Dissertations: an Untapped Resource

dissertationFor scholarly writing such as the Kinship Determination Project (KDP), one of the resources I love to access is dissertations. I am always surprised by the wealth of information (both depth and breadth) to be found in this resource and the lack of use of this resource. Dissertations are published original research of a single topic that has been written by a candidate for a advanced degree.  The topics can range from poly-syllabic titled medical and scientific investigations to history and social science manuscripts.  The latter is of most interest to the genealogist doing technical writing and when learning more about a narrowly defined topic.

Dissertations are the result of extensive research by upper level students and reviewed intensely throughout the process of writing by a subject adviser.  A panel of experts then reviews and often subjects the candidate to an oral defense of the thesis and its methodology.  Once signed off by the entire panel, the candidate is eligible to receive his or her advanced degree usually a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). (see photo at left for front page of dissertation and the signatures of the review panel.) Some examples noted below are capstone projects for Honors (undergraduate) and Masters degree candidates.

Because of the rigor of writing a dissertation, the work represents exhaustive search by the candidate; the use of informative citations; analysis and correlation of the evidence obtained to support the thesis statement; resolution of  conflicting data and is written for submission to the panel for review.  Sound familiar? Yes, dissertations would pass the genealogical proof standard and therefore, they are an ideal resource. [1]

BI (Before the Internet), dissertations were difficult to find except by reviewing annual compendiums by type (Science, Medical, History, Social Science etc.).  Now, your local academic library is your friend and for me that is the online catalog for the University of Washington library system.  I can access the dissertations written by candidates from institutions from around the United States and have them delivered to my desk through inter-library loan.  While my search at UW is unique, I would suggest a search based on “theses and [fill in your search topic].” I used “theses and immigration  history 19th century”  You should substitute your topics of interest. Although I could have reseatricted my search to theses written in the 21st century (or any other time bracket), I I decided not to as often writers of earlier dissertations obtained information that is now no longer available.

Dissertations are considered unpublished manuscripts in Evidence Explained. [2] So, in spite of the dissertation often being bound, it is not a book and the title is contained within quotes and not italicized. The type of manuscript should be included, in this case “dissertation” or “thesis” as well as the date of compilation, year and the affiliated institution. [3]

Here are some representative examples of the thousands of dissertation “hits” I received when conducting the search based on the parameters described above. I included the OCLC number although the template does not require it. Very few of these have been digitized.

  • Arthur John Brown, PhD, “Means of promoting immigration to the Northwest and Washington to 1910,” dissertation, 1942, institution not named in library index, OCLC 1549748.
  • Paul G. Merriam, M.A. (History), “To Oregon by sea : maritime immigration, 1834 to 1860” thesis, 1963, University of Oregon, OCLC 54102953.
  •  Francine Fiore, “You cannot be an immigrant twice : a study of Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia,” thesis, 1998, Linfield College, 1998. OCLC 39309983.
  • Gillian A. Lindsay, B.A. (Honors) “Constructing an Australian identity : a study of four immigrant narratives” thesis, 2003, University of Puget Sound, OCLC  839714675.
  •  Arthur Jiro Nishimura, M.A., “Japanese emigration in the pre-World War II era (1868-1937) : a reconceptualization of the history” thesis, 1995, University of Washington,  OCLC 34286431.
  • William Forbes Adams, “Ireland and Irish emigration to the New World from 1815 to the famine,” dissertation, 1932, Yale University, OCLC 01072854. (This one may have been published as a book.)_
  • Robert Ernst, Immigrant life in New York City, 1825-1863, originally presented as the author’s thesis, Columbia University, 1949. (Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press 1994) OCLC 30913183. (Citation reflects that the indexed document was published as a book.)
  •  A. Hammerton, “Emigrant gentlewomen : genteel poverty and female emigration, 1830-1914,” thesis, University of British Columbia. Canada. OCLC 04932629.

Dissertations can provide great information and support for context and even evidence for the wide range of scholarly writing we do.  I also thought that some of these looked like interesting reading.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post: printed and prepared the SGS newsletter for mailing (thanks to Pam, Judy, Bruce, Julia, Janet and Reiley for assisting in its publication.); received “big news” on my request for Dirk’s papers–stay tuned!, received big news about a presentation and had lunch with a friend who is interested in genealogy and wants to start.  Woo hoo!  All in all, this was a very good genealogical week.

[1] Perhaps that tells us something about the origins of the GPS?

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace,” (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc. 2007) 120.

[3] Thesis and dissertation as defined by the dictionary can be used interchangeably. However, I have chosen to use dissertation for PhD level manuscripts and thesis for the others.  But, I have also used the word thesis as a single idea which is advanced in any discussion, also an acceptable use of the word. Dissertation is usually associated with the process of original research resulting in the awarding of a Ph.D.


4 comments on “Dissertations: an Untapped Resource

  1. Zola says:

    Fascinating. I see one I could use: the first one by Arthur John Brown.

  2. Barbara McGeachy says:

    WorldCat also lets you search for Thesis/Dissertation. http://www.worldcat.org — notice at the left, you can check the Thesis/Dissertation box to limit the results. I searched for Wilkes County NC and was surprised to find 40 such works!

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Good point, Barbara! Thanks for the tip. I have access to an academic library and if gives me a “warped view” of the world of library access–I am very spoiled.

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