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.


GPS Element 3: Analysis and Correlation

How many sessions at conferences or webinars have you attended where they talk ABOUT the Genealogical Proof Standards (GPS) [1] and its five elements, but then did not show us how to apply each element to a real world problem much less apply it to our own readings and writings?  I have been taking the Mastering Genealogical Proof class based on the book of the same name by Thomas W. Jones [2].  I am finding it very informative (however, I will be the first to admit there are some moments that, for me, were incredibly dry.)

I will address each of the five elements of the GPS in separate blogs and apply each to what i specifically have learned in that chapter.  I hope you will share your findings as well.  Application is the component which is missing in most presentations.  Even if we “know we should know it”–do we really understand how to apply the GPS to our genealogical work?  I will also confess upfront that this has been an evolving awakening on my part.  Once again, I am struck by how much I do not know about qualitative analysis.

Some of you may have been followers of this blog when I wrote my first two blogs on qualitative analysis over two years ago:

Are there tools which can improve our analytical skills?    published on 22 December 2011


Does the concept of thematic networks have a place in the “analytical tool box?”  published 24 December 2011

Dr. Jones does not address the issue of thematic networks in his book, but I still think they have a place.  In the blogs noted above I showed how the creation of a visual “thematic network” can assist in organizing data we obtain from an oral interview which often seems disconnected and haphazard even when using structured questions.  If we ever watch NCIS, or CIS or Rosselli & Isles, visual thematic networks are often pictured…..they are the big walls that have all pertinent crime data collected to date posted on a wall so the crime solvers can see all the myriads of clues in a single visual scan.  The crime solvers start grouping and eliminating suspects and irrelevant information as they assess other information that is more pertinent to solving the crime.  All is posted on the wall–they are correlating the evidence!  Are we so different?  Perhaps if you have a particularly tough “brick wall” you might consider such a wall.

I would like to come up with a new name for this wall; how about, BRICK Wall for “Better Research In Correlation of Kin” Wall!!  🙂

If thematic networks are already in our “analytical toolbox, what other tools does Dr. Jones put into the box?

ANALYSIS: Analysis according to Dr. Jones is the in-depth look at the source.  He analyzes the source, the information it provides and applies the Process Map [3].  What is the quality of that source?  biased?  manipulated?  an index (derivative) or and original?  If an authored work, what standards did the author use in the compilation and conclusion making?  We, too, can analyze the source and the information it contains for its validity.

CORRELATION: Dr. Jones adds narrative discussion, lists, timelines, tables and maps to our toolbox, and then illustrates ways to analyze the information we have to determine if it rises to the level of evidence, either direct or indirect.  These, too, can go into our own analytical tool box.

I had not analyzed my sources with any discipline before engaging in the exercises in the book, except at the most superficial way, as in “Yeah!  They have the microfilms of that parish’s records.”

I didn’t even think about the differenty types of tools to use for correlations: narrative or lists, which I have not consiously done.  I also had not specifically thought of how maps, tables and timelines contribute to my analytical tool box but I use them frequently.   As a visual person, I gravitate towards these tools.  I will normally put information into a table, sometimes even when a narrative would do.

post-it exercise 2So I would like to propose that before we do a Research Plan, perhaps a “BRICK Wall” would be a good place to start.  This would allow us to move information around and put it in the most logical order.  It should be dynamic–as we gain information, it should be posted on the wall.  the earlier we start with such a wall, probably the better; however, we might find ourselves in an intractable position with a problem well into the analysis and this tool might “rescue” us from what seems to be an intractable problem.  The BRICK Wall would also have the advantage of assisting us in the writing of the report as well (We’ll talk about that when we get to GPS Element 5: The Written Conclusion”.)  So if we are having problems with organizing complex data for a proof; such a wall might help.  There are programs out there which create a virtual wall such as Scrivener.

I will be assessing my sources.  I will be think first about which is the best of many tools to use that assist in the correlation of my collected information and evidence. And, I will determine if a BRICK Wall is a good tool to use for my problem before I get too far in the process of conceptualizing the problem.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting:  I am working on the next SGS Bulletin, submitted by assignments for both ProGen and MGP, attended an PS-APG meeting on Family Search (check out their Terms and Conditions before you post your information, photos, videos etc. there).  I have not been working on my portfolio, other than indirectly through these classes.  Did some client work that I need to wrap up.  My aunt has yet to do the house plan exercise which I hope she will do soon.  Made very cute Halloween cookies! I have sent to USCIS requests for naturalization papers on my paternal grandfather and Pat’s paternal grandfather.  I got the C number from them ($20) and armed with his file number, made my request (another $20) for the portfolio on my grandfather before the government shut down.  Haven’t heard anything about Pat’s grandfather yet.  Haven’t received the portfolio yet.  Let’s hope this silliness is over soon.

[1] Board for Certification for Genealogists, “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” (http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html : accessed 13 October 2013).

[2] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013) 53.

[3] Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Model,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (http://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-17-the-evidence-analysis-process-model: accessed 13 October 2013).

What happened today?

