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Primary sources for the Humanities: General sources & how to find primary sources

If you need help, please contact Baharak Yousefi, Librarian for History, International Studies, Liberal Studies, & Political Science at 778.782.5033 or or Ask a librarian.

General resources

The following resources are recommended general resources for primary sources in the Humanities:

Center for Research (CRL) Libraries Catalog
Traditional and digital resources for research and teaching available to member institutions through interlibrary loan and electronic delivery.

Internet Archive
The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization that offers permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format. The Internet Archive includes texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages.

Google Books
The Google books collection comprises over 15 million scanned books. Google books Full View feature allows users to view the full text of public domain books, and to save and print a PDF version of the book.

Google News Archive

The ARTstor Collection currently contains over one million images. The Collection documents artistic traditions across many times and cultures and embraces architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, decorative arts, and design as well as many other forms of visual culture.

Oral History Online
More than 2,500 collections of Oral History in English from around the world.

Smithsonian Global Sound
Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries is an online encyclopedia of the world's musical and aural traditions. The collection includes over 35,000 recordings owned by the non-profit Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label and the archival audio collections of the legendary Folkways Records, Cook, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, Monitor, Paredon and other labels.

Finding primary sources

If you need more information, you can check the other tabs in this guide to find resources listed by geographic region or try the following:

SFU Library catalogue

Use Advanced Search in the SFU Library Catalogue and combine your topic keywords with terms such as sources, documents, correspondence, trials, diaries, or personal narratives.

E.g. - United States AND Civil War AND correspondence 

Search using specific subject terms by doing a Browse Search:

E.g. - United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Personal Narratives

The following list of subject headings could be added to a topic to narrow search results to primary sources:

  • - history -- sources
  • - documents
  • - correspondence
  • - diaries
  • - personal narratives
  • - pictorial works
  • - description and travel
  • - interviews
  • - maps
  • - manuscripts 

Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions [CIHM/ICMH]

The SFU Library subscribes to the microfiche set of material published by the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions/Institut Canadien de Microreproductions Historiques [CIHM/ICMH]. The fiche are shelved in a separate cabinet on the 6th floor of the library. Items may be found in the regular catalogue by using the following method:
Use Advanced Search in the SFU Library Catalogue. Search by using terms that describe what you are looking for, and then add CIHM to your search:
The result will be a list of CIHM documents with fiche numbers which you use to retrieve the microfiche from the cabinets. Fiche readers and printers are available on the 6th floor of the library very close to the cabinet housing the CIHM/ICMH documents. A subset of the CIHM/ICMH materials is available in full page images from the Early Canadiana Online project.
Check the SFU Library Microform Collections page for additional information.

Primary sources on the internet

Many archival and library collections are now preserving, digitizing, and providing access to significant primary historical resources. The Internet also provides access to many other primary sources, such as advertisements, e-mail messages, speeches, manifestos, creative works, laws and court cases, historical documents, etc. It is always possible to search for specific items by using a search engine such as Google. A search along the following lines will usually turn up something of use and/or interest:

"primary documents" history England

Enclose the phrase PRIMARY DOCUMENTS in quotation marks to ensure that it is searched as phrase and include the words HISTORY and then the Name of the country, region, or area for which you are seeking documents.

Evaluating primary sources

Reading and interpreting an historical document requires a thoughtful and critical approach. The following sites offer some guidelines for approach and evaluation: Reading a Primary Source , Dohistory, Using Primary Resources, Using Primary Sources on the Web.

Secondary sources

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. Secondary sources are one step removed from the event. Examples: a book about the effects of World War I, a journal article which evaluates a scholar's contribution in a field, an interpretive essay on a short story, or a biography (which may incorporate brief primary sources such as letters, diary entries, etc.)

Types of secondary sources include: textbooks, journal articles, histories, criticism, commentaries, and encyclopedias.

Typical subheadings that can be combined with your main subject heading in the SFU Library Catalogue include:

- history

- history and criticism

- criticism and interpretation

- biography

In addition to using the SFU Library Catalogue to identify secondary sources, you may also want to use SFU Library databases.

Need more help? Ask a Librarian.