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History Research Guide: Primary sources

Primary sources: what are they?

Primary sources are first hand observations of a time, person or event, or material culture associated with a time, person or event.

Some types

newspaper and magazine articles .. diaries .. letters .. government reports .. minutes .. advertisements .. photographs .. military,  church,  synagogue records .. shopping lists .. Twitter tweets .. YouTube videos and comments .. Facebook posts

Here's an example

This Pepsodent toothpaste ad appeared in Collier's magazine in 1943. "How to catch a husband" by Bob Hope. Step 1: "Of course, you know what a husband is! That's a bank account with pants and an empty stomach ..." 

From: John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History



When examining a primary source, ask yourself the following questions:

Primary sources are essential to scholars because of the “in-the-moment” information they provide. When examining a primary source, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the author/creator and what was their relationship to the event or issue?
  • Why would the creator have produced the source in this way?
  • Was the source made for personal use only, so intended to be private?  Such as a diary. Or was it created for others to see? Such as a newspaper article, parliamentary debates, a Tweet. How might the author's approach differ depending on the intended audience?
  • What biases or interests might have influenced how the source was designed?
  • Can the information conveyed in source be corroborated by other documents created for the same event or in the same period? 


Primary sources guides relating to Canada, Europe/Worldwide, the United States

Two ways to find primary sources acquired by the Library

1. This search targets catalogue records describing primary sources. Give it a try.

  • Run the pre-configured search. THEN ...
  • In the 2nd row add your own keyword(s) that relate to your topic. Separate keywords with AND to ensure all terms appear in the records you retrieve.

Here's an example using poverty AND laws 

screenshot of the primary sources search in the catalogue

2. The Research & journal databases page has a Special content types drop down menu. Select the third choice, "Primary Sources" to pull up database offerings.

The Internet as a primary source

Help citing primary sources