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Primary Sources

This guide to primary sources focuses on collections owned or subscribed to by UBC Library. Freely available resources are also described if they are significant collections or have a Canadian focus.

What is a Primary Source?

The definition of a primary source depends upon the discipline and on how one is using the source.

Usually, a primary source is a direct, first-hand account of an event. It is usually something that was created at the time of an event, or shortly thereafter. Examples include:

  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Interviews
  • Statistics
  • Photographs
  • Art
  • Newspapers
  • Maps
  • Video and audio recordings
  • First-hand narratives or stories

In contrast, a secondary source would be something that interprets, analyses, or remarks upon a primary source. Examples include:

  • Journal articles
  • Essays
  • Theses and dissertations
  • Textbooks
  • Biographies
  • Stories or films produced about an historical event

Finding Primary Sources at UBC

UBC's Library, Archives, and Rare Books & Special Collections (RBSC) are each separate institutions. RBSC Archives holds archival materials collected by UBC, while the UBC Archives holds material created by UBC departments and professors. You will have to search each institution separately to find all the primary source materials held at UBC.

UBC Library

In the UBC Library Catalogue, try combining your topic keywords with one of these terms.

  • biograph?
  • autobiograph?
  • "first person"
  • interview?
  • perspectiv?
  • diary OR diaries
  • autoethnograph?
  • narrativ?
  • photograph?

For Example: "Residential schools" AND Autobiograph?

Search Tip: Use quotation marks to search for a phrase (e.g. "First Nations"). Use a question mark to truncate a term to search for words with the same stem (e.g. Biograph? retrieves Biography, Biographies, Biographical, etc.). 

UBC Archives 

UBC Archives has put together a guide to finding First Nations Historical Resources in the UBC Archives. Note that further searching within finding aids may be necessary to locate this material.

UBC Rare Books & Special Collections

The best way to search for this material is to use Rare Books & Special Collections database search. RBSC's search does not use phrase (e.g. "residential school") or truncated (e.g. residential school?) searching. Try a simple keyword search (e.g. Residential school). 

Contemporary Sources

Government Records

Historical Sources

Oral Narratives

In the UBC Library Catalogue, use the terms "oral narratives" or "oral history" with your search (e.g.: "tlingit oral history").

The following are examples of online oral history projects – you will find many more online or in the UBC Catalogue.