September 18, 2017

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Start Your Search Engines, Part 2: Images

Part Two: When image is everything, here are some great ways to find one

Are your students struggling to come up with kid-appropriate pictures? Have you ever scrambled to find that perfect image for a presentation? Well, there’s no shortage of search engines that’ll help you do the job, and we’re here to share some of our favorites.

There’s no doubt that Google is great for finding images. Simply head to its home page, click the “Images” link, enter your criteria in the search box, and—voilà!—you’ll receive more images than you can use in three lifetimes. For instance, in our ongoing quest to find the quintessential chocolate bar—or, at least, a mouthwatering image of one—we typed in the word chocolate and we were instantly overwhelmed with 13.2 million hits. Unfortunately, many of them were images of recipe cards, rock bands, cell phones, and other inappropriate items. And although we had set Google’s filter to screen out sexual content, one of the first images we saw was of a curvaceous young woman… dipped in chocolate. (To go to Google’s “SafeSearch” filter, click on “Preferences.”) Fortunately, Google also offers an “Advanced Image Search.” Using that option, we added milk, beans, and dark to our search and excluded the word phone. This time, we ended up with a mere two million hits—and yes, even though most of them were on target, many were still irrelevant.

Much to Google’s credit, the search giant knows it has an image problem—and it’s trying to fix it. If you’d like to help, simply click on “Google Image Labeler.” You’ll soon be paired with an online partner, and both of you will receive the exact same set of pictures to view. Your mission? To generate as many matching descriptions as possible—words that Google can then use to fine-tune its search strategy. The more words you have in common—and the more precise those descriptions are (say you both identify an image of a blue heron, rather than just calling it a bird)—the more points you’ll earn. Don’t expect to receive a trophy for your efforts, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped the largest search engine on Earth do a better job—and ultimately, you’ve helped your colleagues.

Picsearch is another terrific tool for tracking down images. The image-only engine boasts that it has access to more than two billion pictures, which, it claims, are completely kid-friendly. After entering the word chocolate in its search box, we received slightly less than 680,000 hits, many of which looked quite tasty. But, like Google, Picsearch isn’t perfect. For instance, it won’t let you conduct a simple Boolean search (such as chocolate AND milk OR dark and NOT phone). But Picsearch does offer an Image Directory, so you can limit your search to a specific category, such as actors, animals, male and female athletes, and even food and drink—but alas, there’s nothing especially for chocoholics.

If you work in a school, Pics4Learning is another smart choice. Like Picsearch, Pics4Learning’s photos are student-safe, but more importantly, they’re also copyright-friendly, which means you’re free to use any photos you find. That’s because the site’s thousands of images have been donated by students, teachers, and amateur photographers. But since the engine only has access to a relatively small number of images, our search for chocolate yielded just 24 hits, including pictures of Milky Way, Heath, and Toblerone bars—yum—as well as a few photos of cacao beans and chocolate factories.

Even though Flickr isn’t a search engine, it’s a great place to search for photos. Many of Flickr’s millions of pictures are copyright-friendly—through an agreement with the nonprofit organization Creative Commons—and you can easily find what you’re looking for by using its Advanced Search. Register for free, and take advantage of Flickr’s safe-search option. But inappropriate images may still sneak under its radar. And like Picsearch, Flickr also doesn’t let you exclude certain terms (like phone) from your search.

Another fine site to mine is Wikimedia Commons, a database of images, music, and videos that’s available for educational purposes, as long as you attribute their source. To find out the owner of an image or its licensing agreement, just click on the picture. (As Wikimedia sensibly reminds us, visitors are ultimately responsible for verifying the ownership of any of the materials they use.) Responding to our obsession with chocolate, Wikimedia dished up 676 images, many of which looked good enough to eat.

If you’re interested in life on Earth—and really, who isn’t?—then you’ll want to beeline to the Encyclopedia of Life. Although this fledgling site wasn’t created for the expressed purpose of searching for images, it’s a rich source of information on a mind-boggling number of creatures. If you’d like to use one of its photos or drawings, click on the green information button (on each image’s bottom, left-hand corner) and you’ll find the terms of usage.

Just because it’s easy to grab an image from Google or another site doesn’t mean it’s legal. Other than images that are in the public domain, most pictures are protected by copyright law. We won’t go into a lesson on copyright and fair use here, but if you’d like to learn more, the article “Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) about Copyright and Fair Use” and School Library Journal’s column “Carrie on Copyright” are two good places to start.

To make sure the desired images are available for educational use, consider searching for Creative Commons–licensed pictures. Thanks to the efforts of the Massachusetts-based organization, educators and students can now freely use loads of copyrighted images, as long as they credit the images’ owners. When a person tags a picture with a Creative Commons license, they’re indicating that they still own the image, but they’ll allow you to use  it under certain conditions, which include most public school and library uses.

Creative Commons is also currently setting up a portal for teachers and an educational search engine (to learn more, visit learn.creativecommons.org). In the meantime, you can search for Creative Commons–licensed materials on Google, Yahoo!, Flickr, blip.tv, OWL Music Search, and SpinXpress. But since these sites often contain images that aren’t appropriate for kids, we recommend that only librarians and teachers search these sites for pictures—rather than just turning your students loose.

Whenever students use online images, it’s important to remind them to cite their sources—and for you to model the same practice. But that’s not always easy, especially when you’re dealing with search engines. Often the link in a search engine’s address bar isn’t the correct link to an image and besides, the link can be incredibly long (one of our links for chocolate was 315 characters!). In fact, more often than not, the actual link to an image isn’t in the address bar—it’s in the information bar alongside the image. Both Google and Picsearch put their information bars in the upper frame and provide a link to the original work as well as a link to the image. By comparison, retrieving bibliographic information from Pics4Learning is a breeze. Since all of its images have been donated and reside on its server, the search engine is able to provide a correctly formatted bibliography that credits the image’s creator—so all you have to do is copy and paste the information into a references document.

A common mistake of many image hunters is to use the thumbnail version of an online image rather than the full-size one. Then, when it’s time to enlarge the tiny version for a report or presentation, they end up with the dreaded jaggies—an unattractive picture with poor pixilation. How can you avoid that pitfall? If you’re using Google or Picsearch, click on the thumbnail picture, and you’ll be transferred to a page with another thumbnail version as well as a link to the full-size version. If you’re working with Pics4Learning, things get a little trickier. If you click on a thumbnail version of an image, you’ll be taken to a larger one—but that image isn’t necessarily the full-size version. So make sure you click on the “View Full Size” link.

Ultimately, nothing beats creating your own digital images. That way, you won’t have to worry about copyright infringement and your students will feel empowered when they show off their work. But we realize that sometimes the best option is to use what’s readily available online. Hopefully, now that you’re armed with our tips and some additional search tools, you’ll be able to help your students create image-rich presentations that’ll be the talk of the school, if not the town.


Anna Adam and Helen Mowers are both educators with the Killeen Independent School District in Texas and the creators of “Tech Chick Tips,” a podcast series. You can read part one of this feature, “Start Your Search Engines: Taming Google and other tips to master Web searches,” in our April 2008 issue, pp. 44–46.

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Launch a coding program in your library that will promote digital literacy and impact your community. You’ll learn how to run computer programming courses that will introduce your patrons to new career paths and technologies. We’ll explore all facets of building coding programming for your library such as making your case for funding, hosting Code Clubs and Hackathons, and curating free resources and technologies available online.