(I started this blog posting on the ship.  Unfortunately, due to connectivity problems it did not get posted.)

We had two great days of presentations while we sailed from Skagway, Alaska, back to Seattle.

There were a couple of the presentations that warrant some comment and they may be of help to you.  (Note:  I asked the presenters if i could blog about their presentations and they gave approval.)  Here are my comments about Tom Jones’s presentation on the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

In an early lecture, Dr. Jones mentioned that the BCG Standards Manual was being revised (1).  At a scheduled on-on-one session, I asked him the extent/type of changes that we might expect.  Dr. Jones stated that the changes were more clarifications of some concepts (2).

In a lecture later that week, Dr. Jones presented “This Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS): What It is and What It is Not,” and outlined specifically what constitutes “a reasonably exhaustive search.”  He made special note of the fact that the emphasis should not be on the phrase “exhaustive search” but rather on the word “reasonably”.  He pointed out that “overkill” was to be avoided.

He outlined six criteria:

“GPS Element 1–A reasonably exhaustive search:

  1. At least two independent sources in agreement
  2. All sources competent genealogists would examine (varies with time, place, and the research question and answer)
  3. Some primary information
  4. Some original sources
  5. Relevant derivative sources or secondary information replaced by findable corresponding originals and primary information
  6. All findable sources suggested by relevant sources databases and indexes.” (3)

My “takeaways” were:

  • Dr. Jones is defining for us what a “reasonably exhaustive search” constitutes, a discussion topic by genealogists for many years.
  • He may be “testing’ the standard before it is incorporated into the BCG certification criteria.
  • I could see that we may need to assess our sources in the reports we write for certification.  Perhaps this will take the form of an additional rubric or it might be an internal assessment within the report itself.
  • In a presentation later in the cruise and not yet presented at a national conference, “Overcoming Surprising Research Barriers: A Case Study,” he presented a methodology for the assessment of sources which was very helpful.
  • Researchers who wish to achieve a high standard of professionalism should not use transcribed indexes as the source, e.g. SSDI, CaDI, or many of the family search finds which do not have an image.  One must go to the source of information on the index if it exists.
  • Books should be considered “finding aids.”  When using a book as a source, we need to assess where the author obtained the information and go there instead.  (This also was stressed later in the week by Craig Scott in his “Brick Walls” sessions.)

This was one lecture on one day!  And the rest of the lectures were “chockablock” with info throughout.  I will blog about some of my other enlightenments I received on the way to and from Alaska in subsequent postings.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: Arrived in Seattle this morning, and was picked up by our neighbor and friend, Joan.  Very well coordinated exiting of 2500 people from a ship to the ground (an amazing feat).  I went to yoga but for some reason couldn’t do “tree” very well!  🙂 ; cleaned out the suitcase and petted the cat.  Did an BCG assessment of 5 client reports I have completed.  I will post that assessment and solicit your input in the coming few days.

(1) Lecture by Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG (SM), CGL (SM), FASG, FUGA, FNGS,  (address withheld), “Missing Something?  Getting the Most out of Genealogical Evidence,” referring to the Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, (Orem, Utah: Ancestry,2000), 1a. 2012 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, 16-23 September 2012.  Syllabus held by Jill Morelli (address withheld).

(2) Interview with Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG (SM), CGL (SM), FASG, FUGA, FNGS, (address withheld), 2012 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, 20 September 2012.  Notes held by Jill Morelli (address withheld).

(3) Lecture by Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG (SM), CGL (SM), FASG, FUGA, FNGS,  (address withheld), “The Genealogical Proof Standard: What It Is and What It Is Not,” 2012 Genealogy Conference and Cruise, 16-23 September 2012.  Syllabus held by Jill Morelli (address withheld).

When do you have enough information to go from “possible” to “probable”?

I don’t know or it depends or ……

There, got that off my chest!  I have been working on my proof of birth/location of Jens T. Dahle (I did discover I cannot copy/paste a table into this blog.) based on the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

Here is what I have so far:

  • Birth date:  the information about Jens’s birth date is consistent between that which is in the record in the USA and that which is recorded in the Leikanger parish in Norway, i.e. 25 March 1839.  The USA information is obtained from a series of sources (1900 census, 2 contemporary county histories and the Civil War record).  While March 1839 is the common denominator, in the two county histories we have the conflicting dates of 25 March and 5 March.
  • Birth location: all sources in the USA say Norway.  No other record has been found which lists anything other than that.  A Jens Torkelson is born in Liekanger parish, Sogn og Fjordane county, Norway.
  • Immigration/emigration:  Both the date in the 1900 census and the moving out parish record in Norway say 1858.

The question is:  Do I need to do more?  There is one more clue that if resolved would lend credence to the proof.  It is stated in one of the county histories that Jens went to live with an uncle, Halvor Quie in Rice County MN, when he immigrated.  Halvor Quie is found in Rice County. However, when checking with the siblings of his parents, Torkel and Unni, and with his step father, Endre, there are no siblings with the name of Halvor.  Halvor is however, born in 1835 and might instead be a cousin, either first or second.  Halvor also mustered into the same Union Army unit on the same day as Jens.

