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History: Working with primary sources: training and tips

Primary sources at Queen's

Primary sources are the original, first-hand records used to interpret the past and may be defined as a record created by a person who participated in the period studied, either at the time of the event or later. ​The key to understanding this type of source is the content covered: these sources reflect the particular, individual perspective of the author. They are subjective, unfiltered sources​. Whether or not a source is a "good" primary source depends very much on the questions being asked of it.​

Use this page to consider how to begin your research using primary sources collections and link to collections here at Queen's or free online.

If you need any help or advice on using these resources please contact your Subject Librarian.

1. Finding primary sources at Queen's

Remember: primary sources are defined by their content rather than format. A primary source may exist as a manuscript or printed document, and this original document may also exist as a copy on microfilm or a digital copy online.​ With this in mind, finding primary sources depends on what types of sources you are searching for.​

 

Archives

The first place to start is often with a particular collection held by an archive. 

Finding Aids on collections may be accessed in physical and online archives and may also be found in archival catalogues. ​
Material can then be viewed either in it’s physical form by visiting the archive or by way of a digital copy via an online collection.​

Archives may have their own collections lists. Collections may also be listed together in searchable catalogues. 

​See the Archives and Special Collections box on this page for links to some collections.

 

Primary sources databases

Digitised copies of manuscripts and letters may be found using primary sources databases . Some primary sources databases are free online, some are available via subscription only​. Subscription platforms can be very expensive, it is unlikely that library will have every resource you need.​ See the Digital Primary Sources at Queen's and Open Access Primary sources boxes in this guide for some ideas. 

 

Library catalogues

Transcribed, printed and published primary sources, such as collections of letters or speeches, may be found in your Library catalogue. ​You can find these in the same way you search, or browse the catalogue for a book and they can sometimes be borrowed. 

2. What to consider when working with free material found online

The proliferation of free primary sources online brings exciting opportunities for student’s research online. Alongside some high quality, valuable resources some are lower quality and should not be used at university level – and some are fake. ​

Protect your academic credibility in three easy steps. If you cannot evaluate a site don’t use it!​

  1. Evaluate quality of free online databases: check the About information. Do the people behind it have academic credentials?​
  2. Check the provenance of primary sources found online. You should be able to find out easily where the original is held.​
  3. Be sure to cite where you accessed your primary source – be transparent!​

​If you need further advice contact your Subject Librarian.

Primary sources on the web: finding, evaluating, using

3.What are you looking for?

Finding and working with primary sources requires similar skills to working with secondary sources databases and it is useful at the start to take some time to think clearly about what you are looking for.

To get started, first consider what you are looking for. Take some time to write this down.

Next, read around this topic broadly. Secondary sources will provide valuable ideas on types of sources to use, and may refer you to particular collections. Your course tutor may also give you some ideas of where it is best to find material.

Then, consider the following:

  • For your time period, what sources are likely to be available?​
  • What have other historians used? (footnotes, bibliographies)​
  • What can you access in the time frame you are working to? Both within Queen’s and outside.​

4. Searching primary sources databases

  1. Give yourself time. Expect to repeat and refine your searches to get best use of the databases.​
  2. Choose keywords carefully. Consider terminology used at the time​
  3. Consider context. Database platforms will return disparate results often from many different collections, archives, countries. This isolates sources from their context and is far removed from the physical archive experience. You need to provide the historical context to the online documents you use. Secondary readings and other primary sources can help with this.​
  4. What isn’t there? Remember silences in archives. Consider what, or who, is missing from the records. 
  5. Find what you aren't looking for. Many of the best archival finds are fortuitous rather than planned. Consider how you can chunk your research by topic or date so that you have manageable number of resources to browse through.​​

Online training and tips

JISC Archives Hub: Resources about archives: some useful material on working with archives and primary sources.