Professional Learning

Your Personal Cyberlibrarian: KidsConnect Fields Queries About International Issues

School librarians volunteer to help students focus their research on politics, cultures, and religions in other countries.

September 10, 2003

In person and online, library media specialist Nelda Brangwin empowers students to do their own research.

Credit: Nelda Brangwin

Trying to find information about cultures and religions can be a daunting experience, particularly if you are from a region with limited library service. Filling the void is KidsConnect, which pairs eighty-four volunteer school librarians like me on the Internet with students from around the world who need answers to questions.

We cyberlibrarians, all members of the American Association of School Librarians, help narrow students' areas of interest, and we suggest print and Internet resources that represent a variety of points of view. I field about twenty questions a month from elementary school students, and I always notice when it's spring: That's when teachers assign more research projects.

The Internet has expanded my elementary library far beyond four walls, and the accessibility of so much information can be overwhelming. Without knowing good keyword searching techniques, students may feel as if they were faced with the impossible task of finding just two pages of useful facts in an avalanche of information. The Internet increases the need for librarians to help people find their way through the mountain of information, and we go through the search procedure in the answer we send.

We don't do homework assignments. As librarians, we know that the ability to find information is a life skill often as important as the assignment answer itself. Being able to locate information is empowering.

After September 11, questions to KidsConnect illustrated the concern students at all grade levels had about Afghanistan, Muslims, and terrorism. Students wanted a better understanding of a jihad. They needed to know about the cultural makeup of Afghanistan and what the Qur'an (also spelled Koran) had to say about peace and the killing of people.

It was gratifying as a volunteer to see that kids were truly looking for answers to help them understand what could cause a group of people to go to such extreme measures. Here are some shortened versions of questions and answers that have come to KidsConnect since September 11. In many cases, the answers to specific questions can be generalized to help find information about other topics.

Q: What's happening in Afghanistan?

A: The United States is bombing sections controlled by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. There is a massive drought and severe poverty in the country. There is a huge exodus of people leaving the country. I recommend that you visit your local library to read newspaper articles and magazine articles about the topic.

Q: What are Afghanistan's feelings toward its bordering countries and the United States, and why?

A: Your first stop for information should be your school library/media center. Ask the librarian for help locating magazine and newspaper articles using search terms such as Afghanistan, foreign relations, and United States (and other countries as needed).

Your library probably subscribes to the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and may also have access to an Internet-delivered subscription service such as EBSCOhost or Infotrac for full-text articles. On the Internet, you could check resources such as Afghan Network or Afghanistan Studies.

Q: Please give me some information about mosques.

A: I went to my favorite directory of reviewed sites to find one or two sites of good repute. This is the Librarians Index to the Internet. There I searched on "Islam," and lots of sites came up.

Tracking some of them showed that many linked sites had a bias to convince you about their religion -- an ideological motivation. But one I located was an Encyclopedia of the Orient, which gave a nice, concise definition and description of what purpose mosques serve and how they must be built and are used. After that, you have lots of other links at the Librarians Index to the Internet site if you need more. And don't forget to ask your school librarian for the best reference books to help you.

Nelda Brangwin is a school library media specialist at Cherry Valley Elementary School, in Duvall, Washington, and a volunteer with KidsConnect, an Internet homework-help program of the American Association of School Librarians.

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