Contemporary Canadian Government & Politics:
A Practical Research Guide

Introduction   Starting   Clarifying   Bibliographies   Finding & Evaluating
Primary Sources   Special Topics   Citing Sources   Ask Your Librarian!   Detailed Table of Contents
5. Using Primary Source Material
Introduction, Finding & Evaluating Primary Sources Selected Primary Sources and their Finding Aids

Primary sources are generally materials created at the time of an event and reflect the individual viewpoint of the participant or observer. For the study of government and politics these include speeches, letters, diaries, autobiographies, interviews, official government records such as the Debates, Acts, treaties, regulations and reports, documentary photographs, video or film recordings of an event, public opinion polls, press releases, the records of political organizations, the results of original research, etc.

Distinguish these from secondary sources which are works about primary materials and the people who produced them. Secondary sources are at least one step removed from the actual event, person, or primary source, providing a second-hand view, such as an interpretation, review, analysis, or report about an event after the fact. (Note that a journal article can be a primary or secondary source depending on how and when it was written.)

For almost all researchers, the secondary sources will be consulted first, and will provide the background knowledge and general understanding of the issue or topic to be studied. It makes sense to consult the work of experts on the topic, those who have examined and analyzed the issues already. However, a good, in-depth research project will also include primary sources that document the issues described and may even provide a better understanding or support a different interpretation than the ones made by previous researchers.

Using primary materials well requires a good understanding of the topic and its context in time and place. Since it is the "raw" material, provided without interpretation, or analysis, the researcher has to be aware of local or historical circumstances that might influence how the material is to be interpreted.

A good knowledge of the subject is required just to locate primary materials. More so than for other kinds of materials, primary sources can be difficult to research without knowledge of the terminology used at the time of the event, the names, dates, places, and other key facts involved with the event, and the broader context of the topic. For example, it is very little use searching the House of Commons Debates for a speech by the Prime Minister at the time of the outbreak of World War II, if you do not know the time period this occurred, or the name of the Prime Minister.

Primary source material can be difficult or time-consuming to obtain. Fortunately, not all historical primary sources need to be consulted in their original, often fragile form. Many significant primary texts are being reprinted or digitized to make them more accessible to researchers everywhere.

Using primary sources can be the most rewarding part of a research project. These materials, which represent the subject itself, bring the subject to life and create a direct link between the subject and the researcher.

Finding Primary Source Material in Libraries, Archives, and on the Internet:

Finding Primary Source Material in Libraries:
Most libraries will have some primary source materials, but each library's special collections vary depending on their subject focus, region, specified users, donations, and collection development strategies. The following can help you find libraries with a special collection on your topic:

Directory of Special Collections of Research Value in Canadian Libraries.

Repositories of Primary Sources.

NOTE: Primary source materials in library special collections may not all be included in the online library catalogue. Ask a Reference Librarian to be sure.

Searching by Subject:
See Part 4: Finding and Evaluating Substantive Information, for general instructions on searching library catalogues. Once you know the subject headings to use for your topic you can add the sub-headings that limit the materials found to primary sources.

Some commonly used sub-headings for primary sources:

-- sources
-- personal narratives
-- correspondence
-- diaries
-- quotations
-- oratory
-- platforms
-- interviews

Use after a subject heading, e.g.[subject] -- sources:

Chretien, Jean, 1934- -- quotations
canada -- politics and government -- sources
canada -- politics and government -- 1945 - -- sources

TIP: Since there can be any number of date ranges added between the sub-headings, search for keywords combined from the subject heading and sub-headings in the subject field to see all items, or browse the subject heading list.

NOTE: There are also some subject headings for primary source material:

  • Speeches, addresses, etc., Canadian
  • Public opinion polls
  • Campaign literature
To find these materials for a specific person, party, etc., do an advanced subject search where you can combine both headings in your search:
e.g. subject: Liberal party of Canada and subject: campaign literature

Searching by Author:
Enter the government body or political organization as the author to find materials produced by these bodies, e.g.:
  • Liberal Party of Canada
  • Canada. Ministry of State for Multiculturalism
  • Canada. Parliament. Senate. Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce

    TIP: Government bodies are entered with their jurisdiction first. If you don't know the exact format, use keywords in the Author field to find these, then use the full heading for a more precise search.
Searching by Keyword:
If you don't know the subject headings to use for your topic, start with keywords, ie. any words you can think of to describe what you are looking for. Combine keywords for the topic, jurisdiction, author, or possible subject headings. To make this more precise, enter the keywords in the fields in which you know they will occur, if any. To make sure to get more, use truncation to get the root keyword and any possible endings (e.g. election* to get election, elections, electioneering, etc.)

e.g. Canada in the author field and debates (no field specified)
election* (no specified field) and speeches in the subject field.
You may need to rethink your searches depending on the results and try searching in several ways.
Note: The exact way to do a keyword search in specific fields, truncation, etc. will differ depending on the online catalogue system used and may not be possible in some. Check the catalogue’s online help files before attempting advanced keyword searches.

