sources enable researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a historical time period.

Primary sources are characterized by their content, and may be available in many different formats, including letters, speeches, literary works, art, government documents, videotapes, and artifacts. Some published materials are considered primary sources, such as an author’s own works or contemporary works (e.g., if you are researching the 1950s, magazine articles from that time will be a primary source).

By contrast, secondary sources interpret or analyze historical events or phenomena. They are usually at least one step removed from the event and are often based on primary sources. Secondary sources include books, journal or magazine articles, reference books, biographies, etc.

First steps

It is usually helpful to do some background reading on your topic before you begin to search for primary sources to support your research. This is a good way in which to identify key events, dates, or people associated with your topic. The Library research guides by subject may be useful to suggest reference books and other library resources for your area of research or ask a Library staff member or your professor if you need advice as to where to start.

We can help!

Special Collections Reference Group Email Alias's picture
Special Collections Reference Group Email Alias
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Doris Lewis Rare Book Room
Dana Porter Library, first floor
519-888-4567 ext. 32619
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