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History, Ancient including early Science and Medicine

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

For certain assignments you might be asked to use primary sources. Primary sources are works created at the time of an event, or by a person who directly experienced an event.

It is the content that matters and an on-line source can still be a primary source. For example, an online copy of a newspaper from May 8, 1945, is still a primary source even though the original article has been digitized.

Primary sources can include:

  • Interviews, diaries, letters, journals, speeches, autobiographies, and witness statements
  • Original hand-written manuscripts
  • Government documents and public records
  • Art, photographs, films, maps, fiction, and music
  • Newspaper and magazine clippings
  • Artifacts, buildings, furniture, and clothing

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are works that are written after the original event or experience; they provide criticism or interpretation of the event or experience.

Some examples of secondary sources are:

  • Textbooks
  • Biographies
  • Historical films, music, and art
  • Articles about people and events from the past

Primary vs Secondary Video

Check out University of Victoria’s Library video on Primary vs. Secondary sources. (Closed Captioned)

Finding Primary Sources

To find primary sources in the RU Library catalogue

Use keywords for your topic or historic person along with the word Sources. (Tip: The most relevant results will use the word Sources as a qualifier in a Library of Congress subject heading, rather than as a keyword from the contents or summary notes.)


Digital Collections Purchased or Leased by Ryerson that Include Primary Sources

Some digital collections from Adam Matthew Digital  that may be useful for studying the ancient and pre-modern time period:

Some of the Alexander Street Press collections may also be useful:

A Sampling of Freely Accessible Primary Sources

Many governmental bodies, academic and public libraries, museums, and private organizations are creating digital collections. Often access is free of charge. Use a search engine to look for names of countries, provinces/states, cities, organizations, or individuals AND archives.

History of Medicine from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. See also their selection of traveling exhibits.

Wellcome Library of the Wellcome Trust in the UK includes extensive digital content on the history of medicine.

Parkinson, R.B. The Ramesseum Papyri. London: British Museum, 2011-

British Library. Digitized Manuscripts.

The Medical Heritage Library (MHL), a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries, promotes free and open access to quality historical resources in medicine. Access via the Internet Archive.

The UK Medical Heritage Librarybrings together books and pamphlets from 10 research libraries in the UK, focused on the 19th and early 20th century history of medicine and related disciplines. Funded by JISC, The Wellcome Library, and accessed via the Internet Archive.

A Sampling of Books that Discuss the Use of Primary and Secondary Sources

Further Explorations into Primary Sources

Using Primary Sources on the Web -- a concise guide to finding and evaluating primary sources online written in 2015 by a sub-committee of the Instructional and Research Services Committee of the Reference and User Services History Section in the American Library Association.