Finding Information about Planning: What Do Faculty Do?

Ann Forsyth's picture
Planning students are often told to find good information. How to do that is becoming both simpler, due to various search engines and databases, and more complex, given the amount of information available. The following tips represent what I (and many other faculty members) actually do to find out about new things.
  • Know something already. If you know something about the field you'll make better search decisions. You'll know key authors and organizations. I read a lot which makes searching easier. I also own a number of standard reference books--on topics from planning and design to social theory and research methods. I subscribe to and/or regularly read a number of magazines and journals. My list is a variation on the one offered by Rutgers faculty member Stuart Meck in a response to my last blog. It performs a similar function by giving me a place to start.
  • Use specialist encyclopedias or dictionaries. The International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (ed. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 2001, Elsevier) has lots of entries on urban studies and planning and many university libraries subscribe to its online version. Entries are written by knowledgeable academics. I own dictionaries and encyclopedias of statistics, geography, philosophy, and architecture. They help me find out about key ideas and major thinkers in a subfield or on a topic--from social capital to Chonbach's alpha.
  • Use specialist databases. University libraries subscribe to many databases--a favorite of mine is the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals that includes quite a lot of planning articles (though not some from newer journals). In addition, as Stuart Meck mentioned in his ealier comment, there are several important online databases in planning. These include the TRB's Transportation Research Information Service (TRIS) and the HUD USER Database:
  • Learn to be a sophisticated user of the internet. If I need academic sources I like using the databases that my library subscribes to but Google Scholar (not plain Google) is a good place to start if time is short. I particularly appreciate being able to enter a classic reference and see who cited it. The Berkeley libraries have an excellent guide to help you find and read web sites: Particularly useful is their section on evaluating web pages: They have great tips about how to evaluate the URL itself, assess information on the page perimeter, look for sources, and use reviews. This is basically what faculty do when they read web pages.
  • Put ".edu" in with the search terms in an internet search to make extra sure you'll get some university web pages. University centers and institutes often have useful overview materials.
  • Ask reference librarians how to find things. They can be helpful. I've learned a lot from them--particularly those specializing in images, maps, and statistical data.
Other blog entries have dealt with finding specific kinds of information including: general information about the field of planning, imagesmore images, articlesorganizationsbooksmore books, and history sources.
Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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