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Dissertations and Theses as Genealogical Sources

Dissertations and theses are unpublished works by graduate students who have spent much time and effort in researching and documenting a subject. While some of these works are of no genealogical interest, there are many in the realms of history, anthropology, social work and other disciplines that would be of interest to the family historian. In some cases, personal and oral histories might be a part of the research paper that may even shed some light on your own family.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 834 (approx.)
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Dissertations and theses are typically unpublished works by graduate students who have spent much time and effort in researching and documenting a subject. At a later date, some students may choose to refine their end product and publish it as a full-length book or an article in a scholarly journal. While some of these works are of no genealogical interest, there are many in the realms of history, anthropology, social work and other disciplines that would be of interest to the family historian. In some cases, personal and oral histories might be a part of a research paper that may even shed some light on your own family.

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.

Digitized Collections

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.

NUCMC

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.

Interlibrary Loan

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.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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