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York University Libraries > Guide to Finding Primary Resources

Guide to Finding Primary Resources

Primary sources are:

  • first-hand accounts of an historical event or a person’s life or work
  • original documents, records, data created at the time of a particular historical event
  • documents created at a later time by a participant or eyewitness to an historical event (e.g. autobiographies or memoirs)
  • raw data

Letters, autobiographies, posters, diaries, archival materials, and photographs are examples of primary sources.

Primary sources can be in their original format or reproduced in a different format (e.g. book, microfilm or on the Internet)

Secondary sources are:

  • works written later about a subject
  • usually written by non-participants or eye-witnesses to the historical event
  • information that interpret, analyze and debate primary sources

How do I find primary sources?

Before searching for primary sources it might be useful to find background information about your topic. Encyclopedias are great sources for background information. Most subject research guides list recommended subject-specific encyclopedias.

This guide will discuss the various tools and techniques for finding primary sources at York University. Most primary sources can be found by searching the library catalogue. You can also search periodical indexes to find magazine, journal and newspaper articles written during the time period you are researching. Most subject research guides list subject-specific tools for finding primary sources. The Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections holds manuscripts, personal papers of significant people and other records. Online databases and repositories contain digitized copies of documents, letters, books, photographs and other primary sources.


Evaluate Online Primary Sources

The Internet Archive is an excellent online source for primary sources in text, audio or moving images.Consult the Using Primary Sources on the Web from the History Section of the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association for a discussion of how to evaluate and use online primary sources. For help on identitfying and evaluating primary sources ask a librarian.