March 31st, 2008

Why can’t you find that dissertation?

I remember when my father finished his dissertation. He had a couple copies bound: one for the University library and another for home. The family celebrated by buying our first color television (it was the mid ’80s . . . we were a bit behind the times). It was the exciting culmination of years of work, but where is that dissertation now?
Image by Vaguary on Flickr

Well, there’s still a copy on my parents’ basement, and another copy in storage at the university (probably in a much larger basement). Last I’d heard, the university had ripped off the cover and pasted it to a library wall along with dozens of other dissertations. Not exactly what I’d call easy access for other scholars.

If you’ve looked for a dissertation written in the decades before the internet, you’ve probably run into the same issue. Dissertations are not published in large numbers; typically the granting university will hold a single copy they won’t loan out, and no one bothers to digitize the old ones.

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Full-Text is a great resource for more recent dissertations. And by recent, think 1997 to the present. Still, that’s over a half million you can read online.

Older dissertations may be listed in the ProQuest database, but you won’t find the full text online. Sometimes you can find a dissertation through UMI’s Dissertation Express, which will let you purchase a copy online.

But sometimes your only option is the physical copy sitting in that library basement. (Hey kids, how about a vacation to Kentucky University?)

Of course, that’s not universally true either. Check out this interesting article from Barron’s about Alan Greenspan’s dissertation. (Warning to Greenspan fans: this one’s pretty critical, but it does illustrate my point.) And some students at the University of Iowa have protested the University’s attempts to provide open access to dissertations and theses.

Of course, dissertations aren’t the only way to find out about an authors’ ideas. Many dissertations are retooled and published as articles or books, and the topics covered in the dissertation may have inspired later research by the author. Try searching the library’s article databases or Google Scholar by author name, or search for the author’s CV online.

Have you had to work around a dissertation that seems lost to the sands of time? Are you thinking about ways you can avoid that fate for your own dissertation?

–Erin

Vaguary on Flickr provided the image

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