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Historical Criminology (Dr. Dan Horner's seminar CRM 406 winter 2021)

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 TMU Library catalogue

Use keywords for your topic or historic person along with one of the following words:

  • archives
  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • documents
  • interviews
  • letters
  • manuscripts
  • notebooks
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • pictorial works
  • sources [this term is often used for collections of primary sources]
  • speeches

Examples of keyword searches:

Digital Collections Purchased or Leased by TMU that Include Primary 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. In addition to the three sections of this guide: Finding Primary Sources, Evaluating Primary Sources, and, Using Primary Sources, this guide includes links to several additional websites that discuss primary sources for history research.

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. You may find items including manuscripts and rare print resources including printed ephemera such as branded recipe booklets.

Search specific institutions or try using a reliable search engine.

By Institution:

Toronto Public Library Digital Collection A simple search for recipes returns printed ephemera and photographs.

By Internet

You may want to try to focus your search by including key words such as archives, manuscripts, or "primary sources"

For example, using Google, and the terms criminal records toronto archives 


City of Toronto Archives  The City of Toronto Archives has a government records section which has police records.  1847-1982 and includes such things as duty books, registers of criminals, and Chief Constable’s correspondence. They also have Bylaws, Council proceedings, City directories, Maps, and Photographs etcetera. Most material is not digitized. Try searching for photographs using as an example: keyword prohibition and check the online records only option 

For material not yet in the archival collection, it may be necessary to file Freedom Of Information Requests to access material.

Archives of Ontario 
Research Guide 233 Criminal Justice Records at the Archives of Ontario (updated Oct. 2020)

The Arquives: Canada's LGBTQ2+ Archives (a lot of material was digitized with the Archives of Sexuality and Gender (a Gale primary source database) including Body Politic, Xtra! and other community newspapers; TMU does not have access at this time) 

Court Records

For court records, it's important to identify the specific court of interest by jurisdiction and type, as they have control over their own records and there is no central database. A guide to the different courts is available through the Dept of Justice and the specific names of courts and locations is available online at Ontario Court Locations and in this chart of historic court information. Different courts will have different procedures for the print records they hold on site, and different info available online through a lookup tool. For instance, it looks like the Supreme Court of Canada has some info available on what records were filed in relation to a case from 1988 to present.

To know the relevant court and generally to learn about the case, case law research will be important: Specifically, WestLaw Next and Lexis Advance Quicklaw are the go to resources for case law.

The court is always indicated on the case itself and can be determined by reading the identifying information at the top of the pdf as well as the citation e.g. Ontario Court of Appeal is indicated in this case.

Acknowledgement: I express thanks to Lisa Levesque (TMU Law Library) and Diane Granfield (Criminology Liaison Librarian) for input.

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