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How to find primary sources

Introduction

Primary sources are used across every academic discipline in one form or another. They are original materials that contribute first-hand evidence to research, unmediated by external interpretations or evaluations. Primary sources are determined by their content, rather than by their form, ranging from print to digital, in various media.

This guide to finding primary sources will lead you through the process of understanding what primary sources are, how to find them, and how to make the most of them in your research.

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What are primary sources?

A primary source is any original work that is unmediated by external analysis, evaluation, or interpretation. A secondary source is typically an external study of primary sources, usually written retrospectively. A tertiary source typically amalgamates the content found in primary and secondary sources and is less critical or argumentative than secondary sources.

How do you know if something is a primary source? A primary source is often…

  • A first-hand account or an original work
  • Original in content, rather than an analysis or interpretation of another subject
  • Contemporary with the subject, topic or event you are exploring

Types of primary sources include…

  • Audio recordings
  • Artifacts
  • Books
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Government documents
  • Laboratory notes
  • Letters
  • Magazines
  • Maps
  • Music
  • Newspapers
  • Paintings
  • Pamphlets
  • Patents
  • Photographs
  • Plays
  • Poetry
  • Survey research
  • Videos
  • And more!

Specific examples of primary sources include…

  • Audio recordings: field recordings of birdsongs
  • Artifact: a piece of Ottoman pottery
  • Book: Plato’s Republic
  • Government document: Indian Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. I-5)
  • Music: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (or "the Choral")
  • Paintings: Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night
  • Patent: Mobile Robot System, CA Patent No. 2822980, 2013
  • And more!

Note: Depending on the context, items that are traditionally not considered primary sources may be treated as such. For example, a journal article (traditionally a secondary source) about the War of 1812 could be a primary source if one is researching how that war is understood in existing scholarship. Additionally, a textbook (traditionally seen as a tertiary source) on Aboriginal culture could be a primary source if examining representations of Aboriginal culture in high school curricula.

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Searching the library catalogue

Good for many topics and disciplines – the library catalogue includes: correspondence, diaries, film, journals, pamphlets, print newspapers, novels, standards, treatises, and similar items.

These types of primary sources are often subject subheadings in the catalogue. Try searching with your topic keywords and one of those material-type subheadings also as a keyword. For example, search “john locke AND correspondence” for John Locke’s letters, or try “women AND diaries” to find the personal diaries of various women.

For more information on searching the library catalogue for primary sources, see the Primary Sources Guide for History.

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Searching databases & websites

Below are various types of commonly used primary sources. If you don’t see the type of primary source you are looking for, see also the Primary Sources Guide for History, and the library Research Guide for your subject.

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Books, plays & poetry

Early English Books Online (EEBO) (is a full-text and full-image database of books printed in the British Isles, British America, and other countries from 1475 to 1700)

Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) (contains significant English-language and foreign-language titles printed in Great Britain and the Americas in the eighteenth century)

Literature Online (LION) (contains drama, poetry, and prose from around the world)

American Film Scripts Online (part of the Alexander Street Press Core Collections -- contains scripts with detailed, fielded information on the scenes, characters and people related to the scripts, which are authorized versions of the texts)

See also the Finding Primary Sources: Literary Works guide and the Finding Primary Sources: Non-Literary Works guide.

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Canadian history

Early Canadiana Online (contains material from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries with an Aboriginal Studies Collection covering from 1558 to 1900)

Early Encounters in North America (covers material from 1534-1850)

Library and Archives Canada (contains Canadian art, maps, government documents, and more)

See also Canadian History Resources.

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Diaries & letters

British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries (part of the Alexander Street Press Core Collections – contains the personal writings of women from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, spanning more than 400 years)

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral Histories (part of the Alexander Street Press Core Collections – contains 100,000 pages of material, including Ellis Island Oral Histories, audio files, scrapbooks, previously unpublished diaries (some translations), autobiographies, oral histories, political cartoons and more)

North American Women’s Letters and Diaries (part of the Alexander Street Press Core Collections – contains letters and diaries of American and Canadian women, including previously unpublished manuscripts)

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Images

ArtStor (contains images that cover materials across cultures, disciplines, and time periods)

Oxford Art Online (choose “Search Only: Images” – contains art reference titles, such as the Oxford Companion to Western Art and Grove Art Online)

Wilson Art Suite (includes the 3 following databases: Art FullText, Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, and Art Index Retrospective)

See also the Finding Images guide.

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Government information

Canadian Public Policy Collection (contains electronic monographs and reports from Canadian public policy institutes, government agencies, advocacy groups, university research centres, think-tanks, and other public interest groups)

Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (contains U.S. federal publications since 1976)

Publications gouvernementales du Québec en ligne (contains Québec government publications submitted to the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec by legal deposit since 2001)

Publications Canada (contains official Government of Canada documents)

United Nations Treaty Collection (UNTC) (contains various categories of treaty-related data)

See also the Online Government Information guide, and other Government Information databases.

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Music & recordings

Garland encyclopedia of world music online (includes audio examples, illustrations, photographs, maps, drawings, and more)

Music Online: Classical Scores Library (contains classical scores, manuscripts, and previously unpublished material)

Naxos Music Library (provides a comprehensive collection of classical music)

Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries (includes the published recordings owned by the non-profit Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label and the archival audio collections of various labels)

See also the Finding music, sounds and images guide.

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Newspapers & magazines

American Periodicals (contains digitized American magazines and journals from the colonial period to the twentieth century)

Canadian Newsstand (includes full-text Canadian daily newspapers, but excludes illustrations, graphs, classified ads, advertisements, and stock market reports)

Eureka.cc (provides full-text access to English and French Canadian newspapers, magazines, newswires, blogs and broadcast transcripts, and some international and U.S. coverage)

Factiva (contains full-text of selected international newspapers and newswires, broadcast transcripts, magazines, photos, and business information sources)

Historical Newspapers and Magazines (list contains selected newspapers and magazines, both Canadian and International, including databases Financial Times Historical Archive, Paper of Record, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and more)

For more contemporary newspapers and magazines, see the Journalism Research Guide. For more historical newspapers and magazines, see the Newspapers guide in the History Subject Guide.

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Videos

Alexander Street Video (covers all Alexander Street Press video titles that Concordia subscribes to or owns, including Dance in Video, Ethnographic Video online, Theatre in Video, and more)

CBC Digital Archives (includes audio and video from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

NFB Campus (features films, excerpts, trailers and interactive works produced by the National Film Board of Canada)

See also the How to find videos guide.

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Evaluating primary sources

Consider the following aspects in order to help assess the quality, reliability, and value of a primary source to your research:

  • Who wrote or created it?
  • What was the writer or creator’s intent? Their argument?
  • Was it created during the same time as the topic in question?
  • Has it been edited or modified? By whom? When? Why?
  • Is it an original version of the work? Is it revised? Revised by whom? In what ways?
  • Is it a reproduction? Are the reproduction details evident, allowing you to assess its authenticity?
  • Who is its target audience?
  • Is it a commentary on another topic? Does it refer to other items or resources?
  • Do you think it is a credible piece of “evidence”? Why? What objections could possibly be raised about its credibility?

And remember: primary sources can (and often do) still contain bias or perspective so approach any primary material critically and evaluate it on your own terms as it relates to your project.

See also the Primary Sources Guide for History for more tips about how to evaluate primary sources.

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Citing primary sources

See the Citation and Style Guides for detailed examples and links to additional resources according to citation style.

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page last updated on: Wednesday 26 August 2015
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