Surfing your way to research success By Jane HuthIn my day, writing a research paper involved endless visits to dusty library stacks and laboriously taking copious notes in pencil on stacks of index cards. The personal computer has changed all that. Today, kids can write a paper without ever setting foot in the library, or even picking up a pencil. These days, librarians make house calls, via the Internet, providing more information than most young children (or their parents) will ever need for writing a research paper on practically anything. So, before wasting time researching a topic on Google (who needs 104,000 sites anyway?), stop by your local library's Web site. Type in your library card number and you'll have access to databases for free right in your home. Or if you're stumped by an obscure topic, call or e-mail the children's reference librarian. Here are some search engines and reference sites I've found useful for kids' research but there are many others. The Internet has an overwhelming amount of information (beware: not all of it is accurate), so if your child needs help, do yourselves a favor and drive over to your local library. Children's reference librarians can usually direct you to the best reference materials in a flash, both on the Internet and on the library shelves, where kids still can do research the old-fashioned way. WARNING: Parents should be along for the ride when kids-even computer-savvy kids-are surfing the Web. To make the ride as safe as possible, stick to librarian-screened Web sites or a site such as Yahooligans. Typing in Web addresses is a risky venture. Even if you have Internet filters on your computer, typing in the wrong URL can lead your children to places you would rather they not go. Having said all of that, here are a few safe and helpful sites for students doing research.
MY WEB LIBRARIAN, www.myweblibrarian.com. A free online reference service from the Illinois libraries available 9 a.m. to midnight weekdays and 1 p.m. to midnight weekends. Use the chat function to ask questions of a reference librarian. There's a kids' service too. It took less than five minutes for a librarian named Rory to send me eight great Web pages on penguins, including one on emperor penguins (my 7-year-old's favorite) and another just for kindergartners. Type in your e-mail address and the site automatically sends you a list of the URLs. It's like having a reference librarian in your living room. And please note, the Web librarians will not shush you, but they do expect "all users to be polite and observe standard rules of netiquette."
CYBERSLEUTH, www.cybersleuth-kids.com. If you don't mind the flashing ads, this site, put together by a teacher and volunteer educators for kids in grades K-12 is great for fast, meaningful searches. In seconds, I found 27 sites on penguins, including a "penguin cam" from the Montreal Biodome and an article on the Humboldt penguin from the Oregon Zoo. The sites are rated and sorted, with the best sites at the top of the list. Each listing includes a useful description of what you'll find at each site.
KIDSPACE AT THE INTERNET PUBLIC LIBRARY, www.ipl.org/div/kidspace. The University of Michigan put together this site (a second site, Teenspace, is aimed at teens, www.ipl.org/div/teen). You can ask a question of a librarian, but it takes an insufferably long three days for a reply. But it only took a couple of minutes for me to find three Web pages on penguins, conveniently listed under "Animals, Fish and Other Water Creatures." The site is user-friendly and easy to navigate. Kids who are reading and surfing the Web with some assistance should have no trouble finding what they need here.
ILLINOIS CLICK! www.illinoisclicks.org. Those busy Illinois librarians created this very easy to navigate site for adults and children. While not strictly for kids, the site has a useful "homework help" section that's well organized, so kids can find what they need fast. It's definitely for kids older than 8 (animals are found under "vertebrates" and "invertebrates") and has relatively few sites, but that makes searching easier and quicker. It took less than a minute for me to find the National Geographic page on emperor penguins, but that was the only penguin page on the site. ITHAKI 4 KIDS, http://kids.ithaki.net. Quickly whiz through several kids' search engines using this "metasearch" engine that searches Dmoz Kids, Yahooligans, FactMonster, ArtKidsRule, AolKids, AwesomeLibrary and KidsClick! simultaneously. My search returned 36 results for "penguins" almost immediately, but not all the links include descriptions of what's on the site. The sites are "screened" for unsuitable content, but it's difficult to tell from the descriptions whether the site will yield relevant information. And looking at 36 sites is too much for most kids.
YAHOOLIGANS, www.yahooligans.com. At this colorful, easy-to-use junior version of the popular Yahoo Web portal, it took me seconds to find three brief articles on penguins (the adelie, emperor and rockhopper penguins) in the section on birds. But finding general sites on penguins was more time consuming. A search on the word "penguins" returned an overwhelming 96 sites, including a link to Opus the penguin from Berkeley Breathed's comic strip and another on penguin jokes. For obscure topics, Yahooligans may be useful, but there are better search engines that help kids find useful Web pages more quickly. The price you'll pay for using Yahooligans is an ad across the top of the home page. KIDSCLICK!, http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/KidsClick!/. This is another site courtesy of librarians, but I found it to be the least helpful. When I typed "penguins" into the search box, it returned only one useful site, Penguin Planet, and several irrelevant ones, including the Pittsburgh Penguins National Hockey League Web site. In the animal category, I searched through 57 links for "birds" to find the same site. But, click on "Kids Search Tools" at the bottom of the page, and you can search via screened sites such as Yahooligans and AOL Netfind and others. The page needs to be updated, because when I tried searching for penguins, several of the links were no longer valid.
REFERENCE DESK, http://refdesk.com. This site, which calls itself "family friendly," groups together a gazillion reference sites in one place, including news, dictionaries, encyclopedias, search engines, reference tools and all sorts of miscellaneous sites. Younger children definitely will need help finding exactly what they need. It's probably there somewhere, but it takes time to look. I guess that's the price you pay for one-stop shopping. There's a list of kids' sites, but it's mostly an alphabetical list with precious little information on the usefulness of the site. And it includes ads on the home page.Jane Huth is a writer who lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a first-grader and a preschooler.