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How To Use Primary Sources in Your Work

Introduction

Primary sources are the best kinds of sources to use in your work. Find some helpful hints and useful links for students and teachers below.

What are primary sources?
Examples of primary sources
How could you use primary sources?
Other links to activities and information about primary sources

What are primary sources?
A primary source is anything that has survived from events in the past, and that tells us something about those events. They can be created by people who were there, or just be evidence that something happened.

Because primary sources were created when the events were happening - or just afterward - they are usually more valuable to historians than secondary sources. A secondary source is any image or description of an event or place that has been made some time after the events, usually by someone who was not there.

Even though the documents in Early Canadiana Online have been digitized, they are still primary sources -- words or images created by the people who were there.

Examples of primary sources

  • Written materials: letters, books written by witnesses, diaries and journals, reports, government documents, newspaper reports about events, posters and other advertisements, cookbooks

  • Pictures: photographs, art (paintings and statues), maps

  • Recordings: video footage, sound recordings on tape, records and CDs

  • Objects: clothing, tools, weapons, buildings, fences, etc.

  • Other: stories told by witnesses (for example, parents or grandparents)

Examples of secondary sources include textbooks, art created long after the events, recordings or recreations of events, someone telling a story of an event he has heard about.

To test whether you can tell the difference, try this exercise:

· URL: http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/6/32/s32-1111-e.html#examples
(Created by Ian Bron for the National Library of Canada)

How could you use primary sources?
Use primary sources to make the arguments in your essays more convincing. For example, by quoting the words of someone who was there, you add authority to your own words. For example, which of the following sounds better?

In fact, it was clear that Lord Durham did not approve of French Canadian culture and nationalism, and said so in forceful words.

or

In fact, Lord Durham wrote of French Canadians as "An utterly uneducated and singularly inert population, implicitly obeying leaders who ruled them by the influence of blind confidence and narrow national prejudices."

Fiery words - but interesting and authentic.

You can also use images and maps in your work. For example, it is better (and easier!) to use a picture of a prairie farmhouse with the people around it than to describe the scene. Be sure that they illustrate a point that you are trying to make, and are not just decorative.

Good sites for images include:

For more ideas about using primary sources, visit:

Other links to activities and information about primary sources

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