Sustainability Research at CCNY

Tips for Researching Sustainability Topics at CCNY

A. Introductory Note

“Sustainability” is a relatively new category for organizing knowledge. On the one hand, this might suggest that researching sustainability topics will be simpler than researching topics within a traditional discipline that has accumulated dozens of specialized journals and voluminous databases over the years. On the other hand, sustainability’s newness—and its interdisciplinary nature—also mean there are relatively few tried-and-true sources, relatively few guideposts as to where the most important thinking lies. In this sense, researching a sustainability topic may be more challenging than typical academic research.

B. Quality Research in Five Not-so-Easy Steps

Your goal is to find the most important thinking and/or most reliable findings directly relevant to your topic, and to do so fairly quickly. The terms “important,” “reliable,” and “relevant” are somewhat subjective, which may be another way of saying that research calls for art as well as science. In any case, here is a set of five practical steps that if followed conscientiously will move you toward the important thinking and reliable findings you will need. Note: If you have already mastered the process of academic research at another institution, then the step of primary interest to you will probably be step 2 below—on accessing CCNY’s resources.

  1. Develop some Likely Initial Research Directions. Use your initial one-page Project Summary as a springboard for brainstorming. Focus in particular on your project Objective, and Suggested Approaches. What types of background information and prior research results will give you a broad and strong foundation of relevant expertise for carrying out your project? Keep your particular project topic in mind, but think about how you can approach it from a wide-ranging set of perspectives and contexts. What basic questions will lead you toward the relevant information and expertise you would want to have in order to be considered a well-informed “consultant” for the project? The key first step is to brainstorm imaginatively and come up with a short list (3-6?) of promising initial research directions/queries.
  2. Determine which Haystacks You Want to Search Within. Part D below lists a number of electronic databases that contain an abundance of high-quality information in the form of books, scholarly articles, magazines, reference works, etc. Which of these electronic databases will be your best starting points will depend on the nature of your particular capstone project and the research directions you wish to pursue. If you already know just which databases you wish to search within, and are already familiar with how to efficiently access and use them, then you are all set. But for the great majority of capstone students, the strong recommendation is that you save time by asking for a little professional help at the outset. See the “Standing Invitation” from CCNY librarians Barnett and Sanchez-Rodriguez in part C below. Do what you need to do to become familiar with some of the most promising databases for your topic, and how to efficiently search within them.
  3. Plunge In. Your library consultation and follow-up database searching will yield long lists of potential sources. (If not, consider re-fashioning your topic or finding a related one that does yield numerous sources.) Starting with the most promising list, begin accessing and skim-reading the listed sources. Take some notes as you read, but read rather quickly—with an eye to main points and conclusions. Determine how relevant and important a particular source really is. Proceed in this way through all or most of your lists of sources, eliminating some items and homing in on others. For a source that is squarely on-target, take note of the sources it cites, because some of them are likely to be equally useful. In this somewhat circuitous manner—but always guided by relevance and impor-tance—gradually amass a list of important sources relevant to your topic. If your topic is one that admits of “opposing views,” collect good sources on both sides. Make sure you are connecting with the most recent thinking/findings on your issue.
  4. Collect/Save the Promising Sources. Save any source that appears promising, i.e., is relevant, important, and reasonably recent. Suggestion: Save it with a note as to why you consider it promising and how you think you can use it. If just one part of a source appears relevant, make a note of this and specify the relevant page numbers. As for how best to collect and manage your growing list of sources: There are many good citation management programs, e.g., EndNote, F1000 Workspace, Mendeley, and Zotero. For a comparison of these four, see Also: RefWorks may be particularly convenient as it appears to be somewhat built into some of CCNY’s database search mechanisms. Much (though not all) of the source materials you gather and save will eventually be integrated into the Background Research / Literature Review section of your final capstone report.
  5. Stop When You Should. Completely thorough research would never end. The list of sources could probably keep on expanding indefinitely. So, how does one know when to stop? This will depend in part on the nature and timeline of the individual research assignment. But as a general guideline, try to reach the point at which you start to repeatedly encounter references to the same studies, the same scholars, the same arguments, and the same conclusions and findings. This is a good sign that you are reaching a point of reasonable thoroughness. At this point, it’s time to shift to re-reading, analyzing, comparing, synthesizing, writing, and integrating source materials into your written drafting. Even during this drafting stage, however, you will probably want to go back intermittently to Step 3, to fill in gaps or deepen analyses.

