Page 2 – Historical resources

An introduction to historical sources

The information on this page has been adapted from a document supplied by Archives New Zealand Christchurch Regional Office.

When you conduct research into a particular theme, issue or family you can use a wide variety of sources to answer questions and provide evidence about the past. There are two types of sources:

  • Primary sources are actual records of the time such as letters, files, photographs, etc. Some primary sources can be published documents. Some were created for large audiences and were distributed widely. Published documents include government reports, advertisements, maps, pamphlets, posters, laws and court decisions. Primary sources are unique and irreplaceable. Primary sources are found in archival institutions such as Archives New Zealand, Alexander Turnbull Library or the Documentary Research Centre at Canterbury Museum.
  • Secondary sources are works that interpret or analyse a historical event. They are often accounts of the past created by people writing about events after they happened, such as books, films, essays, etc. Secondary sources are not unique and can be replaced if lost or stolen. Secondary sources can be found at institutions such as libraries or on websites.

The New Zealand government creates thousands of records every year. They cover a wide range of subjects, from citizenship to deceased estates, land ownership and health policy. Some of the records are valuable, not only at the time for the administration of government, but also for the future as evidence and information. When using these primary sources you should remember that they were created to service a particular need of government, and this may have been the reason why the records were kept. The historical information they contain is additional to this evidential data. Archives New Zealand was established to care for these public records.


Publications are materials that have been printed, published and made available to a wide audience. In terms of historical research, published material can be used to interpret or analyse a historical event. Publications should be evaluated for reliability, bias and accuracy. When using publications you should think about who the intended audience was as that often influences content.

Manuscripts and unpublished material

Many manuscripts and unpublished documents have survived and are in museum, library or private collections. These primary sources include personal letters, diaries, journals and family histories.

Sometimes special archives look after documents and records from a particular organisation, such as church archives (e.g., the Methodist Church of New Zealand Archives) or a business (e.g., Bank of New Zealand Archives). These records can give evidence about the past. These unpublished resources were often created by people interested in history or people who wanted to keep a record of events. You can find these sources in places such as the Alexander Turnbull Library or Canterbury Museum.

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Newspapers and magazines

Some primary sources are also publications. Publications were often created for large audiences and were widely available. Newspapers and magazines are very useful resources when looking at particular periods. They contain first-hand accounts of events, editorials and advertisements. When using newspapers and magazines to research a history topic, remember that just because something was published in a paper, it does not make it accurate, truthful or reliable. Reporters also have a point of view and prejudices. But even these biases can help you understand the past.

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Websites can contain primary sources (such as digital images of documents), but these sites are in themselves secondary sources. A website may be considered a primary source if it captures evidence of an organisation's activity (e.g., an online list of staff at a university). You can search on the web using Google to access some of these sites, or you can visit a site such as NZHistory, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography or


There are a lot of historical movies available today (e.g., Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, Emma). Although the story they tell may be based on history, some dramatic license may be taken with historical events and personalities to make the movie more interesting. These secondary sources can be useful for helping researchers visualise a particular era. You can find these and other movies at your local videostore.

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Art and visual sources

Primary visual sources include photographs, paintings and other types of artwork. Visual documents such as artworks capture a particular moment in time. They can provide evidence of what that time was like, and they can be used to compare changes over time. Art and visual records can present evidence about a culture at a specific era in history (e.g., Maori customs in the late 19th century). It is important to remember that like all primary sources, a visual record has a creator with a point of view or bias (e.g., a painter). Even photographs cannot be taken at face value. You need to look behind the lens to the photographers who used film and cameras to create desired results. You can find artworks at the city and local art galleries.

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  • to search for images from a range of New Zealand institutions.

Oral and sound sources

Before writing became popular, our ancestors passed on their traditions and knowledge as stories or oral histories. Historians can find out about the lives of ordinary people through oral stories. Oral histories are important primary historical sources that give us information about people, particularly minority groups that might have been excluded from published records or who did not leave behind written sources.

Sound recordings may document events, meetings, interviews or oral histories and form invaluable records and archives. The recordings enhance and expand the cultural identity of New Zealand. You can find oral histories at the Alexander Turnbull Library and old sound recordings can be found at  Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.

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How to cite this page

'Historical resources', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-May-2024

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