Tag Team Tech April 2011

My Perpetual Pursuit of the Perfect Pathfinder Platform

Joyce Kasman Valenza

April 2011

Having a strong library web presence is no longer optional.  And our pathfinders are a critical element of our practice—whether virtual or face-to-face.

For my students, faculty, and parents, my pathfinders present and scale my professional (and familiar) voice, as well as my guidance and instruction–anytime, anywhere.  They represent me as an information professional and allow me to interact with my learners when they are in the library, and when they are in their classrooms, and when they are at home.

What are pathfinders? Pathfinders lead researchers through thick information jungles.  They make sense of the huge variety of information sources and help learners or users discover the buckets (or categories) of information available. In the voice of the librarian, they make sure that student researchers know about the very best tools in their information toolkits.  Pathfinders allow us to intervene in ways that allow learners to retain their independence as they explore. They allow me to partner with content area teachers to best meet our learners’ research, learning, and communication needs at their own interest, age, and ability levels. And at their best, they present a blueprint for inquiry around a particular question or topic or interest area, and they do all that attractively and engagingly. Pathfinders can range in their depth from a simple list of links and resources, to a network of linked guides, to complete learner-driven knowledge-building centers that support collaborative inquiry and share artifacts of completed student work.

Pathfinder Past

Back in the 70s I created print pathfinders to guide researchers and readers through what I then considered an information jungle.  I had no clue.

I’ve spent the past fifteen years searching for a perfect platform.  This is the story of that journey, and the journeys of my colleagues who were also searching.

In the beginning, back in the mid-90s, I discovered I could create Web-based pathfinders using my relatively limited knowledge of html, a variety of code editors that kept improving, and by exploiting the talents of some generously geeky kids.

The Web was young.  My pathfinders weren’t pretty. But they scaled my practice, and that was good.  I had no clue.

The Possibilities of Wikis

Back in 2006 I fell in love with all things 2.0.  Deciding I’d never FTP again, I looked at wikis as an elegant and collaborative solution.  I had no clue.

I spent lots of time converting all my Web pathfinders to wikis, a platform that (happily) required no knowledge of html.  Wikis provide a platform that encourages super-easy editing, collaboration, linking, uploading and downloading of documents of all sorts, the tracking of changes and usage statistics, discussion, and the embedding of all types of media and feeds.  In addition, the results of any unintended or malicious collaboration can be easily remedied by reverting to previous versions in a wiki’s history.

Wiki pathfinders play so nicely with nearly any other 2.0 buddies. They function as perfect parking lots for other media. They can host your presentations, your instruction, your handouts, your rubrics, your organizers, related ebooks, videos, as well as artifacts of student work.

My personal favorite wiki creation tool is Wikispaces for teachers.  (I know that others prefer and swear by PB Works.) The folks at Wikispaces give teachers free, ad-free wiki sites.  Just remember to click on the button that identifies you as a K12 educator to remove any pesky ads.

You can easily create a wiki index to keep track of your growing collection of wiki pathfinders. For me, what began as one simple little library wiki, turned into a network of hundreds of wikis linked together, and linking to other content in other formats. In fact, I’ve noticed that many libraries that use blogs as a dynamic front page interface, turn to wikis for their pathfinder platform.

Wikis continue to be one of my own preferred platforms, but we now have so many choices, and in a world of remix, we are no longer limited to a single platform.  Our pathfinders can be a crazy quilt of multiple platforms that to the user or student appear completely unified. I asked some of the geekiest teacher librarians I know to share their favorite pathfinder platforms.

Proponents of Wikis:

When I polled my colleagues about their tools of choice, wikis were a clear favorite; they were the go-to platform.

Elementary librarian Keisa Williams has placed several of her wiki-based pathfinders on our sharing portal, Pathfinder Swap (http://pathfinderswap.wikispaces.com). Keisa’s site is the wiki-based Monarch Library (http://monarchlibrary.wikispaces.com), and she works to make her wiki pathfinders fun and interactive for her elementary students. On her own pathfinder portal (http://monarchlibrary.wikispaces.com/pathfinders), are pathfinders like Black History For Kids pathfinder: http://monarchlibrary.wikispaces.com/blackhistoryforkids. Keisa is also responsible for co-founding Elementary Library Routines Wiki- http://elementarylibraryroutines.wikispaces.com.

Newton North (MA) High School uses Wetpaint as a wiki platform for the rich resources and media collected on its attractive Human Body pathfinder http://bodywiki.wetpaint.com/.