C. A Standing Invitation from CCNY’s Librarians

CCNY’s Sustainability in the Urban Environment program is fortunate to have the support of two enthusiastic and very knowledgeable guides to a trove of sustainability-related information:
-Professor Philip Barnett is Reference Librarian at the Science & Engineering Library (in Marshak Building, Rm. 29). [; (212) 650-8243].
-Professor Nilda Sanchez-Rodriguez is Librarian & Chief of the Architecture Library (SSA 101) [; (212) 650-8767] Note: Most of the sustainability-related information in the Science and Engineering Library and Architecture Library is in searchable electronic databases. But many of these databases are available only to paid subscribers—or to CCNY students who have taken the minimal steps needed to gain access to them.
To efficiently make the most of these two libraries: Contact either Professor Sanchez-Rodriguez or Professor Barnett, depending on whether your topic is largely architectural, or largely science/engineering related. Set up an appointment for a research consultation—if possible, for all team members at once. The librarians and their staff can schedule sessions to inform students about:
-How to use CUNY+ (the library’s online catalog) effectively to find and renew books and how to request online CUNY books to be delivered to CCNY.
-How to request online books from anywhere in North America to be delivered to CCNY.
-How to find out easily what local library offers a book you need right away that’s not in the CUNY or NYPL systems. Find out how to get the needed card for access to Columbia, NYU, etc.
-How to access 100+ online databases with full-text articles you can read from anywhere.
-How to set up a library proxy account off campus for 24/7 access to all these databases.
-How to set up Google Scholar to retrieve full-text articles when you’re off campus.
-How to best navigate eReserves, Subject Resources, and more.

D. A Sampling of CCNY’s Sustainability Resources

Following is a sampling—i.e., no pretensions to completeness—of resources that CCNY’s librarians (Professor Sanchez-Rodriguez for Architecture, and Professor Barnett for Science/Engineering) would recommend for students in the Sustainability in the Urban Environment program.

Databases nos. 1 through 5 are CCNY licensed databases available on the CCNY Libraries web site at: From the menu on the left side of the page, choose “Articles via Databases.” (Note: When you access these resources for the first time from off campus you need to identify yourself as a member of the CCNY community by entering in the barcode on the back of your new CityONE ID when prompted. Check at any campus library Circulation Desk to make sure your barcode is recognized in the library system.

