While some of the ways that you can identify and find dissertations and theses of potential interest to you are only available in university libraries or to students, such as listings of these manuscripts through ProQuest, there are other ways that you can search from home.
Online Card Catalog
By searching a university card catalog, you can find everything from books, audio and visual materials, to theses and dissertations. When searching, remember to search not just under the surname of your ancestor, but also search under the ancestor's locality and under any keywords that may describe him/her, such as religion or occupation. In some cases, under an advanced search option you may be able to limit your results to only show theses or dissertations. An example of this can be found searching the libraries of the University of California, Riverside. A search on the phrase 'Native Americans' brings 708 results. These results include all kinds of works, including books and government documents. However, when I click on the button ]Modify Search' and then scroll down to ‘Material Type' and then select ‘Theses and MSS' my search is narrowed to only the materials I want to look at, namely, theses. This search brings up three theses, one of which is about a local Native American tribe and their history.
In some cases you may find dissertations digitized online. One example of this is the USC Digital Archive. By clicking on the tab ‘browse' and then scrolling down, you will find a link to ‘University of Southern California dissertations and thesis'. This collection includes dissertations deposited after the Fall of 2006 as well as 39 theses that were written in the 1930's. These early theses involve topics related to Los Angeles and its people.
A great example of a thesis in this collection that would be beneficial to some family historians is Mildred Stella Rubin's 1936 thesis entitled, The French in Los Angeles: a study of a transplanted culture. This thesis provides a history of the French and their French associations and newspapers in Los Angeles. This would be a great resource for anyone having French ancestors who were living in Los Angeles in the early 20th century. While it would not provide you with information about a specific ancestor, it would provide you with some social history that you could use to better understand your ancestor's life.
Another example can be found at the BYU, Harold B Lee Library web site. From that page, select ‘Dissertations Theses', under the box labeled ‘Find other Materials'. Then click on the link for ‘Electronic Theses & Dissertations-BYU'. Once you are at the page for the electronic collection, click on the middle circle ‘Search ETD's'. You can now search that collection.
A dissertation in this collection entitled Julia Hills Johnson, 1783-1853, My Soul Rejoiced by Linda J Thayne is a good example of a thesis that revolves around the history of a person. In some cases, these manuscripts may include oral histories for groups or families, or histories of individuals.
The Networked Library of Theses and Dissertations,, provides access to digitized theses and dissertations on an international level. This is not a complete catalog of electronic works, but it does provide one source to search. From the homepage, click on the box entitled ‘For Researchers'. Then under the first category, ‘search and browse' click on the link ‘VTLS Visualizer'. From there you can conduct a search on your term or phrase. Once you find a manuscript of interest, you can click on the title and it will take you to where that paper is located. You can then read it online, save it to your computer, or print it.
Lastly, you can find some dissertations and theses through the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). This Library of Congress search engine provides a catalog of all types of manuscripts located at various institutions. Simply enter a search term or phrase: your results will then provide you with information on the type of manuscript and where it is located. For more information about searching NUCMC, consult the About Searching Manuscript Collectionsl page.
In some cases, if you find a dissertation or thesis that is not digitized, you may be able to order it through interlibrary loan. For those manuscripts that do not circulate, for a small fee, be able to obtain a photocopy. Consult your reference librarian about interlibrary loan.