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History Research Guide: Primary sources

Primary sources: what are they?

In the field of History, primary sources refer to firsthand accounts and other evidence from a time in the past. They are what historians examine in order to get as close as possible to a person or event from a historical time period. By analyzing primary sources, historians can begin to draw conclusions about what may have motivated people or shaped outcomes. Historians findings, typically published as books and articles are referred to as secondary sources.

Some types of primary sources

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

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:
  • 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. The Databases page has a Database Types drop down menu. Select "Primary Sources" to retrieve databases.


2. This search in Omni, the Library's catalogue targets records describing primary sources. Give it a try.

  1. Run the pre-configured search in the Library catalogue, Omni, which automatically populates the first row with keywords that will retrieve records with, for example, diaries, correspondence, and speeches. THEN ...
  2. 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 

The Internet as a primary source

Help citing primary sources