Picturing the Past
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Activity, printable version


Primary sources:

  • created at the time of an event, or very soon after
  • created by someone who saw or heard an event themselves
  • often one-of-a-kind, or rare
  • letters, diaries, photos and newspapers (can all be primary sources)

Secondary sources:

  • created after event; sometimes a long time after something happened
  • often uses primary sources as examples
  • expresses an opinion or an argument about a past event
  • history text books, historical movies and biographies (can all be secondary sources)

Questioning Primary Sources

A primary source is created every time you send an email, take a photograph, or write in your journal. These primary sources reflect the worries, concern, or opinions you have when you create them.

As you know, these documents can express feelings of love, joy, unhappiness or dislike. Sometimes the emotions of the creator or author can be clearly seen in primary sources. Other times, they are hidden. Sometimes a primary source will contain lies or mistaken information. Sometimes a primary source is actually a fake, made to look old and important.

When looking at primary sources, there are several questions you should always ask to help you understand the material. These questions will also help you figure out if a source is authentic or fake. Authentic primary sources are great research material for projects, but you need to be careful of fake ones!

Sometimes it will be easy to get the answers to your questions, and sometimes it will be impossible. Don't worry if it gets difficult -- just asking the questions is important.

The five key questions:


What is the primary source? Is it a photo? If so, is it in black and white or colour? Is it a letter? If so, is it typed, or handwritten?


Who wrote the letter, took the photo or painted the painting? Can you be sure it was really that person who made it?


When was the primary source created? How can you tell its age?


Can you tell where the primary source was created?


Why was the primary source created? Does it tell a story? Is it a love letter? Is it an order from an officer to a soldier? Is it a picture of the Rocky Mountains? Does the primary source tell you why it was created? Can you guess why it was created?

When you are studying a primary source, write down your answers to the five key questions. Do you think that the primary source is authentic? Do you think it is fake? An authentic source can tell you lots about the people, places, and events of the past. What did people think in the past? How did they talk to each other? What did they wear? You can find out for yourself using primary sources.

A faked source can also tell you a lot. Why would someone go to all of that trouble to fool us? What were they hiding and what did they want us to think? Being a historian is a lot like being a detective, with primary sources as the evidence. It's your job to find out what really happened! Remember that history is never final. Accounts of the past are as different as the people who create them. That means there is lots of room for you to research and write your own story.

© [Library and Archives Canada]. Reproduced with permission from the Library and Archives Canada website (www.collectionscanada.ca/index-e.html)