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Contemporary Canadian Govt. & Politics: Personal Papers

Selected Primary Sources and their Finding Aids: Personal Papers

People involved in government and politics have often recorded their experiences, providing valuable insight into historical events and their own role in those events. These first-hand accounts (found in diaries, letters, personal journals, memoirs, autobiographies, and other published or unpublished manuscripts) can shed light on the past and make for fascinating reading, although care needs to be taken in interpreting these sources.

These people may also leave the papers relating to their personal and/or working life (correspondence, files, photographs, notes, drafts, and other working documents, etc.) to a university, provincial or other archive. Some of these institutions have Internet sites with small portions of their collections digitized and available online, but for the most part researchers interested in personal papers have to be prepared to consult them wherever they are held.

Much more accessible are published personal papers such as memoirs, autobiographies and sometimes correspondence, which can be found in most research libraries. The following are examples of all of these kinds of personal papers relevant to research in contemporary Canadian government and politics:

Unpublished Personal Papers

Most of this material is NOT available on the Internet. Check the sources listed in the Introduction to Using Primary Source Material to find out which archives and special collections near you have papers of interest and to contact them for an appointment. It is always advisable to call ahead to make sure that what you want will be accessible, especially when dealing with small archives. The following are selected archival collections of personal papers:

The Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Library and Archives Canada.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was Prime Minister for many years ending in 1948. About 50,000 pages of his diaries have been scanned up to his death in July 1950. This LAC database provides access to the diaries by date and by keyword and links to an online exhibit of over 400 photographs and several audio and film clips.

Diefenbaker Canada Centre.

A gift from the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker, the archival collection housed at this centre at the University of Saskatchewan includes over three million documents, 8,000 photographs, and two major press clipping collections. It depicts the life of the prime minister and the government and politics in his time.

Prime Ministers' Fonds. Library and Archives Canada. Collection Search:

Limit search to "Collections and Fonds (Archives Search)" to get records describing the content of the archival collections that  include correspondence and other papers of Prime Ministers Arthur Meighen, Mackenzie King, Richard Bennett among others.

Published Personal Papers

Many high-ranking government and political figures write their memoirs at some point during or after their careers. These are usually published by major publishers and are freely available in most libraries. Other personal papers such as correspondence may also be collected and published but usually not until many years after the person's death.

To find these works search the national union catalogue Voilà or your library's catalogue. To find works written by your person of interest, search by the person's name as Author (e.g. Trudeau, Pierre Elliott).

Common Library of Congress subject headings for personal papers:

The most common is just the person's name, followed by birth and death dates (e.g. Trudeau, Pierre Elliott, 1919-2000.) This alone should find you books about the person, including ones written by them.
TIP: A good catalogue will allow you to enter just "Trudeau, Pierre" and browse all the headings that begin this way.

Many memoirs and autobiographies will be found under the person's name or their political party as the subject. Often these kinds of works will have additional subject headings for the type of person (e.g. Prime Ministers--Canada) or the subject matter (e.g. Canada--Government and politics) and the following sub-headings may be used:

-- biography
-- correspondence
-- diaries
-- personal narratives
-- sources

e.g. Trudeau, Pierre Elliott, 1919-2000
Prime Ministers--Canada--biography
Liberal Party of Canada--biography

NOTE: The sub-heading "biography" is applied whether it is a biography (written by someone else) or an autobiography (ie. written by the person herself).
Keyword searching may be worthwhile to help find the primary materials among the items classified just with the person's name as the subject or with "biography" as a sub-heading. Descriptive keywords may be used in various parts of a library record, e.g. Notes field, title field, etc., so it is best to search the following keywords in all fields:

Keywords commonly used to describe personal papers: Autobiography, manuscript, memoirs, writings, letters, correspondence, diary, narratives. (Keyword search example: Trudeau, Pierre Elliott and (letters or correspondence or narratives).

Selected examples of published personal papers:

Against the Current: Selected Writings 1939-1996. By Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Edited by Gerard Pelletier, translated by George Tombs. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996. 340 p.

Mike: The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson. By Lester B. Pearson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 3 vols., 1972-1975.

My Road to Quebec. By Jean Charest. Saint-Laurent, Quebec: Editions P. Tisseyre, 1998. 235 p.

Personal Letters of a Public Man: The Family Letters of John G. Diefenbaker. By John Diefenbaker. Edited by Thad McIlroy. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1985. 255 p.