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How to find primary sources

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.

Updated: Friday 29 May 2020
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