Primary Sources in the Humanities and Social Sciences
What is a Primary Source?
Primary sources are original sources, in which its witnesses or first recorders describe a time, person or event. They are the subject interpretation of a witness to an event and serve as the materials historians use to analyze the past. Primary sources can either be the original document or published at a later date in electronic, microfilm and printed collections.
Some types of primary sources include:
published materials (books, magazine and newspaper articles) written at the particular time
handwritten documents, such as diaries and journals
speeches, interviews, letters
memoirs and autobiographies
laws and court cases
records of government agencies
records of organizations
public opinion polls
fiction from a particular time and place
photographs, audio recordings, movies and videos
art, including paintings, prints and other media
artifacts, such as furniture, clothing, tools, clothing, jewelry, pottery, etc.
religious and philosophical texts
For further information, see Yale University's document, What are Primary Sources?
Starting Your Research
- Encyclopedias, Biographical Dictionaries: often list bibliographies of primary and secondary sources
- Bibliographies: list secondary and primary sources
- Queen’s Library catalogue: check QCAT for primary source material on your topic
- Newspaper and historical magazine articles: check article and newspaper databases to locate citations/full text of articles
- Primary Source databases: check our many online databases of primary source materials
- Government Documents: check publications generated by a government body, public records, reports and statistics
- Unique collections at Queen’s: consider microform collections, Special Collections and the University Archives
- Web resources: search for primary source collections on the Web
- Subject Primary Sources: for more primary sources, see our subject guides
For further detail see:
UC Berkeley Library's document, Finding Historical Primary Sources
Newspapers and Journals
Journal and newspaper articles written during the period being studied are considered primary sources.
One can use periodical indexes to locate citations to articles published in journals, magazines and newspapers in earlier time periods. They include:
Publication coverage: Pre-1925
- Provides access to popular and general interest Anglo-American and European periodicals from the 19th century and early 20th century. Includes Poole's Index to Periodical Literature 1802-1906.
Publication coverage: Indexed articles: 1977 - present ; Full-text articles: 1983 - present
Print holdings: 1920 - 1998: Check QCAT
- Provides "access to Canadian and American periodical
literature" including historical journals.
Publication coverage: 1907 - 1984
Access restricted to the Queen's community (8 user limit)
- Index to a wide range of scholarly journals and numerous lesser-known specialized magazines.
An Index to Saturday Night: the first fifty years, 1887-1937
Publication coverage: 1867 - 1978
- Index to articles published in a number of Canadian periodicals of historical significance, including Maclean's Magazine, The Financial Post, The Monetary Times of Canada, Massey's Magazine, The Canadian Bookman, The Canadian Magazine, Saturday Night and The University Magazine. Provides a window into the social and cultural life of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Nineteenth Century Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature
REF AP3.R496 (1890-1899)
Publication coverage: 1983 - present
Print holdings: REF AI3.R2 from 1900- (Readers' Guide to Periodical
REF AP3.R496 (1890-1922) (Nineteenth Century Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature)
- Indexes general interest and popular journals, magazines and newspapers published in Canada and the United States.
- Web version of 5 volume set that indexes 43 major 19th century British monthlies and quarterlies.
There are several online databases to which the Library subscribes that provide access to full text articles from journals and newspapers for earlier time periods. They include:
- Documenting 200 years of cultural, political, social and historical events, this 17th and 18th Collection includes newspapers, newsbooks, proclamations and pamphlets in searchable digital format.
Publication coverage: 1800-1900
- Collection of magazines, journals and specialty newspapers provides an in-depth view of life in the Victorian age.
Publication coverage: 1680s - 1930s
- A collection of facsimile page images and searchable full text for hundreds of British periodicals. Topics covered include: literature, philosophy, history, science, the social sciences, music, art, drama, archaeology and architecture.
- Full-text access to rare journals printed between 1685 and 1813.
Publication coverage: 1830 - 1898
- Magazine intended to entertain, inform and educate the women in America. An important resource of 19th century American life and culture.
Subscription purchased by MacIsaac Memorial Fund in memory of Vera May MacIsaac, BA 1925
Publication coverage: Varies with publication.
- Electronic journal archive includes such titles as:
Eighteenth-Century Studies, Journal of Modern
Publication coverage: 1914 - present
- Current and past issues of The New Republic - a
journal of opinion on politics, foreign policy, culture, current
events, the arts, and much more.
Gale NewsVault enables cross-searching of Gale’s historical newspapers from a single interface, providing access to more than 400 years of content and 10 million digitized pages. The following are among the titles and collections indexed:
- 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers
- 19th Century UK Periodicals: Empire
- 19th Century UK Periodicals: New Readerships,
- Illustrated London News Historical Archive
- Times Digital Archive
The MacIsaac Memorial Fund and the K. Phyllis Wilson Library Endowment Fund
- This global digitization program focuses on primary sources and includes a variety of material types--monographs, newspapers, pamphlets, manuscripts, ephemera, maps, statistics.
Publication coverage: 1802-1995
- Facsimile page images and searchable full-text for approximately 500 international and scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences.
Publication coverage: Varies by title
- Includes the New York Times (1851-2007), Chicago Defender (1849-1986), Chicago Tribune (1849-1986) and more.
- Full-text of The Times (of London).
K Phyllis Wilson Library Endowment Fund
Publication coverage: 1892-current
- A complete searchable archive of American Vogue, from the first issue in 1892 to the current month, reproduced in high-resolution color page images.
More information about newspapers available at QUL can be found in the Newspapers guide.
Publications generated by a
government body, public records, reports and statistics such as
census records, laws, court decisions and treaties, are excellent
sources of primary materials.
The Maps, Data and Government Information Centre on the lower level of
Stauffer Library provides a wide range of geospatial, statistical and government information resources and services. Collections include government documents from Canada, the US, the UK, and international organizations such as the UN, EU, OECD, and the World Bank.
To find out what is available, consult QCAT, their website, or
The Library has a number of primary source materials on microfilm, which include newspapers, journals, and documents. Search QCAT to locate specific newspaper titles as well as our Newspapers guide.
For information on our microform collections, see the Microform collections guide.
Special Collections & Archives
Special Collections and the University Archives hold a wide range of rare and unique research materials covering a variety of subjects. See their web pages for more information.
Subject Primary Sources
The following guides list major print, microfilm and digital collections held at Queen's.
Language and Literature
Primary Sources on the Web
Primary source materials and related websites can be freely reached on the web and through the Library's subscription databases.
To find sources on the web, use a search engine and use similar search terms you use for searching the library catalogue for primary source materials.
charles darwin diaries
“world war” “personal narratives”
Please check our Search the Web guide for recommended search engines.
Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy
- Provides the text of many historical documents from around the world from the 9th century to the 21st century.
Hanover Historical Texts Collection
- Includes documents from ancient Greece to the 20th century.
- Digitized books from several university libraries
- Access for researchers, historians and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format. It includes texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages.
Internet History Sourcebooks
- A collection that provides links to historical texts for Ancient History, Medieval Studies, and Modern History. There are also some thematically based subsets that include African History, East Asian History, Indian History, Jewish History, and History of Science.
World History Sources
WWW-VL: World History and History Central Catalogue
For more primary sources, check the primary sources and websites sections of our subject guides.