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History How To: Primary Sources

A guide to finding and using primary sources at McPherson Library.

Steps to finding Primary Sources

Once you do your preliminary research and understand the background of your topic, including the key people, places, events, and dates involved, you can start to think about finding primary sources.  Ask yourself: 

  1. What kind of information am I seeking? (Public, private, personal?)
  2. What documents would have been creating during this event? (Government documents, newspapers, diaries?)
  3. Which perspective am I looking for? (Civilian, soldier, general, president, enemy?)
When you can imagine what sorts of sources will meet your  needs, you can start looking for them. 


Thinking about people

Without people, there would be no history.  When pursuing primary sources, this carefully about who was involved in your event or theme. Whose perspective do you want to discover?  Think also of different roles - who was in charge?  Who was taking orders? Who was being oppressed?  Consider both sides of a conflict - British and German.    Monarchists and Communists.   

Preliminary research can also identify the key players in an event - who was Prime Minister during this event? Which General led that invasion? Who was arrested during that protest?  Having names can help you in a big way: you can find them in the newspapers or House of Commons Reports, you can look for them as 'author' to see if they left diaries, letters, speeches or a manifesto, and you can find their name in the writings or speeches of other leaders of the period. 

Citizens not Transients

Common sources

Here are some frequently used categories of primary sources:

  • Newspapers: Find newspapers on the Newspaper Guide.  We also have some newspaper archives available online.  Newspapers are usually considered primary sources, as they are artifacts of their time and place, even though they most often do not contain first-hand accounts of events.  Consider the bias of the journalist, any external factors that may influence the articles (political leanings, wartime news blackouts, public opinion).  
  • Government Publications:  Find these on the Goverment Publications guides.  Each has a section for "Primary and Official Sources, Debates", which contains links to legislation, verbatim reports of what was said, and other useful sources. 
  • Diaries:  Find these in the catalogue by adding the word "Diaries" to your  keyword search, "world war diaries". 
  • Speeches:  Find these in the catalogue by adding the word "speeches" to your keyword search for an individual person, "Hitler speeches". 
  • Letters: Find these in the catalogue by adding the world "letters" to your  keyword search for an individual person, "Churchill letters".

She Serves That Men May Fly

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This work by The University of Victoria Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License unless otherwise indicated when material has been used from other sources.