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English Language and Literature

What is a Primary Source?

Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, and are created by people who had a direct connection or knowledge of an event or situation within a relatively short amount of time following the event. However, if an individual writes about events that they experienced first-hand many years after that event occurred, it is still considered a primary source. Primary sources enable researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period from a particular perspective.

Examples of Primary Sources

  • diaries, journals, and ship's logs
  • novels, poetry and plays
  • letters and memos
  • speeches and interviews
  • autobiographies and memoirs
  • organization records
  • original documents e.g. birth certificates, trial transcripts
  • government records
  • case law, legislation, regulations, constitutions
  • audio and video recordings
  • oral histories (any format)
  • photographs and slides
  • artifacts (e.g. painting, furniture)
  • creative art works, literature
  • research data
  • a journal article reporting NEW research or findings
  • newspaper advertisements and reportage and editorial/opinion pieces

Primary Sources - English Literature


Adam Matthew Publications offer an array of specialized online databases with rich primary source information.  For example, database titles include: Eighteenth Century Journals, Empire Online, London Low Life, Medieval Travel Writing, Perdita Manuscripts (16C and 17C women's writing), and Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice. 

Early English Books Online (EEBO) 1473 -1700. "Early English Books Online (EEBO) contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700"

Eighteenth Century Collections Online  1701 - 1800. A comprehensive digital edition of The Eighteenth Century microfilm set, which has aimed to include every significant English-language and foreign-language title printed in the United Kingdom, along with thousands of important works from the Americas, between 1701 and 1800. Consists of books, pamphlets, broadsides, ephemera.

Nineteeth Century Collections Online  c.a. 1789 - 1914. A multi-year global digitization and publishing program focusing on primary source collections of the long nineteeth century; will be comprised of numerous collections to be released over many years, including a variety of material types (monographs, newspapers, pamphlets, manuscripts, ephemera, maps, statistics, etc.).

Indexes to Poems ( Hyperlinked indexes and anthology search - search chronologically, by author, by title or by first line.

University at Buffalo - Poems - Locating and Researching Poetry: using Indexes to Find Poems LibGuide indexing many great sources (search them through Ualgary)
Alexander Street offers databases rich in historical primary sources, as well as videos.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys Multi-volume 17th century diary in text form from Project Gutenberg.
Works by John Evelyn Multi-volume 17th century diary and other workd in text form from Project Gutenberg.

For help in finding History primary sources that may be of use to English research, click here.

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary Sources are created by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions that is the the toic of research. They are works that analyze, assess or interpret an historical event, era, or phenomenon, generally utilizing primary sources to do so by offering a layer of interpretation or analysis. Secondary sources often offer a review or a critique. Generally speaking, secondary sources are written well after the events that are being researched.


Something to Keep in Mind:

Primary and secondary categories are often not fixed and depend on the study or research you are undertaking. For example, newspaper editorial/opinion pieces can be both primary and secondary. If exploring how an event affected people at a certain time, this type of source would be considered a primary source. If exploring the event, then the opinion piece would be responding to the event and therefore is considered to be a secondary source.

Examples of Secondary Sources

  • journal articles that comment on or analyse research
  • textbooks
  • dictionaries and encyclopaedias
  • books that interpret, analyse
  • political commentary
  • biographies
  • dissertations
  • newspaper editorial/opinion pieces
  • criticism of literature, art works or music