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HSTR 304: Social History of the Automobile

This guide will help you do research for HSTR 304.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary = earliest, original.

Primary Sources are first hand accounts, created at the time of an event or shortly afterwards.  They are a record of what happened, or what was said, thought, or felt, during a particular time or event.  The best primary souces were created as a result of the event (such as government reports or business records) or by an actor in that event, rather than someone watching from the sidelines. Participants in different roles will have different views of an event (a soldier in the trenches vs a General at Headquarters, for example).  Sources may not exist for all points of view, but a historian has a responsibility to seek out as many different viewpoints as possible. 

Primary sources can take many forms:

  • diaries
  • letters
  • photographs
  • works of art
  • maps
  • films
  • sound recordings
  • interviews
  • Articles documenting original experiments or scientific research
  • News reports for radio, film or television
  • medical  records
  • financial records
  • treaties
  • company annual reports 
  • oral histories 

Something is not a primary source just because it is old - nor is a primary source free from bias, inaccuracy, or lack of authority. Each source must be carefully considered.   Sometimes a source could be considered primary or secondary, and could be used either way. It's up to you to evaluate and decide what you want to do with that evidence.  



Note that Primary Sources can mean different things for different disciplines. In the Sciences, they are articles documenting research done by the author, and for social sciences, they can be first hand accounts, primary research, or the first time an idea or theory appears in print. 

Steps to finding Primary Sources

The easiest way to find relevant primary sources is to find them within your secondary sources. They'll be in the citations, as scholarly sources in history use and cite primary sources, and they'll be part of the historical narrative.  Look for references to documentary and other primary evidence in your events (a speech was given, a law was passed, a treaty was signed, etc) and look for clues that can lead you to primary sources: newsworthy events, key actors who may have authored an autobiography or reflections, representative images and more.  

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 in addition to those found within your secondary 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. 


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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.