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Humanities Guide to Research

What is a Primary Source?

In the Humanities a primary source is an original first hand account of an event, person, or time period which is written or made during or close to the time of the event or the material culture associated with it. It is factual and not an analysis or interpretation.

Primary Source Formats

Primary Sources can take on several different formats with some of the most common being:

  • artefacts and creative works
  • autobiographies and memoirs
  • government documents and records
  • ​personal records or documents
  • publications and newspapers​

Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalogue

In the Library Catalogue search for your topic and include one of the following words or phrases:

  • autobiography
  • correspondence
  • description and travel
  • diaries
  • interviews
  • letters
  • personal narratives
  • public opinion
  • pictorial works
  • sources

Evaluating Primary Sources

When considering using Primary Sources in your research it is important to ask yourself:

  • Who is the author and/or creator of this resource and what is their connection to the event, person or time period?
  • What is the source talking about and can you identify any overt biases to their approach?
  • Why was the source created in its selected format?
  • Who is the intended audience and what is the intended purpose of the resource?
  • Is the resource corroborated by other Primary Sources connected to this event, person or time period?

Evaluating Primary Sources Online

When finding Primary Sources online you may want to consider the authority, purpose, accuracy and content of he hosting site.

Authority

  • Evaluate the person or organization responsible for creating and hosting the resource.
    • What are their credentials?
    • Learn more by taking a look at the URL, About Section and the Contact Information.

Purpose

  • Consider the reason behind the resource as well as the intended audience.
    • Is the language specialized or general?
    • Is there evidence of a bias coming through in the presentation of the Primary Source?

Accuracy

  • Discover the provenance of the document and consider its format.
    • Was the image scanned in house, external or using OCR?
    • Is the transcription complete and accurate?
    • Are sources being cited and does it link out to external sources?

Content

  • Assess whether the host website is clearly organized, explained and accessible.
    • Is the website well provided and maintained?
    • Is it legible, searchable and does it include navigational finding aids?
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