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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.


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In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.

Formats of Primary Sources

  • Personal records or documents: diaries, journals, letters, manuscripts, speeches, emails, blog posts, and papers
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Government documents and records, proceedings & meeting minutes, internal memos
  • Published materials: books, magazine and journal articles, reports, blog posts, wiki entries, newspaper articles written at the time
  • Visual Materials/Creative Works: photographs, paintings, sculptures, films, video recordings, plays, scripts
  • Artifacts: physical objects from that time, such as clothes, furniture, toys, and buildings

Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalogue

Try a keyword search in the library catalogue combining your subject with words that identify a particular genre:

  • correspondence, letters, papers
  • diaries, journals, manuscripts
  • personal narratives, oral histories
  • interviews, transcripts
  • sources
  • travel writing, travelogue

Select Collections

Each discipline taught at UBC is represented by a Library Research guide. The guides describe and link to the best sources for your research - including collections which contain significant numbers of primary sources in the Humanities. Click the "Arts & Humanities" link to bring up the research guides for these topic areas.

  • British Columbia Regional Digitized History - access copies of regional historical resources from participating B.C. memory institutions. 
  • Digital National Security Archive - Collection of significant primary documents central to U.S. foreign and military policy since 1945.
  • Early American Imprints 1639-1800 - Regarded as the definitive resource for researching every aspect of 17th- and 18th-century America.
  • Early American Imprints 1801-1819 - Covers every aspect of American life during the early decades of the United States.
  • Early Encounters in North America - Documents the relationships among peoples in North America from 1534 to 1850. The collection focuses on personal accounts from traders, slaves, missionaries, explorers, soldiers, native peoples, and officials, both men and women.
  • U.S. Library of Congress - American Memory - Digital record of American history and creativity.
  • Oral History Online - Important oral histories available either on the Web or hidden away in archives, in English. Though there is content from around the world, e.g., South Africa, Cuba, the majority of coverage is from the USA. Includes an impressive collection of oral histories from immigrants at Ellis Island, interviews with Pennsylvania miners and Black Panther Party narratives.
  • Sabin Americana - Based on Joseph Sabin's landmark bibliography, this collection contains works about the Americas published throughout the world from 1500 to the early 1900's. Included are books, pamphlets, serials and other documents that provide original accounts of exploration, trade, colonialism, slavery and abolition, the western movement, First Nations, military actions and much more.
  • The Sixties - A collection of diaries, letters, autobiographies and other memoirs, written and oral histories, manifestos, government documents covering the history, culture and politics of the decade.
  • Twentieth-century Latin American Pamphlets - Pamphlets, grey literature and ephemera related to political, economic, and social conditions in Latin America during the 20th century. Part I has an online index and covers the Southern Cone countries, and Part 2 covers Central America and the Caribbean.
  • U.S. Serial Set - A collection of U.S. government publications compiled under the direction of Congress, capturing every aspect of American life from the early 19th century onward.
  • European Views of the Americas - This is a bibliography which lists printed records about the Americas written in Europe before 1750. A wide range of subject areas are covered; from natural disasters to disease outbreaks and slavery.
  • Early English Books Online - Digital facsimile page images in their original printed editions of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700.
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online - Every significant English-language and foreign-language title printed in Great Britain during the eighteenth century, along with thousands of important works from the Americas.
  • Eighteenth Century Journals 1685-1815 - Rare journals printed between c1685 and 1815, illuminating all aspects of eighteenth-century social, political and literary life.
  • House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (U.K.) 1715-present - Detailed primary source for the past two centuries, for Britain, its colonies and the wider world. They are the working documents of government for all areas.
  • Medieval Travel Writings - Extensive collection of manuscript materials for the study of medieval travel writing in fact and in fantasy. The main focus is accounts of journeys to the Holy Land, India and China from the 13th - 16th centuries.
  • Nineteenth Century Index - A comprehensive source for discovering nineteenth-century books, periodicals, official documents, newspapers and archives.
  • China: Trade, Politics, and Culture 1793-1980 - Wide variety of original source material detailing China's interaction with the West from Macarthey's first Embassy to China in 1793, through to the Nixon/Heath visits to China in 1972-74.
  • India, Raj and Empire - Manuscripts related to the history of South Asia between the foundation of the East India Company in 1615 and the granting of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947.
  • Times of India - Full text access to the English daily newspaper founded in 1838 to serve British residents of West India. Today this historical newspaper serves researchers interested in studying colonialism and post-colonialism, British and world history, class and gender issues, international relations, comparative religion, international economics, terrorism, and more.
  • British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries - Contains personal writings of women from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, spanning more than 400 years from 1500 to World War II.
  • Everyday Life & Women in America, 1800-1920 - Collections addressing 19th and early 20th century political, social and gender issues, religion, race, education, employment, marriage, sexuality, home and family life, health, and pastimes.
  • North American Women's Letters and Diaries - Letters and diaries from Colonial times to 1950. The largest electronic collection of women's diaries and correspondence ever assembled.
  • Women and Social Movements in the United States - 1600 to 2000 Includes tens of thousands of primary documents providing perspectives on women's social movements and reform organizations from colonial times to the present.
  • North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories - Composed of contemporaneous letters and diaries, oral histories, interviews, and other personal narratives, provides a unique and personal view of what it meant to immigrate to America and Canada between 1800 and 1950.
  • Empire Online - Primary documents relating to colonial history, politics, culture and society. Sources span five centuries: from a translation of Columbus's 1492 voyage to 21st Century works on imperialism. Full list of topics.
  • Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2007 - Portal for slavery and abolition studies, bringing together documents and collections from libraries and archives across the Atlantic world.