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Sources for historical research: Primary sources

A guide to finding sources for historical research

Why Use Primary Sources?

Research involves examining primary sources (original material) to test and validate the point of view or interpretation of the material later published as a reference work or secondary source.

A primary source is direct evidence to the event, person, or subject of research, however on its own it may be difficult to interpret.

Use primary sources to:

  • find evidence that challenge interpretations or support one scholar's interpretation over that of another,
  • write an interpretation of your own, 
  • look for more primary sources for evidence to confirm or refute your thesis.

When you present your conclusions, you will have produced another secondary source to aid others in their research.

Where can I find Primary Sources?

Published primary Sources can be found using:

Browsing footnotes and bibliographies in secondary sources such as books, journal articles and theses can be helpful in identifying relevant primary sources.

A commonly asked question is: Can I use a digital copy online or published in a book as a primary source?

Answer: Yes, primary sources are characterised by their content, regardless of whether they are available in their original format, in microform, in digital format, or as a facsimile in a published document.

Collections of Primary Sources

The library subscribes to a number of primary sources databases. In many cases, a primary source is discoverable in OneSearch.

Searching within the database platforms offer more detailed and specialised search features.  Under the tabs are a list of some of our subscription databases, plus some online collections available publicly.

National and State Libraries are a rich source of primary source materials, more and more of which are being available online.

For example, Trove provides dedicated search options for Australian materials such as:

  • Pictures, photos, objects
  • Diaries, letters, archives
  • Government Gazettes
  • and much more

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Library subscription databases for primary sources

National and State Libraries are a rich source of primary source materials, more and more of which are being available online. See the tab Libraries and Archives for examples.

 

Below is a short selection of freely available primary source collections online.

National and State Libraries, National Archives and State Records Offices as well as Archives of international organisations are a rich source of primary source materials, more and more of which are being available online. See for example:

Australian War Memorial

  • The collection contains a wealth of material to help you research and find your connection with the wartime experiences of the brave men and women who served in Australia's military forces

National Archives of Australia

  • The National Archives of Australia can best be described as the memory of our nation – collecting and preserving Australian Government records that reflect our history and identity. The collection traces events and decisions that have shaped the nation and the lives of Australians and can be explore online or in person.

National Library of Australia's e-Resources

  • The NLA offers access to a wide variety of Primary sources relating to Australia, Asia and the UK through its website. You will first need  to apply for a National Library Card. You are eligible if you live in Australia and supply an Australian residential address. 

Trove from the National Library of Australia. Search for:

  • Pictures, photos, objects
  • Diaries, letters, archives
  • Government Gazettes
  • and much more

States Records Office of Western Australia

  • The core of the State Records Office is the State archives collection. The collection consists of records created by the Colonial and State Governments, as well as Local Government authorities in Western Australia, which are retained permanently by the State Records Office. State archives include files, maps, architectural drawings, documents, microforms, sound recordings and electronic records.

State Library of Western Australia

  • Through the WA Heritage Collections you can access Oral histories, Ephemera, Private archives, Photographs and much more.

United Nations Archives and Records

  • are responsible for all aspects of UN record-keeping, ranging from measures to ensure that United Nations officials create records in the course of their duties, through the management of records in United Nations offices, to preserving and making records of continuing value accessible as United Nations archives.

Historical Archives of the European Union

  • The Historical Archives Service manages the archives of the European Commission and organisations that preceded it. Members of the public can consult minutes of meetings, speeches and other materials in its Brussels reading room.

Evaluating Primary Sources

Primary sources are the foundations of histories. Evaluation of the sources is essential to scholarly research.

  • Who was the author and who was the audience of the primary source?
  • What was the purpose of the document or motive for writing it?
  • Does the writer have an obvious bias?
  • When was this document written, and what was the effect of the document on history?
  • Which effect did the document have on the your view of this topic or event?
  • Compare the primary source information with secondary source information.

Information accessed using the internet needs to be critically evaluated. Consult: