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Research Tips and Tricks

Step 1

Before you begin searching for primary sources, you must understand the key people, places, events, and dates involved. 

If you don't understand these aspects of your topic, it will be challenging to find primary sources. 

The best method for understanding your topic is to do some preliminary or background research on your topic. 


Step 2

Another critical step in finding primary sources is to think about the type of sources and who may have created them.

Ask yourself: 

  1. What kind of information am I seeking? (Public, private, personal?)
  2. What documents would have been creating during this event? (Government documents, newspapers, diaries?)
  3. Which perspective am I looking for? (Civilian, soldier, general, president, enemy?)

When you can imagine what sorts of sources will meet your needs, you can start looking for them. 


Once you have thought about the two steps above, you can begin searching. When searching in databases, try some of the following to find primary sources:

  • Search for the type of source and your subject:
    • For example:
        • Victorian era diaries
        • John F. Kennedy and speeches
        • Berlin Wall and newspapers
        • Cold War and government memos 
        • World War One and letters
  • Search for works authored by figures involved in your subject during the event in question.​
    • For example: 
      • If you were interested in World War II, you could look for letters or speeches by Churchill.
  • Use a primary source filter in the database.
  • Search in a database that mostly contains primary sources (see below).
  • Use a publication date filter to narrow the results to a specific publication date range.
    • For example:
      • If you were interested in World War I, you could narrow the publication date range to 1914-1920. 
  • When searching, use the language used at that time, even if it is considered politically incorrect.
    • ​For example:
      • If you are looking for documents about early settler relations with Indigenous people in Canada, you might have better luck using the term Indian. 
  • ​​Look in the footnotes or bibliographies of your secondary sources for primary sources. 


Other Important Notes

When looking for primary sources, you do not need the original document, image, recording, etc.; as long as the document is a primary source, a reproduction, digitized or transcribed version is fine.

Primary Source Databases

Primary Source Analysis Tool