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Evaluating Research Sources – Food at Canada’s first B&B’s


Davenport Centre, Round Lake, Ontario

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary and secondary sources defined.

M. Callaghan, M. Miller, E. Savva

Scarborough, Ontario, CANADA
© 2007, Scarborough Historical Museum. All Rights Reserved.


Primary and Secondary Sources...What's the Difference?

Primary and secondary sources are both used to learn about the past.

Primary sources are actual records that still exist from the past. They are primary because they are the first source of the information.

Secondary sources are materials written about events some time after they happened. History textbooks are a good example of a secondary source.

Everyone is a participant in creating primary source material. Many aspects of our lives require records and those records form part of history. Your birth certificate, report card and even the note you wrote to your best friend are all primary sources.

A driver's licence is a primary source document. If someone writes about what was listed on a licence, that is a secondary document. Mistakes can be made in interpreting or transcribing information so it is a best practice to fact check using primary source documents where possible.

Guide to Primary Source Documents Chart

Published Documents

Public Documents, Maps, Posters, Laws, Books, Government Reports, Business Reports, Pamphlets, Advertisements

It is always important to look at published documents with a critical eye as publication doesn’t guarantee accuracy. Every document is created by a person and each person has a point of view. It is important to check the language and style of a publication to check for bias.

Unpublished Documents

Personal Records, Personal letters, Diaries, Journals, Wills, Deeds, Report Cards

Business and Community Group records such as:

Correspondence, Financial Records, Customer Records, Minutes of Meetings, Other Government Records, Census Records, Marriage, birth and death records, Voters lists Departmental records, Classified documents, Military records

Oral History, Visual Documents & Other Historical Evidence

Oral History

Interviews with members of the community and witnesses to historical events provide first hand information. Oral traditions are a longstanding way to pass along knowledge around the world.

Visual Documents

Photos, films and paintings are all examples of visual documents that can capture a moment in time. They may include historical evidence about a culture from fashion to customs.


Historic photos are often used as a tool when restoring heritage structures to their original appearance.

Other Historical Evidence

Other artifacts, from clothing to kitchen implements provide primary source clues and evidence to researchers about the past.

adapted from information at 'Historians Source' http://memory.loc.gov/learn/lessons/psources/mindwalk.html

Secondary Sources: What Are They? Why Use Them?


Q: Why use a secondary source instead of going and getting all the primary sources?

A: Someone else has already done all the legwork!

What Are They?

Secondary sources are books and documents about events that are usually put together quite some time after the events.

They are often written by someone who was not part of the event.

Using primary sources to gather different pieces of information, a secondary source brings it all together and shows you the big picture of an event.

Is It True?

Fact check your secondary sources with an eye for bias and accuracy. Make sure the information is backed up with solid primary source references.

Check the bibliography!