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A Guide to Archival Research

What is a primary source?

Archives are integrally associated with primary sources. When researchers search for sources, they often look towards archives as places which preserve unique and one of a kind records which can be used as primary sources.

Primary sources are typically defined as “first-hand information” recorded by a witness to the event that is being studied. This can refer to personal testimony from who saw it for themselves as an "eye-witness," but it also refers to any document that was created in the context of the event (e.g. a poster, a government record, etc.). For example, a birth certificate is a primary source for the 'event' of someone's birth. Secondary sources, by contrast, are created later by someone who did not experience the event first-hand.

The general principle for identifying primary sources:

The source was created during the time period under observation by a witness to the event


it was created afterwards by individuals reflecting on their involvement or observation of the event.

Interpreting primary sources

Because primary sources have not been interpreted and described by others, it is up to the researcher to contextualize the material and make connections to historical events and to other sources of information.

The way that researchers interact with primary sources is through interpretation. This means that as we read and attempt to understand primary sources, we should ask questions about it. 

  • Creator – Who created this source? Whose perspective does the source serve?
  • Subject – What is the source talking about?
  • Occasion – When and where was this source created or found?
  • Audience – Who is it for?
  • Purpose – Why was it created? What is its significance?

What kinds of primary sources can you find in an archives?


One of the most common types of primary sources. Correspondence refers to written communication between two or more parties. Examples include letters, email, postcards, and telegrams.

Official Documents

Any form of documenting the functions and actions of an organization. Examples include minutes, bulletins, and reports.


Photographs can be useful primary sources because they visually depict a moment in time.

Remember that photographs have a particular point of view and don’t always tell the whole story. Like with all primary sources, it is important to keep in mind the perspective of the creator of the document and to consider what is not being shown.

Audio-visual recordings

Sound recordings, film and video recordings can be very interesting to the researcher because they offer a visual or audio ‘glimpse’ of an event as it happened.

Be aware that not all archives will have the playback machines needed to listen or watch audio-visual material. Discuss with the archives ahead of time to ensure that you can access the material.


Newspaper reports can be very valuable primary sources. However, make sure that the newspaper you are using was published close to the time of the event!

Newspaper articles published shortly following the event would be an appropriate primary source because its authors are relatively close to the event itself. If published long afterwards, that newspaper would be a secondary source.


Diaries can be very rich primary sources because diary entries are typically written on the day that the event happened by the person that they happened to.

A diary is often considered a more reliable and authentic source of information than an autobiography or memoir, because the author of an autobiography may self-consciously try to suppress details to control their reputation. (Although a person might also be similarly self-conscious in their diary! It’s best to remain skeptical and critical when reading any primary source).

Case Study: The Stelco Strike

When identifying primary sources, begin by identifying the event that will be the of your investigation. For example, the 1946 strike by workers of the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco). Archival material for this event can be found in the United Steelworkers of America Local 1005 fonds at the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University. 

Examples of primary sources: Examples of secondary sources:
correspondence between people who participated; petitions; newspaper coverage during the strike; a speech delivered by one of the strikers published in 1976; meeting minutes from a reunion held on the thirtieth anniversary of the strike; etc.  an article about the strike in a scholarly journal; a paper written about the strike by a student in 1976; a book written by a labour historian which has a chapter dedicated to the strike; a newspaper article written in 2009; a graphic novel about the history of the strike; et

Are there exceptions?

Yes! There are cases where sources which we might typically think of as secondary sources become primary sources. The difference depends on your research question.

For example, if you were interested in studying how historians viewed the Stelco strike, your primary sources would actually be the scholarly articles and books written by historians who were not there. That is because the ‘event’ under investigation will have shifted from the strike to the study of the strike.

Research Question Primary Source Secondary Source
What happened at the 1946 Stelco Strike? any source by witnesses to the event any source by someone reading and interpreting sources by the witnesses to the event
How have historians interpreted the 1946 Stelco Strike? any source by someone reading and interpreting sources by the witnesses to the event        ↩   
Helpful tip: When in doubt, talk to your instructor, your librarian, or to an archivist about what kinds of sources might best answer your research question. 
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