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HIST 203: Canada Since 1867

Research guide for HIST 203 (Winter 2024)

Status: About Primary and Secondary Sources and Background Information

Primary or Secondary

Historians use two principal kinds of materials: primary sources and secondary sources. 


Primary sources:

Primary sources are materials that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, an event, a work, people, or ideas. Examples include: newspaper articles, government documents, diaries, works of literature, photographs, oral histories, and more.


Secondary sources:

Secondary sources are information sources that provide interpretationanalysis, or commentary based on primary sources in order to provide understanding of a topic. For history, the two most common types of primary sources are scholarly books (monographs) and peer-reviewed articles. 


Background information:

Another type of source, sometimes called a tertiary source, is background information. Background information like encyclopedia articles can help you understand the context of a subject, but they are not typically materials to base your research papers on.

Audience: For whom your secondary sources were written

A “secondary source” is an analysis written after the fact for an audience removed from the events. Historians usually divide this secondary material into “scholarly” and “popular” treatments.

The terms scholarly and popular do not necessarily judge the quality of the work or its accuracy. Rather they are judgments about the work’s stated content, intended audience, and presentation. The same criteria apply to a book, an article, or a website. 




  • Written for professional historians.
  • Written for the non-professional reader. 
  • Written within the context of collective professional research and debate.
  • Context more likely to be current social or political issues.
  • High level of methodological self-consciousness and documentation.
  • Methodology and documentation are not foregrounded.
  • Advances or revises knowledge.
  • Synthesizes and explains.

A scholarly book will usually begin with the state of the research and lay out the history of the subject and discuss the various schools of opinion and controversies (historiography). A scholarly article will usually concentrate on one small aspect of a question or interpretation of a source, and will not survey the entire question. All scholarly works will have footnotes or references that document the sources the author has used to support the work’s argument. A scholarly work will have clearly reasoned step-by-step argumentation that will logically lead from the premises to the conclusions. 

A scholarly book or article will go through a “peer-review process” where several referees – acknowledged experts in the subject – will look at the work before it is published. The referee’s role is to determine that the sources used are of high quality (and nothing has been overlooked), the methodology is sound. and the argumentation is rational. There is no guarantee that the referees will agree with the conclusions; the intention is not to stifle new interpretations, just to ensure quality of content.

A scholarly book is not necessarily published by a university press, although many are. Not all books published by university presses are scholarly ones. There are commercial publishers that specialize in scholarly works, too. Scholarly journal articles are also refereed by scholars in the field. 


How can you tell if a printed secondary work is scholarly or popular? 

Remember the criteria outlined above and look for the following points: 

  • Who is the author? Are their credentials stated and are they appropriate?
  • Are statements backed up with documentation? 
  • Are the sources credited and can the reader reassemble the material to make an independent assessment of them?
  • Is the methodology logical and clear?  Does the conclusion follow on the premises?

Evaluating electronic resources

Electronic/internet resources should be evaluated in similar ways as the criteria outlined above. This guide from Georgetown University Library is useful and comprehensive.


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.

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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