Finding Primary Source Material in Archives:
Archives are the major collectors of primary source materials. The largest in Canada is the National Archives of Canada, now merged with the National Library of Canada to form Library and Archives Canada. The Archives contain most kinds of primary source materials, including records created by the federal government, photographs, art and caricatures, films, videos and sound recordings, maps, diaries, speeches, etc.

TIP: See Using Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers for a brief introduction to the difference between libraries and archives and what you can expect when researching in an archive.

To find information in archival collections, use:

Archives Search, Library and Archives Canada's new search page for its archival holdings and research tools.

Any organization, government body, political party, etc. can have its own archives. Use one of the following to find archives that have materials on your topic:

Archives Canada: Canadian Archival Information Network (CAIN). By Canadian Council of Archives and Canadian Heritage.
This site provides access to the archival "network" site in each province and territory, which links to the major archives and their collections. There is also a search engine covering the combined partial holdings of over 800 archives across Canada, and online "virtual exhibits" of digitized archival materials.

Repositories of Primary Sources.
Links to over 5,000 libraries, archives, museums, etc. worldwide holding primary sources. Canadian institutions are listed by province/territory.

See also Special Topics for archives specializing in provincial or municipal government information, aboriginal issues, etc.
Finding Primary Source Material on the Internet:
Many libraries, archives, museums, and others have digitized primary source materials to make them more accessible to researchers. One way to find primary source research materials online is to use the directories and sites listed above to find institutions with collections on your topic and check their web sites for digitized materials. Another option is to check collections of digitized materials. The following are some of the major Canadian digital collections:

Canada's Digital Collections. Archived at Library and Archives Canada

This is a large collection of Internet sites created by Canadians across the country between 1996 and 2004 with funding from the federal government.
Library and Archives Canada Digitized Resources on Politics and Government.
This web page brings together the former National Library and National Archives' digital collections, research aids and virtual exhibitions on the topic of Canadian politics and government. Some external links provided as well. New resources are added quite frequently.
NOTE: Using an Internet search engine such as Google may be useful as well, especially if your topic is very specific, although more care will have to be taken in evaluating the information found.

Evaluating Primary Source Material:
Researchers need to evaluate critically any primary source materials before using them, just as they do with any other information. See Part 4: Evaluating Information, for general instructions on how to evaluate information in books, articles, and web sites. Some issues that apply especially to primary sources, and particularly those found on the Internet, are authenticity, accuracy and context.

A good web site with digitized primary source materials will provide enough metadata for you to be able to use the information in confidence. It will indicate the source of the original document, photograph, or whatever it is, so you and other scholars can cite it properly or go back to see the original if needed. It will provide some background information that helps you understand the context, or from where the information was taken, and how complete it is. Since digitizing is a form of copying, errors can be introduced. Photographs can be altered, artworks can be inverted or otherwise distorted, lines of text can be omitted, etc. The best sites provide two versions of texts: a scanned version of the original material showing as much as possible what the item looks like, and a transcribed version if the scanned one is difficult to read (for example a handwritten document). Sticking to official sites, such as the archives that hold the item, or a government web site for a government document, is one way to help avoid using a primary source that has been deliberately or mistakenly altered.

Understanding as much as possible about the creator of the primary work is important, as primary sources will have no editors, peer-review process or other evaluation done for you. The creator's bias, point of view, or reason for creating the work need to be understood and taken into consideration as do the social, geographical, historical, political and other contexts in which it was created.

Questions to consider when evaluating a primary source:

    What was the creator's relationship to the event? Was he/she intimately involved? In what way? Just observing? From what vantage point?
    Why and for whom was the document/photograph, etc. produced? What was the intended purpose? Why was it kept?
    Does the text/layout, etc. reveal bias in how and what aspects of the topic are covered or in what was left out?
    Is there anything that might have been considered unusual about the creator in the time and place in which they created the work?

For more details on evaluating primary sources see:

How to Read a Primary Source. By Patrick Rael. In Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students. Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College, July 2004.

A brief, clear and concise guide to evaluating primary source texts.
Using Primary Sources on the Web. By the Instruction & Research Services Committee, Reference & User Services Association, History Section of the American Library Association.
This site has an excellent, brief introduction to primary sources and evaluating primary source web sites. It provides instructions and examples of how to determine who is responsible for a web site, the purpose of the site, the origin of the document, and more.
NOTE: See Citing Sources Used for guides that provide instruction and examples for citing primary sources.
Introduction, Finding & Evaluating Primary Sources Selected Primary Sources and their Finding Aids
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Introduction   Starting   Clarifying   Bibliographies   Finding & Evaluating
Primary Sources   Special Topics   Citing Sources   Ask Your Librarian!   Detailed Table of Contents

Created and maintained by Anita Cannon, Librarian
R. P. Bell Library   Mount Allison University   Mount Allison Centre for Canadian Studies
Last Updated: August 11, 2007