Back in the 90s, I was heavily involved in the idea that one way librarians could find their new role in the new century was by creating directories of great Web sites. I was one of the members of the ALA/ALSC committee that created the Great Web Sites for Kids in 1997.
We worked very hard setting policies for how this directory would work, and carefully composed the page of Great Web Sites for Kids Selection Criteria. Why? Because we were hoping that libraries nationwide would use it as a model and create and promote similar sites of their own. The logic we used went something like this: Libraries select and organize books. They select and organize recordings, magazines, and other media.
We felt that the Web was the ultimate disorganized mess o’media. Since we’re now bringing the Internet into libraries, we said, why not establish selection criteria and best practices for how to present and recommend the best Web sites for young users? We felt that, just as we used the exact titles of books on our catalog records, that we should use both the title of the site that appeared in the title bar (i.e., the <title> ) and the full Web address in each description.
Plus, you need to remember that this period was when conservative talk radio was going on about how harmful the unmediated Internet could be for children, with all those porn photos popping up unexpectedly. We wanted to create a directory that concerned parents could use to find thoroughly vetted sites that were age-appropriate.
It seemed like a good, forward-thinking idea at the time. But it failed, because Google just became too good. It required less effort than any directory or other search tool, and overwhelmed everything else.
The Great Web Sites remains a useful list for librarians and educators, and an ALSC committee keeps it up and going nicely. Several public libraries have also created some very good collections of Web sites for use by kids and teens. Although a good number of libraries have produced good kids’ Web directories, here are the ones I think are best – the New York City area libraries’ homeworkNYC and Multnomah County (OR) Library’s Homework Center. And do you remember KidsClick, which began at New York State’s Ramapo Catskill Library System?
All of these were created by collecting the assignments that kids most often received, and librarians researching the sites that met those assignments’ needs. They’re kept up, and are definitely worth linking to.
But after the 90s ended and the 00s began, it grew clear that Google had developed into a finely honed enough tool that kids learned quickly that they could find a site or two with the answers to almost all their homework questions. Sometimes the sites weren’t authoritative, but the kids – and all too often their teachers – seemed willing enough to accept just about anything they found on Google. The need for carefully vetted directories no longer seemed necessary, so these directories aren’t used anywhere near as much as they deserve to be used.
And lots of young people, teachers, and parents don’t know about them. We librarians have never done a good job of publicizing what we offer online – partly because we just don’t have the kind of cash it takes to compete with big commercial enterprises, but also because librarians tend not to make much noise. How many of your users know about your magazine and newspaper databases? Not all that many, I’ll bet, and it’s the same for these homework sites.
Those days are pretty much done, since it’s hard for a tax-funded library to compete against Google. But I’ll never regret the many hours I spent – and the many more hours that other librarians I know spent – on compiling these sites in the hope that libraries could take a more active role in creating a “collection” of Web sites for young people.
(Why am I writing about this? I just looked at a page called 100 Unbelievably Useful Reference Sites You’ve Never Heard Of. It’s a curious convocation of sites for children and adults – some of them now out of date and others a little bizarre – but jeez, it took me back… )