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A Guide to Library Resources for Students in HTST 300

Primary Sources: Definition

Greek sources

Primary sources are original materials created in their own time, or at a later time by someone directly connected to the event.

The value of primary sources is that they've not been subject to anyone else's interpretation. They provide firsthand evidence of an event.

In the past, primary sources were duplicated and distributed in different formats such as microfilm, microfiche, or reproduced in books or in other media. Today, primary sources can be reproduced digitally and are made available through free or licensed databases.



Types of Primary Sources

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers;
  • Memoirs and autobiographies;
  • Statistical data sets;
  • Records of organizations and agencies of government;
  • Published materials written at the time of the event;
  • Photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures, video recordings documenting what happened; and
  • Artifacts of all kinds.

Print Primary Sources

Published Collections

Published collections of primary sources can be identified by using the "advanced search" option in the library catalogue and including "sources" in the subject line.   You can also look up a secondary work on your topic and click on a subject heading to browse subjects.  Primary sources will be highlighted by having "sources" at the end of the subject heading.

Archival Collections

Archives consist of unpublished works of all types.  The documents and images are collected, described and preserved by archivists and made available for researchers.  You can search search multiple Alberta archives (including UofC) using the Archives Network of Alberta search.

Primary Resource Collections in Electronic Format

Libraries and Cultural Resources has a growing collection of primary resource sets in digital format.  These sets range from collections of personal correspondence to government documents to complete archives.  These collections are usually licensed by Libraries and Cultural Resources for use by students, faculty and staff at the University of Calgary and some are produced by Libraries and Cultural Resources.

Examples of digital primary resource sets follow:

  • American State Papers, 1789-1838

    Legislative and executive documents, many originating from the important period between 1789 and the beginning of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set in 1817

  • American West

    Original manuscripts, maps, ephemeral material, and rare printed sources from the Graff Collection about the American West, including tales of frontier life, Native Americans, vigilantes, and outlaws, and the growth of urban centres and environmental impact of westward expansion and of life in the borderlands.

  • Arab-Israeli Relations, 1917-1970

    source material from the Foreign Office, Colonial Office, War Office and Cabinet Papers from the 1917 Balfour Declaration through to the Black September war of 1970-1. This digital archive contains over 17,000 data file records, scanned from series one of the microfilm collection "The Middle East: a documentary resource" Arab-Israeli relations 1917-1970."

  • British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries

    Primary sources consisting of personal writings of women from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.  Coverage:  materials written between 1500 and 1900

  • China Trade, Politics and Culture, 1793-1980

    This database contains images, diaries, journals, books, all english language. This project provides a wide variety of original source material detailing China’s interaction with the West from Macartney’s first Embassy to China in 1793, through to the Nixon/Heath visits to China in 1972-74.

  • Churchill Archive:  A Window on History

    a massive resource that brings together online nearly a million documents amassed by Winston Churchill through out his lifetime, including hand-written notes and private letters.

  • Confidential Print:  Middle East

    Documents issued by the British Foreign and Colonial Offices, covers a broad sweep of history from 1839 to 1969, taking in the countries of the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, Iraq, Turkey and many of the former Ottoman lands in Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and Sudan. 

  • Confidential Print:  North America

    Documents issued by the British Foreign and Colonial Offices, covers a broad sweep of history from 1824-1961, taking in the USA, Canada, the Caribbean and Central America. 

  • Declassified Documents Reference System, U.S.

    U.S. government documents that were once "classified" with coverage from 1946 to the 1970's.

  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online

    A comprehensive digital edition of The Eighteenth Century microfilm set, which has aimed to include every significant English-language and foreign-language title printed in the United Kingdom, along with thousands of important works from the Americas, between 1701 and 1800. Consists of books, pamphlets, broadsides, ephemera.

  • Early Canadiana Online

    Primary sources in Canadian history from the first European contact to the late 19th century.

  • Early Encounters in North America

    Primary sources documenting the relationships among peoples and with the environment in North America from 1534 to 1850, focussing on personal accounts and providing unique perspectives from all of the protagonists, both men and women, including traders, slaves, missionaries, explorers, soldiers, native peoples, and officials.

  • Economy and War in the Third Reich, 1933-1944

    official statistical source provides rare, detailed data on the German economic situation during the Third Reich up to and throughout World War II. Consisting of Monatliche Nachweise-ber den Auswartigen Handel Deutschlands (January 1933-June 1939); Der Aussenhandel Deutschlands Monatliche Nachweise (July 1939); and Sondernachweis der Aussenhandel Deutschlands (August 1939-1944).

  • Electronic Enlightenment

    edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century.  Coverage includes letters and documents, document sources such as manuscripts and early printed editions, scholarly annotations, and links to biographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, newspapers, and other online resources.

  • Empire Online

    Biographies, Chronology and Essays pertaining to Colonialism.

  • House of Commons Parliamentary Papers -- British, 1715 to present

    includes over 200,000 House of Commons sessional papers from 1715 to the present, with supplementary material back to 1688.

  • Iraq 1914-1974

    offers a broad range of original source material from the Foreign Office, Colonial Office, War Office and Cabinet Papers covering the period from the Anglo-Indian landing in Basra in 1914 through the British Mandate in Iraq of 1920-32 to the rise of Saddam Hussein in 1974.

