I enjoy sharing useful resources with other genealogists. Today I want to share the possibilities for genealogical research in theses and dissertations (T&D).
Footnotes are Key
When I read a historical book or article, I tend to notice the footnotes first. The quality of the footnotes tells me something about the research, even before I finish reading it.
Think about it: college graduate students are master researchers. Their resulting T&D can be a boon for genealogical research. In addition to pointing the way to sources we don’t know about, I like the fact that many provide social context to understanding the lives and times our ancestors lived in.
One of my biggest passions is trying to encourage us all to step away from “the search” in order to write up our research. Once we’ve gotten the names and dates, many of us are stuck about how to craft an interesting story. Theses and dissertations are just one more way to find that kind of information.
How to Access
The great news is that the Internet now provides instant access to many of these documents, particularly in the last decade or so. In fact, many universities now mandate that these works be submitted electronically. Here are just a few examples of some of these websites:
Even better, is the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations which compiles a listing from many schools. (Updated, 2019: Use the links at ProQuest Open Dissertations and Open Dissertations).
As an example, let me walk through the University of Maryland (UM) link shown first above. The site contains theses and dissertations from 1997, but that link is restricted to only University of Maryland staff, students & faculty. However, their DRUM database is publicly accessible and contains full text downloadable documents dating from 2003.
I like to browse by department or category. To do that at the UM site, I go to the link “Browse by Communities and Collections.”
I’m primarily interested in T&D done by the History Department or perhaps Sociology. These are typically in the College of Arts and Humanities. Once the list pulls up, I click on “History Theses and Dissertations” and it allows me to do a search.
I search for keywords like slave, slavery, African-American, and freedmen, but I also search for the state or city of interest. Be creative. Part of my family research is in Maryland so I’m generally interested in the experience of African-Americans throughout the state, and in a few counties specifically.
Here are some of the T&D I found at the UM site:
- ‘There Slavery Cannot Dwell’: Agriculture and Labor in Northern Maryland, 1790-1860, by Max L. Grivno
- A Tradition of Struggle: Preserving Sites of Significance to African American History in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1969-2007, by Courtney Elizabeth Michael
- Capital Constructions: Race and the Re-imagining of Washington, D.C.’s Local History in the Twentieth Century, by Megan Elizabeth Harris
Look at these titles from Pennsylvania State University:
- Black East St. Louis: Politics and Economy in a Border City, 1860-1945, by Charles L. Lumpkins
- On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870, by David Grant Smith
Isn’t this wonderful? Even better- most are available immediately as downloadable PDF documents!
If you haven’t tried this research avenue yet, give it a try. A couple of things to remember:
- Check elite ivy-league schools and state schools, but also the smaller local colleges. For African-American research, include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). They will likely have a higher proportion of theses and dissertations with emphasis on African-American history.
- Many websites won’t allow full digital access to all T&D. Most institutions have hardcopies of their T&D if you live nearby and really want to see it.
- Although I recommend starting in the History department, good information can be found in other departments. At the University of Tennessee, I found a thesis called The Health Status of Early 20th Century Blacks from Providence Baptist Church Cemetery in Shelby County, Tennessee, by Rebecca J. Wilson. She was getting her Masters in Anthropology!
- Be mindful of plagiarism and copyright issues as you utilize information found in theses and dissertations.
- Send the authors an email if possible letting them know about the usefulness of their theses or dissertation.
- Many dissertations are easily 500 pages, so don’t plan on printing them out unless you have plenty of paper! However, there are several that have been so important for my research that I got them copied and bound at Kinkos.
I’d love to hear back from you if you found something useful using this process. Good luck!
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.