Contemporary Canadian Government & Politics:
A Practical Research Guide

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5. Using Primary Source Material
Introduction Selected Primary Sources and their Finding Aids

Selected Primary Sources and their Finding Aids: Personal Papers

What Was Said What Was Written Recorded Images What Is Happening Now

People involved in government and politics have often recorded their experiences, providing valuable insight into historical events and their own role in those events. These first-hand accounts (found in diaries, letters, personal journals, memoirs, autobiographies, and other published or unpublished manuscripts) can shed light on the past and make for fascinating reading, although care needs to be taken in interpreting these sources.

These people may also leave the papers relating to their personal and/or working life (correspondence, files, photographs, notes, drafts, and other working documents, etc.) to a university, provincial or other archive. Some of these institutions have Internet sites with small portions of their collections digitized and available online, but for the most part researchers interested in personal papers have to be prepared to consult them wherever they are held.

Much more accessible are published personal papers: usually memoirs, autobiographies and sometimes correspondence, which can be found in most research libraries. The following are examples of all of these kinds of personal papers relevant to research in contemporary Canadian government and politics:
Back to the Top Published Personal Papers
Unpublished Personal Papers:
Most of this material is NOT available on the Internet. Check the sources listed in the Introduction to Using Primary Source Material to find out which archives and special collections near you have papers of interest and to contact them for an appointment. It is always advisable to call ahead to make sure that what you want will be accessible, especially when dealing with small archives. The following are selected archival collections of personal papers:

The Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Library and Archives Canada. http://king.collectionscanada.ca/EN/default.asp
William Lyon Mackenzie King was Prime Minister for many years ending in 1948. About 50,000 pages of his diaries have been scanned up to his death in July 1950. This ArchiviaNet web site provides access to the diaries by date and by keyword and links to an online exhibit of over 400 photographs and several audio and film clips.
Diefenbaker Canada Centre. http://www.usask.ca/diefenbaker/
A gift from the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker, the archival collection housed at this centre at the University of Saskatchewan includes over three million documents, 8,000 photographs, and two major press clipping collections. It depicts the life of the prime minister and the government and politics in his time.
General Inventory of the National Archives of Canada. Library and Archives Canada. Updated by Archives Search. http://search-recherche.collectionscanada.ca/archives/search.jsp?Language=eng
Now joined with the National Library of Canada, the National Archives have the largest collection of personal papers in Canada including millions of government and private holdings in all media. The collection can be searched as a whole using the Archives Search page. Advanced searches can be limited to government or private records.
Prime Ministers' Fonds. Library and Archives Canada. Updated by Archives Search. http://search-recherche.collectionscanada.ca/archives/search.jsp?Language=eng
Search by Prime Minister, dates or keywords to get records describing the content of the collections which include correspondence and other papers of Prime Ministers Arthur Meighen, Mackenzie King, Richard Bennett among others.
Back to the Top Unpublished Personal Papers
Published Personal Papers:

Many high-ranking government and political figures write their memoirs at some point during or after their careers. These are usually published by major publishers and are freely available in most libraries. Other personal papers such as correspondence may also be collected and published but usually not until many years after the person's death.

To find these works search a union catalogue such as AMICUS or your library's catalogue. To find works written by a person, search by the person's name as Author (e.g. Trudeau, Pierre Elliott).

Common Library of Congress subject headings for personal papers:

The most common is just the person's name, followed by birth and death dates. (e.g. Trudeau, Pierre Elliott, 1919-2000.) This alone should find you books about the person, including ones written by them.
TIP: Most catalogues will allow you to enter just "Trudeau, Pierre" and browse all the headings that begin this way. This is a good way to see all the books available on a person.

Many memoirs and autobiographies will be found under the person's name or their political party as subject alone. Often these kinds of works will have additional subject headings for the type of person (e.g. Prime Ministers--Canada) or the subject matter (e.g. Canada--Government and politics) and the following sub-headings may be used:

  • -- biography
  • -- correspondence
  • -- diaries
  • -- personal narratives
  • -- sources
e.g. Trudeau, Pierre Elliott, 1919-2000
Prime Ministers--Canada--biography
Liberal Party of Canada--biography
NOTE: The sub-heading "biography" is applied whether it is a biography (written by someone else) or an autobiography (ie. written by the person herself).
Keyword searching may be worthwhile to help find the primary materials among the items classified just with the person's name as the subject or with "biography" as a sub-heading. Descriptive keywords may be used in various parts of a library record, e.g. Notes field, title field, etc., so it is best to search the following keywords in all fields:

Some keywords commonly used to describe personal papers: autobiography, manuscript, memoirs, writings, letters, correspondence, diary, narratives. (e.g. keyword search: [topic/person] and (letters or correspondence or narratives).

Selected examples of published personal papers:

Against the Current: Selected Writings 1939-1996. By Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Edited by Gerard Pelletier, translated by George Tombs. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996. 340 p.

Mike: The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson. By Lester B. Pearson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 3 vols., 1972-1975.

My Road to Quebec. By Jean Charest. Saint-Laurent, Quebec: Editions P. Tisseyre, 1998. 235 p.

Personal Letters of a Public Man: The Family Letters of John G. Diefenbaker. By John Diefenbaker. Edited by Thad McIlroy. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1985. 255 p.

What Was Said What Was Written Recorded Images What Is Happening Now
Introduction Selected Primary Sources and their Finding Aids
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Primary Sources   Special Topics   Citing Sources   Ask Your Librarian!   Detailed Table of Contents

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Last Updated: August 23, 2007
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