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Primary Sources : Home

What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are:

  • first hand accounts of an event
  • materials created by participants or witnesses of the event(s) under study
  • original records created at the time the historical events occurred
  • raw data for the historian

Secondary sources are:

  • works that discuss a subject, but which are written after the time that the event(s) occurred - [by someone other than an eyewitness]
  • works that contain explanations/judgements/ discussions of past events
  • works that explain or interpret primary sources

Reading Old Handwriting

Primary Documents can contain older handwriting that can be challenging to read. Use these following guides to help you: 

Paleeography: Reading Old Handwriting from the National Archives

Useful Tips for Reading Handwritten Documents from State Records in New South Wales, Australia

Palaeography Help: from Leah Grandy at UNB

For a tutorial on basic cursive handwriting, see the following YouTube video.

What Are Some Examples of Primary Sources?

Official Records

Cabinet Papers
Ambassadors' Reports
Parliamentary Debates
Diplomatic Dispatches 

Published Sources


Private Sources

Parish Records

How Do I Find Primary Sources in OneSearch?

Use keywords that describe your topic together with any/some of the following words:

Personal narratives
Public opinion

Example: cold war and (letter* or narrative* or correspondence)
               and click on Search Everything

(* (asterisk) is the wildcard/truncation symbol in OneSearch, and would retrieve "letter" or "letters", etc.)

  • Look at the publication dates of the book and the birth/death dates of the author:
    • The date of the original publication may give you an indication that you have a primary source. Look for the publication date or a note about the original publication.
      If the birth and death dates of the author are such that he/she lived during the time of your event you may have a primary source.
  • Look at notes in the record:
    • There may be notes in the record which describe the material and give clues as to whether or not it is a primary source. For instance, if there is a note indicating that the work is a facsimile or a reprint, then you may have a primary source


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