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HIST 203: Canada Since 1867

Research guide for HIST 203 (Winter 2024)

Medium: How sources are preserved and transmitted

Almost all the primary and secondary sources from the time covered by this course were originally created and preserved in the form of paper objects (books, articles, maps, diaries, letters, etc.). More recent sources were created and preserved in other mechanical forms (photographs, sound recordings, films, data files, etc.). Most recently, we are now familiar with the production and preservation of electronic records.  

The primary material accessible today electronically represents a selective, retrospective conversion of older material to electronic formats. The content of an electronically-reproduced federal government report from 1918 is no different from a photocopy of that report. An electronically-reproduced article from the Canadian Historical Review is no different from a photocopy of that article. The estimated audience (and copyright ownership) largely determines what material is electronically accessible today. While the historical material available online is increasing daily, vast amounts of material are still only available in print or on microfilm. Just as both primary and secondary sources are always necessary for a research paper, so are both printed and electronic materials necessary for historical research today.

Understand the distinction between form and content. Both print and electronic formats have their advantages that sometimes contrast and sometimes complement each other. For example:

  • Printed documents are stable and durable, but electronic documents are easily and widely available. 
  • The quantity of information available on a website, while visually appealing, may actually be very small. 
  • Many printed documents can be seen simultaneously and compared with each other, while electronic documents are usually limited to the size of a single screen, thus limiting comparison. 
  • The text of an electronic document can often be fully searchable, while that of a printed document might sometimes have only a simple index. But the indexer will bring related concepts together under single, consistent index headings. 

The quality of secondary material available electronically varies as widely as printed material. Websites have a very bad reputation among historians, largely because students use popular secondary websites without critically evaluating their quality. Avoid privileging one medium over another. Above all, apply the same standards to electronic resources that you would apply to any other historical source. Review the section on scholarly and popular sources.

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