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Industrial Relations & Human Resources Library

A guide to resources available through the Industrial Relations/Human Resources Library and the University of Toronto Library System

Introduction to Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a first-hand account that provides direct evidence regarding the topic you are researching. Primary sources are generally written by witnesses from the time period of the event or topic at hand.

Examples of primary sources include (but are not limited to!):

  • Diaries
  • Maps
  • Pamphlets
  • Film
  • Memoirs
  • Photographs
  • Government Documents
  • Music
  • Postcards
  • Institutional Records
  • Newspapers
  • Raw Data
  • Interviews
  • Oral Histories
  • Social Media Posts
  • Letters
  • Organizational Reports
  • Websites

In contrast, secondary sources do not provide first-hand accounts of the topic or event. Instead, they are works that are written by people who were not witnesses to a particular event or set of conditions, or are resources that discuss, analyze, or interpret the topic. For example, standard textbooks used in most undergraduate courses are considered secondary sources.

A good way to distinguish between primary and secondary sources is to consider when the source was created: was it created during the time period or event being researched? Or was it created much later?

When are primary sources used?

Primary sources are most frequently used by historians studying a particular time period, but researchers and students of industrial relations and human resources can benefit from incorporating primary sources into their research as well, particularly when discussing labour history. Using primary sources instead of just secondary sources allows for a wider perspective of the issue than could be provided by using only secondary sources. Primary sources are also a great way to see and apply IRHR theory to real world situations.

IRHR students studying contemporary events may also make use of primary sources -  for example, a student writing on the teachers' strike in Ontario in 2019-2020 may want to consult newspaper articles and publications by the striking unions, in addition to academic articles. Even though the strike is recent and not traditionally considered 'history', newspapers from the event or publications from teachers' unions would be considered primary sources since they are first-hand accounts of the event.

You can find out more about evaluating primary sources in the UTSC guide on Primary Sources.

Finding Primary Sources for IRHR Students

Primary sources are generally stored in specialized historical databases, and usually won't turn up in a general UTL catalogue search. However, UTL maintains maintains a list of primary source databases to aid student research.

This list of databases covers a wide range of time periods and subjects. Students can narrow down their results by using the drop-down menu to filter by subject, for example "Economics", "Industrial Relations", "Canadian studies".

Helpful Databases for IRHR Students

This is just a small, selected list of the databases that may be most helpful to IRHR students.

Tips for Searching Primary Source Databases

Primary search databases generally return a lot of results and that can be overwhelming and time-consuming to sort through. Here are some tips for narrowing your search:

  • Most primary source databases have search functions similar to the regular UTL LibrarySearch - this means you can use regular search techniques such as keyword and boolean searches
    • For example, if a student wanted to research the XYZ factory strike in London, England in 1905, they could search by using the keywords "XYZ factory" AND "London" AND "1905"
    • Some databases also have filtering menus on the lefthand bar to filter results based on year, language, subject, etc.
    • You can find more information about search techniques here


  • It can be helpful to already have a specific event or historical person in mind when looking for primary sources. Students can look through their class notes, course readings, and other secondary sources to decide which historical events/persons/topics they might like to use as examples, and then search specifically for those events using the search strategies outlined above.
    • For example, searching "factory worker" would return many more resources than "factory worker" AND "Canada" and "1850"