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HIST 203: Canada Since 1867

Research guide for HIST 203 (Winter 2024)

Finding Primary Sources: Historical Photographs

Photographs are useful background information to historical events and situations. They are often revealing witnesses to the people and places involved -- but remember, photographs can be staged and manipulated, even in the years before Photoshop and filters.

Photographs are usually not large and are almost never published individually. This material is rarely indexed separately and is best found using secondary sources of logical inferences (i.e. where are photographs likely to occur?).

To use the Catalogue to find photographs of people in books, add "nt:ports” to your search terms. This asks the catalogue to identify resources with "portraits" (ports) in the "notes" (nt:) field. In books from the time period covered by this course, portraits will almost always be photographs.  


The same methodology can be used with nt:illus to find illustrations, but these may be drawings or photographs. In either case, it is always necessary to look at the physical (or electronic) book to determine whether you have actually found historical photographs.

The work need not actually have been published in the time of the event in order to contain appropriate historical photographs. Modern secondary works, both books and articles, are often your best sources for historical photographs, and popular ones are usually better than scholarly ones.

The resources listed in the sections on finding contemporary newspaper and magazine articles will also locate photographs that accompanied contemporary articles. Government reports, in particular Sessional Papers, sometimes contain photographs. Indexing of government documents has varied over the years.

Several online collections of historical photographs are also available, especially from museums, provincial archives, and even public libraries. 

Of course, you can also try one of the image search engines on the web, such as Google Images.

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