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Primary Sources: Getting Started

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are accounts of an event recorded in books, letters, diaries, photographs, film, or other media. Ideally, they are created by an eyewitness to the events, but secondary accounts of the events recorded at the time are also usually acceptable, e.g., a December, 1917 newspaper account of the Halifax Explosion. Another type of primary document is the oldest existing account of a historical event.

See this page by the American Library Association (ALA) for more information

BC Points to the Past- Searchable Primary Documents

Alloway Library Print Primary Documents

Finding Primary Sources

Finding primary sources can be very time-consuming and frustrating, especially when you're researching an unfamiliar topic.

Secondary Sources

One of the best ways to find primary sources is to note which ones were used in secondary sources such as articles and books. When reading them, pay attention to the primary sources they mention and make a note of the exact titles, authors, translators, etc. Many primary sources are available online, but finding them without the exact title of the document you're looking for can be challenging.

Searching the TWU Library Catalogue

TWU library has books containing primary documents. The most reliable way to find them is to do a "Keyword" search of Library OneSearch (the default library search) using a keyword that describes your subject and adding search terms such as "sources," "documents," or "reader," etc. For example, a OneSearch search for Greek history sources gives a good number of results. Limit your results to print books. Subject Term that describe the book. Clicking on a Subject Term link takes you to other books on the same subject.

Note that the resources available from Early Canadiana Online are now linked to the library catalogue and may appear in your catalogue search results.

Browsing for Primary Sources

This guide has links to online collections of documents, usually put together by other academic institutions.
We also have a browsable list of many of the print primary sources in the library in this PDF file.
Note that finding useful documents this way can be time-consuming and unsuccessful.

Internet Searches

Search engines are useful for finding a particular document or author. Search for the exact title of the document in quotation marks, if you have it. Otherwise, use terms unique to the document you are searching for combined with "primary documents" or "primary sources."


Wikipedia shouldn't be cited as a source, but it is a good source of links to primary documents. Search for the subject you're researching, go to External Links at the bottom of the article and see if there are any links to sites with primary documents. If you're researching a historical person, look at their Wikipedia entry for a list of their works. Some may be linked directly to online translations.

Google Books

Google Books may have the full text of works in the public domain. It's not the best place to start a search, but worth a try if other sources fail.

Getting Help

If this all sounds confusing, feel free to drop by our Research Help Desk and a librarian will be happy to help you with your search. You can also e-mail us.

Further Resources

Subject Guide

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