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.

Finding primary sources

  Primary sources on the Internet

Many archival and library collections are now preserving, digitizing, and providing access to significant primary historical resources. View the other pages of this guide to find lists of online collections organized by geographic region, topic, or theme. These lists include SFU Library databases/collections, as well as open access online content. Open Access resources identified by 

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primary sources, such as advertisements, e-mail messages, speeches, manifestos, creative works, laws and court cases, historical documents, etc.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:

E.g. "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.

 SFU Library catalogue

To find primary sources in the SFU Library Catalogue, use Advanced Search and combine your topic keywords with terms such as sources, documents, correspondence, trials, diaries, or personal narratives. This can lead you to published works and microfilm that are not available online. 

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 can 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, or Online Access links available through the Canadiana collection. Fiche readers and printers are available on the 6th floor of the library very close to the cabinet housing the CIHM/ICMH documents. 
Check the SFU Library Microform Collections page for additional information.

 Other SFU guides and collections

You can also find primary sources in the following SFU guides and collections:

 Evaluating primary sources

Reading and interpreting a historical document requires a thoughtful and critical approach. The following sites offer some guidelines for approach and evaluation:

General resources

The following resources are recommended general resources for primary sources in the Humanities:
Search across multiple collections for monographs, manuscripts, newspapers, photographs, maps, and other primary sources. 

Center for Research (CRL) Libraries Catalog
The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) collects resources in four major domains: News, Law & Government Information, Science Technology & Engineering, and the History and Economics of Agriculture. Print and digital resources from the CRL collection are available through electronic delivery (look for links in the CRL catalog) or through InterLibrary Loan.

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 Google News Archive provides free access to scanned archives of newspapers and links to other newspaper archives on the web, both free and paid.

The ARTstor Collection currently contains over one million images documenting artistic heritage and visual culture from around the world. 

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.


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