  1. BuildingGreen Suite. Full-text Resource. This online resource features comprehensive, practical information on a wide range of topics related to sustainable building—from energy efficiency and recycled-content materials to land-use planning and indoor air quality. Many case studies including over 300 from the High Performance Buildings Database.
  2. GreenFILE . An INDEX. GreenFILE indexes scholarly and general interest titles, as well as government documents and reports to provide a perspective on the positive and negative ways humans affect the environment.
  3. Avery Index. From Columbia University’s Avery Library. This is a comprehensive listing of citations to journal articles published worldwide on architecture and design, archaeology, city planning, interior design, and historic preservation. Avery indexes not only the international scholarly and popular periodical literature, but also the publications of professional associations, US state and regional periodicals, and the major serial publications on architecture and design of Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Australia. Coverage: early 1900s to date (some coverage of late 1800s. For the CCNY community, a “Find it” button on individual results will help determine if CCNY libraries offer you the article online or in a print journal.)
  4. SpringerLink. Full-text and Index Resource. SpringerLink is a database providing indexing and abstracting for over 2,400 scholarly journals and magazines. Full text articles are available for nearly 300 of these titles. In addition we have access to 15,000+ ebooks. Almost all of the publications are scholarly and are oriented toward seniors or higher level students and researchers. While weighted toward the sciences, this database currently offers nearly 200 architecture full-text books which are also accessible through CUNY+. There will be fewer architecture titles going forward as of 12/2009.
  5. Wiley Online Library. Full-text Resource. This database consists of over 1,000 journals, reference works, and online books available to members of the CCNY community in full text. All subject areas are covered. Most of the materials are scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Sustainable Development is one of the covered areas. A small number of architecture books are included.
  6. Google Scholar ( This search engine will search within the CCNY libraries’ online databases. When using Google Scholar off campus, set your computer up as a CCNY computer to read any full-text information offered by CCNY. Do the following:
    (a) Click on the “Settings” icon on the upper right.
    (b) Click “Library Links” in the left column on the next screen.
    (c) Type ccny in the search box & then check the CCNY box.
    (d) Be sure to click on the blue SAVE box to complete the process of identifying your off-site computer as a CCNY computer before you begin your scholar search. These actions will allow you to read full-text materials offsite. (You may be asked to sign in with your library ID barcode the first time you access a full-text article .
    (e) OR, if you’re on the City College Library site, find GoogleScholar in the “Articles via Databases” link. Emphasis on Science and Engineering
    Articles via Databases: Go to, and choose “Articles via Databases” from the menu on the left side of the page. Following are overviews of six of these databases that may be of special interest to students researching Sustainability topics.
  7. EBSCOhost Databases is a portal to 30+ databases providing indexing and abstracting for tens of thousands of scholarly journals, magazines, and reference sources in all areas of study. Many of these databases include full text articles. The academic level of the publications covered varies depending on the database, but the brief descriptions on the opening page will help you determine whether a particular database is appropriate for you. Check the box next to each database that you wish to include in your search, then click Continue, at the bottom of the screen. One particularly useful EBSCOhost source is Applied Science & Technology Index. It covers scientific and technical publications. Topics include: engineering, chemistry, computers, plastics, physics, metallurgy, telecommunications, transportation, acoustics, and waste management. Periodicals cover trade and industrial publications, journals issued by professional and technical societies, and specialized periodicals, as well as special issues such as buyers’ guides, directories, and conference proceedings. The Applied Science and Technology Index used to be a single database but now is in three sections: Applied Science & Technology Abstracts (H.W. Wilson); Applied Science & Technology Full Text (H.W. Wilson); and Applied Science & Technology Index Retrospective: 1913-1983 (H.W. Wilson). Read the descriptions of each of these sections, especially the dates of coverage, then select the section(s) appropriate for your needs.
  8. Web of Science is one of the databases in the Web of Knowledge. The complete Web of Knowledge covers over 22,000 journals, 23 million patents, 12,000 conference proceedings, 5,000 books, and now scholarly Web content via the Web Citation Index. The searchable databases include: Web of Science (Science Citation Index Expanded, Social Sciences Citation Index, Arts & Humanities Citation Index) and Medline.
  9. Engineering Village is a comprehensive bibliographic database covering all aspects of engineering, including some computer science. It indexes over 5,000 sources, including magazine and peer-reviewed journal articles, conference papers, and other documents. Most of the material indexed is more appropriate for senior or higher level students and researchers, but some material (magazine articles, etc.) may be useful for lower level students and researchers. (Alternative Name: EI Engineering Village)
  10. SciFinder Scholar is a comprehensive database indexing the literature of chemistry and all related sciences. SciFinder Scholar is particularly useful for locating articles concerned with specific chemical substances and reactions. This resource is available to CCNY users only. You must pre-register to use this database. Please point your browser to the following URL to self-register:
  11. ACM Digital Library: The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and its affiliates publish hundreds of journals, magazines, newsletters, and conference proceedings. While most of the content is scholarly, peer-reviewed material appropriate for upper-level undergraduates or higher level students and researchers, much of the content is accessible to the non-computer scientist. Users should keep in mind that computers are used in virtually all disciplines and that many potentially useful articles are available.

E. Afterword: Fast Search Engines and Sound Academic Research

Our electronic informational tools stimulate a range of hopes and anxieties, often posed in somewhat overwrought form: Are we at last entering a Golden Age of informational democracy that will allow us all, quickly and cheaply, to access knowledge formerly reserved for a select few? Or, are the new tools weakening our powers of discernment and threatening to undermine our carefully-constructed edifice of intellectual authority? On a more mundane level, who among us has not wondered if a Google search which yielded 57,000 results in 0.33 seconds might nevertheless have missed some important material that the searcher (and searcher’s supervising professor) really do not want to overlook? Steven Pinker offers a useful perspective: “And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.” (From “Mind Over Mass Media.” New York Times, June 10, 2010)
This set of research tips shares Pinker’s view that thorough research (i) does not come naturally; and (ii) is media independent. This second point means that one confronts the same basic challenge whether one is browsing through physical copies of journals on a library shelf, doing keyword searching in an online database, or free-lance researching on the web with Google or the equivalent: Doing serious research means finding the most important thinking and/or most reliable findings directly relevant to your topic. And it means doing so promptly, both to avoid wasting time and because these core thinking/findings will form the framework for subsequent research. The five basic steps in Part B above—if executed conscientiously—should help you achieve this.