Taking Back What Was Once Lost

University Theses and Dissertations: Hidden Treasures

j0439262I enjoy sharing resources I love with other genealogists. Today I want to share the possibilities for genealogical research that are buried in theses and dissertations.

When I am reading a historical book or article, I tend to notice the footnotes first. I’m looking to see if there are any resources for that subject or location that I have missed, and in general I’m just curious as to what sources the author is using. Think about it: Ph. D students are master researchers. Their resulting theses and dissertations can be a boon for genealogical research. Other than pointing the way to missed or hidden resources, I like the fact that many of them give social context to understanding the lives and times my ancestors lived in. After all, one of my biggest passions is trying to encourage us all to step away from digging awhile in order to actually write up a narrative on your family lineages (fully sourced of course). Once we’ve gotten the names/dates/places, 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.

The great news is that the Internet now provides instant access to many of these documents, particularly for the last 5 years 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.

As an example of using this type of resource, let me walk through the University of Maryland (UM) link shown first above. The homepage tells you that there is a link containing 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. So we click on that link.

Then, I like to find the link that allows me to browse by department or category—for the UM site, that’s available from the link on the left that says “Browse by Communities and Collections.” I do this because remember, a college has all kinds of theses and dissertations (engineering school, divinity school, etc.), but I’m primarily interested in ones done by the History Department or perhaps those in Sociology, or even Political Science. Those 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, blacks, etc. but I also search for the county or city I’m interested in, and anything else I can think of. Be creative. Part of my family research is in Maryland so I’m generally interested in the experience of blacks throughout the state, and in a few counties specifically. Look at some of the documents I found at the UM site using some of these search terms:

  • “‘There Slavery Cannot Dwell': Agriculture and Labor in Northern Maryland, 1790-1860″, by Max L. Grivno (this one actually has very detailed information about slavery in Frederick and Washington counties)
  • “A Tradition of Struggle: Preserving Sites of Significance to African American History in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1969-2007“, by Courtney Elizabeth Michael (this was especially interesting to me since I grew up in PG County)
  • “Capital Constructions: Race and the Reimagining 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? And get this: most are available immediately as downloadable PDF documents!

If you haven’t tried this research avenue yet, give it a shot. A couple of things to remember:

  • Check elite ivy-league schools, large state schools and smaller local colleges, but don’t forget Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) which may have a higher proportion of theses and dissertations with emphasis on African-American history
  • Many sites won’t allow full access to all theses & dissertations; portions may be restricted, but ALL should be available in hardcopy at that institution if you live nearby and really want to take a look. Also, I found that some universities seem to have third-party relationships with Proquest/UMI Databases to handle this function, and some of those I couldn’t access.
  • Think in broad terms. We want to understand our ancestors lives from the 1700s (and before, if possible) right up until today, so a dissertation about the lives of blacks in your city in the 1960s is going to be just as meaningful from a story-telling perspective as an article about freed blacks in the 1850s in your city.
  • Although I recommend starting in the History department, don’t think good information can’t be found in other departments. At the University of TN, I found one 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!
  • I’m sure I don’t need to state the obvious, but of course, be mindful of plagiarism and copyright issues as you utilize information found in theses and dissertations.
  • I always like to send the authors a brief email if possible letting them know how useful their theses or dissertation was for me.
  • Remember, many of the dissertations are easily 500 pages, so don’t plan on printing them out unless you have plenty of paper! I typically will zero in on the Abstract and any sections that are especially relevant, including of course the footnotes.

I’d love to hear back from you if you found something useful using this process. Good luck!

5 Comments

  1. August 6, 2009    

    Hello Robyn- Sent you a message but don’t think you got it. it’s about my family in Mississippi. message above my message says it was waiting on moderation and i ‘m lost trying to work this site. Don’t know which is your email. Have to ask tech. support for help. msrose601@comcast.net

  2. Renate's Gravatar Renate
    August 8, 2009    

    This is wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

  3. August 25, 2009    

    Robyn,

    Great information. I appreciate the link to current research, which it so easily overlooked. You know you are old when your research is cited in current dissertations and theses.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Mark

  4. April 28, 2012    

    I took your suggestion and searched through the thesis and dissertation electronic archives of UGA, the university closest to where my maternal ancestors lived near Athens, GA. Guess what? I found a thesis written on the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, an African American cemetery where several of my ancestors are buried! It also contains fascinating info about African American cemeteries and burial traditions in general.
    Thank you!

  5. Linda Crichlow White's Gravatar Linda Crichlow White
    January 6, 2014    

    Wonderful information here! I’d like to have more info about your class taking place at Howard County CC in January/Feb. Do you know others who might be driving over from the DC/Silver Spring area?

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I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

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