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University of Wollongong Australia

History of Australian Education, Health & Welfare: Primary Sources FAQs

What's on this page?

Advice on:

What are primary sources

What are secondary sources

What else do I need to know?

And additional tips for finding:

What do you know about your chosen person/organisation/issue?

What were people saying at the time?

How do I analyse and evaluate a primary source?

How do I reference secondary and primary sources?

1. What are Primary Sources?

Records that provide firsthand accounts or evidence of historical events or experiences. Examples of published primary sources include autobiographies, documentary history books, interviews in contemporary newspapers, government reports.

You might also find primary source material reproduced within a secondary source, such as a documentary history book or a biography.

2. What are Secondary Sources?

These are secondhand accounts of historical events or experiences, which analyse and interpret the relevant primary sources.

Secondary source materials (eg. books, textbooks, journal articles) are usually written at a much later time after the event.

3. What else do I need to know about Looking for Primary Sources?

Put your topic in its historical context!

Start your search with secondary sources (books, journal articles) to help you compile some background information on events/issues, key dates/time periods and people/organisation names. This is essential to help you recognise and make sense of any relevant primary sources you do find.


Follow existing paper trails...

Check the footnotes and bibliographies in books and journal articles for any references they provide to specific primary sources. This will help you save time identifying records of interest for you to then follow up.


Omit the history aspect and browse by date instead...

At the time 'it' first happened 'it' was a current event. Remember that the actual words 'history' or 'historical' will only be applied long after the event (eg. in the similar way the term "First World War" only really came into use once there was a "Second World War"). Search on your topic's main keywords (eg. 'war') and then try limiting your results to within a relevant older publication date range (eg. between 1914 and 1918).


Remember to mind your language!

When searching for primary or contemporary sources from earlier eras think about words that may have been used at that time to describe particular issues or events. For example: you may not find the term "immunisation" mentioned in many publications before the 1950s, so instead you may need to look for older terms like "inoculation" or "vaccination".

How do I analyse and evaluate a primary source once I've found it?

Your lecturer will often give you this advice during your class or within your subject outline, so check there first. If not these sites provide some practical tips:

How do I cite archives and primary sources?

How do I cite archives and primary sources?

For Specific Advice

See our Referencing guide for information about citing published primary sources.

General Advice about Citing Archives

Whenever you cite archival material you should provide two essential pieces of information: a description of the item AND details of where it is located. 

The latter is required because archival material in most cases consists of unique, unpublished records which are available in only one place (unlike books or other published material held at more than one library).

A typical archival citation should include the following details:

  • place identifier - where the records are held
  • agency name - the name of the person or organisation that created the records
  • record (ie. collection) series number, with record title and date range

If you are referring to a specific item or range of items within that record series you should also include the:

  • individual item number, with item title description and date (if known)
Example of an Expanded Archival Citation

In a bibliography you should provide the full citation details for each archival record/collection you refer to in your essay etc.

For example:

Wollongong University Archives: Francis McCaffrey; D92, Francis McCaffrey Collection, 1865-1932; D92/5, Notebooks.

Example of an Abbreviated Archival Citation

If you refer to the same citation more than once in your essay etc. you may abbreviate the citation the second time rather than write it again in full.

The abbreviation for the University of Wollongong Archives is NWUA (the N denotes 'New South Wales'), so the abbreviation for the above citation would be:

NWUA: McCaffrey; D92/5, Notebooks.

Other Examples

See the examples given in the following guides:

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