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HIST 203: Canada Since 1867

Research guide for HIST 203 (Winter 2024)

Strategies: How do you start looking for your primary and secondary sources?

How do you start looking for your primary and secondary sources?

 There are three ways of finding historical sources:

  • Browse,
  • Follow citations,
  • Use search tools developed for the purpose.

Experienced historians use a combination of all three, but not necessarily in that order.

Browsing requires a lot of luck and serendipity. Try looking at the titles on the shelves with call numbers that begin with FC (the prefix for Canadian History), keyword searching in the catalogue, or looking through recent issues of historical journals.

Following citations, sometimes called Citation Chaining or Footnote Mining, is like asking a trusted authority or expert. After identifying a useful journal article or scholarly book, look up the sources that author used, as evidence in their footnotes and bibliography. The author of that work is an expert on the subject and knows what’s been written on the subject. But there are limitations: the most recent work on your subject may be decades old.

Using search tools is the most consistently reliable way to find information on any subject, especially for new researchers. There are hundreds of indexes and catalogues for finding information about all subjects. McGill’s Library Catalogue and America: History and Life are two important indexes you should use to find historical resources. Each index deals with different kinds of things and this guide will introduce you to some of them.


There are three kinds of strategies to use when searching indexes for primary and secondary sources for this assignment. 

  • Look in a general source (the library catalogue),
  • Look in a specific source (like an index to newspapers, journals, or government publications), or
  • Deduce the context in which your source is likely to occur and look there.
    • Many of the sources have no specific means of access. Ask yourself: Where are statistics likely to appear? Where are maps likely to appear? Where are historical photographs likely to appear? Students often find this difficult, but one way to look at it is like finding a specific item in a grocery store. There are tricks you can learn to locate different kinds of sources.


Where to start?

Each source type is very different and you will need a different kind of logic to find each one.

  • Some kinds of sources are large, separately published works (like books).
  • Some kinds of sources are smaller works contained inside other things (like articles in journals, or speeches in parliamentary records). 
  • Some are very small (like photographs or tables) and you will have to use logic to find them. 
  • Some (like maps) can be either separately published or found within books, articles or government reports.

Work your way through the sections of this guide. The methodology for each kind of source will be explained on the appropriate pages.

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