Primary Sources in the Humanities and Social Sciences

[The Book of Hours. Photo by Jeff Tabaco, via Flickr (CC license)]

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

Library Catalogue

A good place to start your research for primary sources is the library catalogue (QCAT). You can locate items in the library by searching QCAT by doing a keyword or subject search and then adding one of the special subject terms to your search:

early works to 1800
personal narratives

Examples of keyword searches:

france and history and sources
world war and correspondence
revolution and france and "personal narratives"

Collections of primary sources often have the word documents in the title:

documents and england and reformation

In order to do a subject search, you will need to first identify the appropriate Library of Congress Subject Heading. One way to do this is do a keyword search and then look for relevant items. Note the subject headings assigned to the record and then pair subject headings with the specific subject terms that identify materials as primary sources.

For example:

Canada--History--19th century--Sources
Feminists--United States--Correspondence
United States--History--Civil War 1861-1865--Pamphlets
Women--Suffrage--Great Britain--History--Sources

Another approach is to look for works written by historical figures or organizations. To find such works, try an author search. For example:

Catherine II, Empress of Russia, 1729-1796
Gladstone, W. E. (William Ewart), 1809-1898
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968
Woman's Christian Temperance Union of British Columbia
United Church of Canada

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:

  You are connecting from off-campus. You will be prompted to enter your NetID and password before connecting to a Queen's-only database.
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)
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:

  You are connecting from off-campus. You will be prompted to enter your NetID and password before connecting to a Queen's-only database.
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 History.
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.

Government Documents

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.

Government Information on the lower level of Stauffer Library includes 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 staff.

Microform Collections

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.

The Web

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.

Search examples:

charles darwin diaries
“world war” “personal narratives”

Please check our Search the Web guide for recommended search engines.

Freely Available

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.

Hathi Trust

Digitized books from several university libraries

Internet Archive

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.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. Secondary sources are one step removed from the event. Examples include:

commentaries, criticism
dictionaries, encyclopedias
journal articles
magazines and newspaper articles

Finding Secondary Sources:

Search the library catalogue (QCAT) by subject or keyword to find books, etc. Add or look for one of the following subheadings attached to the subject headings:

history and criticism
criticism and interpretation

Check to see if there is a bibliography compiled already on your topic.

Search journal indexes and databases to find articles on your topic.

Tertiary Sources

A tertiary source lists or indexes primary and secondary sources. Some examples of tertiary sources are:

dictionaries and encyclopedias (may also be secondary)
indexes used to locate primary and secondary sources

For more information and a comparison across the disciplines, see University of Maryland Libraries' guide,
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources.