Thursday, April 16, 2009

Searching for kids' sites

Walter Minkel looks for the best way to locate appropriate web resources for young people.

Librarians offer turn to the web for ready-reference materials, particularly when the question involves computers, celebrities, or current news. Kids In school depend on the Internet as the major—and in some cases the only—resource for research and homework assignments. Anyone who watches students at the computer will see them zipping straight to Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves and entering a search term.

Librarians are at an interesting point in the development of the web as a research and reference tool. Many public and school library web sites include lists of links, but they are typically neither well presented nor regularly updated. They often seem an afterthought rather than an important part of the collection. The issue, many librarians say, is that there just isn’t time to build a worthwhile collection of online resources, in addition to their other responsibilities.

Librarians need alternatives when they want to direct kids to a suitable place to find answers. At the same time, many vendors are providing prescreened, searchable databases of safe and appropriate sites, such as Thinkronize’s netTrekker and Web Feet from Rockhill Press. Web Feet has been around for seven years as a homework helper, and the recently released netTrekker offers teachers the ability to search not only by grade but by state standards for that grade. Unfortunately, libraries can not always afford these products.

There are some free tools, however, that librarians can comfortably turn to when helping kids with research, or that they can use to model research strategies. They come in two basic flavors: the directories and the search engines.

One of the best-known librarian web directories was not designed for use by kids, but many young people use it all the same: the Librarian’s Index to the Internet ( When you compare its features to those of a commercial product like netTrekker, looks pretty basic. But Karen Schneider, coordinator of, says its simplicity is intentional. isn’t the largest of web directories—it currently includes about 9,000 sites—but those sites are chosen with care for accuracy, authority, and quality of presentation. It receives over 250,000 searches per week and publishes an excellent set of selection criteria ( useful for librarians creating web selection policies. Sites are given an numerical score for how well they meet these criteria. Each site is annotated. Schneider says that originally had a Kids section, but that section is gone. Why? First, she says, Kids is not an LC subject heading; second, students seem to prefer finding sites by topic instead of intended grade level; and third, KidsClick!, a librarian-created directory for young people, does the job well.

Jerry Kuntz assembled the original KidsClick! at the Ramapo Catskill Library System, NY, with the help of a 1997 Library Services and Technology Act grant. Today, it is managed by the Colorado State Library. The KidsClick! link citation format is consistent, although different from’s. Site links are alphabetized and include a brief annotation and a reading level. KidsClick! has a searching tutorial and a search tool page that users can visit if KidsClick! doesn’t satisfy a student’s search.

Interestingly, KidsClick!’s selection criteria are far more specific than’s about what is included and what is not—particularly if a topic is controversial. For example, the criteria page deals at some length why historical witchcraft and the Wicca religion are included. This is useful since web directories for children and teens are carefully watched by conservative groups, particularly because of the media attention given to the American Library Association’s (ALA) position on Internet filtering.

For example, in 1997, when ALA put up its directory of recommended web sites for young people, 700+ Great Sites, it was soon challenged for including a children’s site sponsored by the Nation of Islam. After some discussion, that site was reevaluated and removed. ALA’s site continues today. Although it is need of an update, it is still a good collection of safe sites librarians can use with adults to illustrate the benefits of letting kids explore the online world (after some training in net safety). It also includes a criteria page that has weathered the last five years of Internet expansion fairly well.

One of the most popular library-sponsored web site directories for young people is Multnomah County Library’s Homework Center. Although the site has no “search” function, it is clearly organized and easy to use. There is a Social Issues page, in which both sides of topics like abortion and gun control are represented, along with court decisions. The States Information page is also a model organization, allowing students to locate quickly a state and go to the appropriate links.

Search engines
Any discussion of kids using search engines, like Google or Alltheweb, provokes anxiety for many adults. In school and public libraries, particularly those serving elementary and middle school students, students are often pointed to the kids’ search engines. Many of these are actually directories of sites with a search box attached; other search the Internet but use a filter similar to those used by commercial filtering projects. Here are some search tools for kids.

Yahooligans, put together by Yahoo! in 1996, was one of the first attempts to create a safe web directory for children. In its earliest days, the number of commercial sites that would appear in typical homework searches made Yahooligans’ performance uneven. (For example, searches for animals by name, such as “panda”, would often bring up a hits page filled with sites for Panda Ski Shop or Panda Chinese Restaurant and no zoo or museum sites about the animal.) Now typing “panda” in the search box brings up a hit list well suited to animal reports. The Yahooligans site, however, is loud and distracting for young searchers; it has been designed as a kids’ portal, with links to jokes, games, and other nonacademic resources.

Ask Jeeves for Kids, like its parent site, Ask Jeeves, is designed for natural-language searching. Instead of typing “Colombia map”, kids can type “I need a map of Colombia”. While the Ask Jeeves for Kids interface outclasses Yahooligans, the tool still cannot handle requests that are not among those in its repertoire of prepared questions. Just try asking it, “Who wrote The Old Man and the Sea?”

Google isn’t just used by adults; kids love it, too. While many never get past its single-search box main page, the Advanced Search page has features that kids and those who work with them will find valuable. First of all, there’s a filter (SafeSearch) that can be turned on. If students are taught all of the features of the Advanced Search page and the Advanced Image Search page (which has a three-level filter), their ability to locate precisely what you’re looking for—using designated dates, domains, and file formats—will grow tremendously. AltaVista has similar features, including a family filter, as well as Advanced Search pages for text and media.

The search tools that many students forget, and that are often the most useful, are the periodical databases that the majority of libraries subscribe to—and are often made remotely. You really can’t call tools like GaleNet or bigchalk databases periodical databases. They are often “everything” databases, with news photos, taped interviews or video files, broadcast transcripts, and access to online encyclopedias and other reference works. Every student should know when to go first to the library’s periodical subscription database before going to Google or Yahoo! they should understand that it is easier to find accurate information when it has been well organized. Why libraries aren’t trumpeting these resources more widely is one mystery Google can’t answer.

Link List
Web directories for students

A collection of almost 7000 sites for young people through high school, created and maintained by librarians.

Librarians’ Index to the Internet
A well-crafted, catalogued collection of sites. For adults but useful for older students.

Multnomah County Library Homework Center
Sites selected because K-12 students and teachers requested them. Easy to use, with good information literacy materials and a small collection of homework sites in Spanish.

700+ great web sites
ALA’s collections of sites for grades K-8. Includes some sites on the arts, biography, and literature you won’t find in other directories for children. Small group of Spanish sites.

Search tools
Most useful when students use the Advanced Search and media-search pages. Includes a family filter.

Ask Jeeves for Kids
Its “natural language” searching can be helpful with students looking for answers to standard questions.

Contains a good set of advanced search features, including image searching and a filter.

A large selection of web resources tuned to students’ needs, but the interface is loud and distracting.

Commercial products

Description at
A large subscription database of sites, designed for teachers. Includes the ability to search by grade level, curriculum topic, and applicability to state standards.

Web Feet
Description at
A catalogued collection of web sites arranged by topic; it includes grade levels.

Searching for Kids’ Sites By: Minkel, Walter, School Library Journal, 03628930, Summer 2002 Net Connect Vol. 48, Issue 8

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