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Hello Senior 3 (Grade 11) Students!

Historical Documents

Have you ever come across an old photograph and wondered about the person in the photo? Or found a tattered newspaper clipping and read the article or story? Photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, ledgers, cards, even receipts are all documents and can reveal clues to the way people lived in the past or are evidence of an event or a particular situation. Whether intentionally or otherwise they serve as witnesses to the past. We can use documents to verify facts or to draw conclusions about events or lifestyles. But however we choose to utilize them, documents are essential to our understanding of history.

Archives Boxes
Rare Book
Example of photograph
Example of diary entry
Example of drawing


Who's Got Them?

We all possess documents of one kind or another. When you are born, you are registered with the government and issued a birth certificate. That is a record that you exist, a document. You can use that birth certificate throughout your life. It follows you wherever you go and can help you apply for a driver’s license, student loan, passport, even get you into a movie. Think of the other documents you might have in your wallet or purse: perhaps a bus pass, membership at a video rental store, student card, library card, a bank debit card, maybe even a Social Insurance Number. All these offer clues to who you are, your identity, interests and personality. If someone found your wallet or purse they could learn much about who you are from the documents you possess.



Just like the contents of your wallet or purse, photographs can also offer clues to who you are. They can be a record of your growth from childhood, a memory of an important event, family members, or friends. The photograph might be posed or candid; either way can affect your interpretation. For example, a snapshot of you crossing home plate after slugging the winning home run in your little league baseball championship may be a more reliable recording of the event than a posed photograph of you holding your trophy in your parents’ living room. Why? It is all in the evidence or clues the photograph reveals.


Your Point of View

Imagine that you have just been present during a robbery at your neighbourhood convenience store. You had just completed your transaction with the clerk when an individual pushed by you and demanded money from the cash register. You quickly glimpsed the robber as you moved out of the way. There were three other customers in the store at the time, all in different aisles. The incident took no more than a minute. After the robber fled the police arrived to take individual statements from the witnesses. Each of you offered his/her own description of the suspect and details of the event as it transpired from your own perspective and vantage point. Will your descriptions be similar? Will your details of the robbery be identical? The chances are quite likely that each of the witnesses will vary in his/her description and account of events. Not everyone sees the same things the same way. The same concept applies to historical documents. Interpretations can vary according to the viewer.


Missing Puzzle Pieces

One document can often be just a single piece to a much larger puzzle. Sometimes you may not have all the pieces yet you have to attempt to come to some conclusions with the limited information you have. Historians sometimes have to do just that.


Impartial Witnesses

Most documents are not created with an eye on posterity. They are of, and for, their time, serving a specific purpose whether personal as in letters or photographs, or public such as records of meetings or accounts of events. They become historical artifacts only after the fact and are therefore of greater value because they were never intended to be a window into the past.


Primary or Secondary?

Documents are what are referred to as "primary sources" as opposed to textbooks or history books which are interpretations and summaries of events in the past and are thus secondary sources. History writers often use primary source documents to compile secondary source accounts. But no matter what form of primary source document it is, you can find it in an archives.


What's an Archives?

Archives collect, preserve, catalogue, and store all kinds of documents that are considered permanently valuable and make them available for others to view or study.
University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

Governments at all levels, educational institutions, historical societies, libraries, museums, newspapers and other media, private businesses, even some individuals maintain archives of their vital documents. Rock star Neil Young, for example, has his own personal archives. Students, historians, writers, lawyers, government officials and ordinary citizens like you can access documents of all shapes, sizes and forms at an archives. Without them our knowledge of the past would be very limited.