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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
If you need further advice contact your Subject Librarian.
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: