Primary sources are not only accounts or artefacts generated by an eyewitness or participant in past events, but they can also be artefacts, documents, recordings, or other sources of information created in the period you are studying. Secondary sources are often documents that cite, comment on, or build upon a primary document. But how do you tell if something is a primary or secondary source, since it can be difficult to tell them apart?

1. The decision as to whether a record is a primary source is often determined by its use.

This document is:
• Van Cortlandt, Gertrude. (1858). Records of the rise and progress of the city of Ottawa from the foundation of the Rideau Canal to the present time.

• This is a published book—and if you were reading it as a piece of literature, as it was intended in its time, it is considered a secondary source. However, it is also an eyewitness account by Gertrude Van Cortlandt. She detailed the building of the Rideau Canal and the resulting effect on infrastructure, society, and progress in Ottawa/Bytown. This would be a useful primary source for anyone researching the social aspects of early Bytown, the construction effects and influence of the Rideau Canal, life in early Canada, the role of women in early Canada, and many other subjects. It would be this use of the material and interpretation that would make this a primary source.

This document is:
• MacTaggart, John. (1829). Three years in Canada.

• MacTaggart was a civil engineer from Scotland. He would likely have his own culturally conditioned perspective about other ethnicities, based on his background. His ideology would be based on his training as an engineer and those he encountered as an immigrant.
• Van Cortlandt was the wife of a prominent physician, and could be expected to view life from a position of relative wealth and privilege. You can expect her female-gendered perspective to differ from MacTaggart’s in the experiences it conveys, the topics it addresses, and the language it uses.
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