Or, said another way, what are the chances there is another Jens Torkelson born in March 1839, probably on the 25th and who emigrated from Norway in 1858?  Probably pretty low.  It would be “nailed” however if I found that Halvor was related to my Jens and I knew how.

For a client report, this seems to go beyond what I have been hired to do and so I have decided to just declare this a loose end and point out what I have found out about Halvor.  I expect that someone in the future may look into this more closely.

Your thoughts about “what is enough proof” would be welcomed.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting:  analyzed Jens, researched the birth location of Halvor with the very much appreciated help of the Norway listserve, attended two art show/holiday parties with a friend and gone to yoga!  Whew!  You would think I had my holiday shopping done (you would be wrong!).

How do I use the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)?

As genealogists we may understand the point of the GPS but not “get” how to use it.  I thought it might be helpful to put down in writing how I use it in the writing of lineages and even data entry.

Think for a minute about some of the dilemma’s you have had in deciding whether you have the “right” John Smith to be able to say it is “your” John Smith.  Contrary to science, to prove some relationship in genealogy relies on a sliding scale of confidence; in genealogy, there is rarely absolute “proof”.  If you have done the DNA testing (y-DNA, mtDNA and/or autosomal), you may be 99% confident or “reasonably certain” that the parents who raised you were also your biological parents.  Without testing, you can only have that level of confidence that the parents who raised you are your biological mother and father.  For example, your confidence level on your father is based on 1.) your mother’s word 2.) consistent circumstances that surround the birth, 3.) an evidence of marriage, etc.  Added together the evidence may add up to “certainty” but not to the level of a scientific-based test.

The words “possible,” “probable” and “certain” are the words advanced by ESM in the NGS Quarterly article ” Working with Historical Evidence,” of September 1999 as the rating scale for genealogy purposes.

An example: a relationship between a child is mentioned in a probate record as the son of the deceased.  What is the level of surety of the relationship in this case?  Not high.  Mothers and fathers called adopted/foster children “son” and “daughter” all the time.  Your surety in this case should be that it is “possible”.  To raise the confidence rating to “probable” or “certain,” you need to obtain more information where you can extract a greater amount of evidence.  If you find consistent information, your confidence level of this relationship grows to “probable” and maybe even “certain”.

Another example: Jens Torkelson Dahle.  I have only one source, a rootsweb entry, that says he was from Leikanger parish in Norway.  Nothing else points to that parish but importantly, nothing points against it either.  The good news:  a Jens Torkelson was born in Leikanger parish at the right time.  So let’s look to guidance from the GPS for what I should do:

  1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search:  There are many documents (US based) that state Jens Torkelson Dahle is from Norway but none point to his parish.  County histories (2), military records, naturalization papers, death certificate, census info are mute.  I even wrote an e-mail to the “Jim Larson” who posted the information in 2005 to see if he would respond and I asked my client if she knew Jim.  I came up negative on both.  While there may be other documents out there, I do believe I have done a “reasonably exhaustive search”.
  2. Collect and include a complete citation of each item we use:  (somehow this seems out of place)  I am prepared to do this as soon as I find something I can use, besides Jim Larson’s rootsweb posting!
  3. Analyze and correlate information:  In my experience this analysis is often done using a table.  For example, a comparison of what I know about Jens T. Dahle in the USA can be compared to the information about Jens Torkelson in Norway (birth, immigration etc) and see what the level of correlation is.  It is important to specifically look for items that are in conflict.
  4. Resolve any conflicts:  This may take the form of birth years that differ, etc.
  5. Reach a sound, coherent conclusion that is written cogently.:  While this will remain to be seen, the result of this item is to make sure you do not let the audience draw the conclusion but rather you write the concluding remarks so there is no ambiguity of your intent.  The audience then may disagree with your conclusion or new information could be found that obviate the conclusion later but those events are both tolerated within this approach to “proof”.

None of this should be interpreted to imply that there are no conflicts.  In my reading of the NGS Quarterly, conflicts occur, are researched, analyzed and commented upon.  You might check some of these out for examples.  In that same September Quarterly noted above, there are four articles that are illustrative of different types of genealogical issues.

So, my recommendation is that you analyze each relationship carefully.  We all know that “feeling” we get when we just “know” that the guy we are seeing in the record is “our” guy, but the GPS forces us to put into narrative all the clues we have gathered and to analyze their veracity.   I will, probably in the next post or shortly after, share the table comparing the Jens Torkelson in Leikanger parish to “my” USA Jens Dahle.  Beware!  I may not be able to paste in a table into this reader, so it may not look like much of a table when I am done.  I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Hunting! Your thoughts and comments are always welcomed.  And remember, I will be changing the URL of this blog.  You will probably have to sign up again.


What I have done since the last post:  finished all this quarter’s assignments, talked with a friend of mine to see if I could do an oral history on her father (88) who is visiting this Christmas.  (This is an assignment for the class next quarter.)  Participated in a tour of the genealogical collections at the Seattle Public Library conducted by the head genealogy librarian.