Consider the influence of the passage of time and personal bias on the recording of history

The Time and Bias Rule!

The longer the time lag between an event and the time a record is written, the more likely the information is to be faulty.

If the informant has a biased view of the event, their version of events may be flawed. This can be true for primary and secondary sources.

Always check historical information with a critical eye for these factors.

Adapted from information at Library of Congress 'Historian's Source'

Test Your Memory!

Look at picture # 1. Try to remember what is in the picture without writing anything down.

Without looking, try to list the objects. . .   Now look at picture # 2.

Look at picture # 2. What objects are new, have been moved or are missing?

Was Your Memory Perfect ?  This test only asks you to recall things from a minute ago.

Imagine trying to remember what was in the pictures ten days or ten years from now. How accurate do you think your memory will be?

M. Miller, Scarborough Historical Museum
M. Callaghan

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

Primary and secondary sources defined.

Primary and secondary sources defined.

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'

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!

M. Callaghan, M. Miller, E. Savva
Scarborough Historical Society, R. Schofield, Library of Congress 'Historian's Source' , TDSB

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

Image of 1934 Bill of Sale for merchandise from Morrish Store in Highland Creek.

Primary Sources: Finding history in everyday documents.

Primary Source - Bills of Sale ~ What Can We Learn ?

Looking at the image of the bill of sale from the W. J. Morrish Co. General Merchants, dated May 18, 1934 we know the following:

The W. J. Morrish store was operating in Highland Creek, Ontario on May 18, 1934 and had service with Bell and Malvern telephone companies.

The purchaser was likely still using kerosene lamps as a new lamp chimney is listed on the bill of sale.

Looking at bills of sale lets us see the everyday prices for items at a specific point in time.

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

Short quiz on primary and secondary sources

Identify primary and secondary sources in this short quiz

Primary and Secondary Sources TAKE THE QUIZ

Click the next button to continue.

Question 1

Each item is either a primary or secondary source. Drag the items and drop them on their correct location.

Items:  diary,  audio recording of Grandma talking about her life, history textbook, student report card

Question 2

Is a birth certificate a primary or secondary source ?

Question 3

Click on the object which is not a primary source ?

Question 4

Choose three of the following that are most likely to have primary source documents ?

archives, theatre, reference library, internet, museum

Question 5

A primary source is an original document or account that has survived from the past.    True or False?

Correct answers:

Question 1

Primary Sources:  Audio recording, Diary, student report card

Secondary Source:  History textbook

Question 2

A birth certificate is a primary source.

Question 3

A history textbook is not a primary source, it is a secondary source.

Question 4

Archives, reference libraries and museums are most likely to have primary source documents.

Question 5


M. Miller, M. Callaghan, Scarborough Historical Museum
Scarborough Historical Museum Youth Program

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

Consider the pros of using the internet for research and cons of having to check information for accuracy.

Using the Internet for Research

Information Superhighway or Dead End ?

The internet is a great way to find sources and information. It is one of the most used secondary source research tools. It is easy, fast and you can quickly access more information than in any single library.


Just because it is on your computer screen doesn't mean it is true.

Some websites are purposely set up to spoof legitimate sites. Some are posted by people with lots of interest and few facts.

Assess all sources with a critical eye for bias and factual accuracy.

Check for valid references and bibliographies, everytime.

Primary Sources On Line !

Many archives and museums now have parts of their collections available on line. You can view historic documents, photos, maps, letters and more on your computer.

Image of primary source photo:

Elliott Store, Scarborough, ON courtesy Scarborough Archives

M. Miller
Scarborough Archives, Scarborough Historical Museum Youth Program

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

Learning Objectives

After using this learning object the user will be able to:

  • Easily identify primary and secondary sources
  • Determine the most accurate sources of information
  • Locate and access resources

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