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Guide for HTST 303 -- Great Explorations

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Archives consist of unpublished works of all types.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.

You can find a full list of databases relevent to the study of history, including primary resource sets in digital format, on the Library webpages by clicking on the Search Collections Tab and selecting Databases by Subject or Name.  Select History from the list of subjects to find relevant databases.


Examples of digital primary resource sets that could be useful for topics in HTST 303 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • Virginia Company Archives 

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


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.  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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