  • London Low Life:  street culture, social reform and the Victorian underworld

    containing colour digital images of rare books, ephemera, maps and other materials relating to 19th and early 20th century London

  • Making of the Modern World --

    economic history, tracks the development of the western modern world through trade and wealth

  • Nineteenth Century Collections Online

    ocusing on primary source collections of the nineteenth century; including a variety of material types--monographs, newspapers, pamphlets, manuscripts, ephemera, maps, statistics, and more.

  • North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral Histories

    Includes 342 authors and approximately 37,500 pages of information, which provides a unique and personal view of what it meant to immigrate to America and Canada between 1800 and 1950.

  • North American Women's Letters and Diaries

    Index and primary source of Canadian and American women's diaries and correspondence spanning more than 300 years, colonial to 1950.

  • Northwest Resistance 

    materials held at the University of Saskatchewan on Louis Riel and the Northwest Resistance

  • Oral History Online

    a landmark database of English language oral histories. It contains at present more than 30,000 pages of full-text content that is available nowhere else in electronic format, much of which is available nowhere else in any format.

  • Perdita Manuscripts --

    Full digital facsimiles of over 230 manuscripts written or compiled by women living in the British Isle during the 16th and 17th centuries. Contents include account books, advice, culinary writing, meditation, travel writing, and verse.

  • Policing the Shanghai International Settlement, 1894-1945

    The collection includes dossier files from the Special Branch of the Shanghai Municipal Police, supporting reports, handbills, translations of Chinese press coverage and clippings from the English-language press. Includes over 92,000 images.

  • Post-war Europe:  Refugees, Exiles and Resettlement 1945-1950

    This online archive delivers essential primary sources for the study and understanding of the challenges facing the European peoples in the aftermath of World War II. It covers the politics and administration of the refugee crisis in Europe after World War II as well as the day-to-day survival of the refugees themselves.

  • Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice

    designed as portal for slavery and abolition studies, bringing together documents and collections covering 1490-2007, from libraries and archives across the Atlantic world.

  • State Papers Online:  The Government of Britain, 1509-1714

    correspondence, reports, memoranda, and parliamentary drafts from ambassadors, civil servants and provincial administrators, present a full picture of Tudor and Stuart Britain. 

  • Testaments to the Holocaust

    This digital collection from the Wiener Library in London offers searchable personal accounts of life in Nazi Germany, photographs, propaganda materials such as school text books, small publications and rare serials reflecting Jewish life in Germany from 1933 to after the war, life in the concentration camps, in hiding, emigration and refugee life.

  • U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1980

    all the reports, documents, and journals of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives constitute a rich source of primary source material on all aspects of American history.

  • United Nations Treaty Collection

    Treaties and international agreements entered into by any member of the United Nations.

  • Virginia Company Archives 

    documents the founding and economic development of Virginia as seen through the papers of the Virginia Company of London, 1606-1624

  • Witchcraft in Europe and America 

    a comprehensive collection of writings on the subject of witchcraft dating from the 15th century to the early 20th century.

  • Women and Social Movements in the United States 1600-2000

    Organized around the history of women in social movements in the U.S. between 1600 and 2000, the collection currently includes 110 document projects and archives with almost 4,200 documents and 56,000 pages of additional full-text documents, written by more than 2,200 primary authors.

Libraries and Cultural Resources has produced a number of electronic collections.  Some examples that might be of interest to history students follow:

  • Alberta Law Collection -- all of the Statutes up to 1990, Legislative Assembly Bills, Debates and Journals, the Alberta Gazette and the Ordinances of the Northwest Territories prior to the birth of Alberta.
  • Alberta's Legislative History -- historical legal documents from the Legislative Assembly of Alberta plus retrospective and current Bylaws from a selection of Alberta Municipalities.
  • Calgary Stampede History -- images, programs, catalogues, corporate records, booklets/pamphlets, and other printed ephemera.
  • Canadian Aboriginal Military History -- published and archival collections relating to the Canadian Aboriginal military experience.
  • Canadian Military Histories -- published and archival histories and photographs that are related to service in or for Canada.
  • Early Alberta Newspapers Collection
  • Panda Digital Image Bank -- The Panda Architectural Photography Collection documents nearly 50 years of Canadian architectural, cultural and social heritage.
  • Political Parties Digital Collection -- contains a selection of textual and photographic records from the University of Calgary Archives' holdings created by political parties and individuals involved in the political process.


Newspapers are a popular primary resource and Libraries and Cultural Resources has a large number in electronic format, the vast majority of which are full-text searchable. 

The above link takes you to the library's listing of electronic newspapers.  For the purposes of historical research, the three newspapers which provide the most comprehensive backfiles are:

We also hold a large number of newspapers in micro-formats.  If you are searching for a newspaper and do not find it in the electronic format list above, search the library catalogue by title of the newspaper to see if we hold it in our microforms collection.


Before the era of digital publication, primary resource sets were often created in microformats.  Included in these collections are government publications, newspapers and a variety of report series.  Located on the fifth floor of the TFDL, the Microforms Department houses collections in microcard, microfilm, and microfiche and the equipment with which to read and make prints of that material.  Lesser used microform collections are housed in the High Density Library and can be retrieved by making a request at this department. Use the Library Catalogue to locate items in the microforms collection.

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