Anne-Marie Gordon, a school library media specialist in upstate NY, uses PBWorks as her tool of choice, and often embeds an attractive Glog in the center space of her wikis. Her pathfinder menu (https://squareone.pbworks.com/w/page/12301583/MediaTeatime) leads young researchers to engaging guide pages like these:

California librarian, Marie Slim (Fullerton Joint Union School District), is also a wiki believer, for their ease of use and their remarkable embedding powers.  Marie shared a few of her favorite wiki creations:

Lisa Perez wrote to share the work of Inter-American School (Chicago Public Schools) librarian, Francis Feeley. Lisa explains that Fran’s examples “epitomize what we hope for in a good electronic pathfinder.  He has blended online databases, embedded forms, wikis, glogs, slideshows, and streaming media – all framed around essential questions in a wiki.  His school, Inter-American Magnet School, is rather interesting, as they are dual language and redesigned the entire schedule of the school to accommodate projects like this.”


NetVibes and PageFlakes (maybe)

These platforms, often referred to as start pages or dashboards, easily aggregate feeds, widgets, text, and all sorts of embeddable media on convenient and dynamic publishable pages. Netvibes allows you to easily create multiple dashboards built on aggregated feeds and widgets or anything else you can embed—video, slides, ebooks, etc.  While Pageflakes had been one of my favorite platforms for newsy-type pathfinders for nearly a year, the site currently seems to be unreliable and I am in the process of migrating away.



Google Sites

Google Sites has become a popular platform for convenient, flexible, and full-blown Web site building.  It offers a gallery of attractive templates, and, of course, it plays nice with all other Google apps.

Jessica Hinman used Google Sites to create a pathfinder for fans of Artemis Fowl to explore the books’ themes. The Josiah Bartlett (NH) Elementary School uses Google Sites for both the library site and to host its wide array of PDF pathfinders designed in collaboration with classroom teachers. Janice Mudgett, Librarian and her assistant, Meghan Murphy, find Google Sites user-friendly and easy to update. Janice says, “It looks professional and I would highly recommend it to any librarian.”

Google Sites is a rich open space for building and hosting far more than the basic pathfinder. David Loertscher offers a fabulous model for Knowledge Building Centers, spaces that make the inquiry and research processes transparent, reflective, and interactive.



Perhaps best known as an online multimedia poster-making tool, Glogster, for many of us, functions also as pathfinder building tool or as an index for our pathfinders. GlogsterEDU allows users to gather all sorts of content–text, photos, videos, graphics, sounds, drawings, data and more—into attractive posters that are easily embedded in other platforms.  Glogster plays especially nice with Wikispaces. (It’s an official embedding choice, under posters.) My own homepage is actually a Glog embedded in a wiki.  Don’t miss Doug Valentine’s (aka Dr. Loopy) U.S.S. McKillop Elementary Library page. The site and many of Doug’s amazing media book reviews and student projects are gathered together on cleverly designed Glogs.



LiveBinders are hot and they are growing quickly in popularity.  This very flexible app allow users to collect, share, annotate, and attractively display resources of all sorts– Web pages, PDFs, images, videos, texts: in a kind of three-ring binder or container metaphor. Items may be organized into tabs and sub-tabs. You can put your LiveBinders inside of other LiveBinders and embed your LiveBinders in other platforms.  I recently created my first LiveBinder of the tools mentioned in this piece.  And it was love at first site. Tiffany Whitehead, Teacher-Librarian at Central Community School System in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says that her students are “using the heck” out of her Research & Citations LiveBinder.  Joquetta Johnson, of Milford Mill Academy (MD) says that her LiveBinders are a big hit with both teachers and students.  She’s a fan of their ease of use, the bookmarklet feature, the custom layouts, easy embeddability and the sharing options. And she’s gathered an impressive shelf of examples.

LiveBinders are also the tool of choice for Karen Bolotin, who teaches art, reading, and writing at Chicago Public Schools.  Karen and many others recently shared their love of LiveBinders on a Classroom 2.0 webinar.  Everything you need to know about the LiveBinders platform and many inspiring examples are archived.  In fact, Classroom 2.0 appears to have adopted LiveBinders as an archive space for their resource-rich webinars.



Blogs present a dynamic interface, the ability to interact with readers and keep things fresh. Carolyn Foote of Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, makes a compelling argument for blogs as a pathfinder platform in her January 2, 2010 SLJ article Looking to Ramp Up Your Library Web Site? Try a Blog. “For a while, I’d been thinking that my library site had grown pretty static. Sure, I kept it updated, but I had this notion that the content had to somehow look the same each time students visited it. Meanwhile, I kept thinking of the dynamic sites that students use routinely and wondered if maybe I could ramp things up to really capture their interest and keep them coming by the library page more often.” Like wikis, blogs allow you to play with widgets and embed nearly everything.


Blog Pathfinder Options


Social bookmarking tools can act as pathfinders. I rely on Diigo for my own personal learning updates, and, although I haven’t yet used it with my students, I plan to.  Many of my colleagues use Diigo as a tool for collaborative research.  Diigo offers teacher accounts and allows groups of learners to collect and organize resources and to share, sticky note, annotate, highlight resources and collaborate on research.

And then there are a growing variety of thumbnail gathering tools and Web tours.


Gwyneth Jones, of Murray Hill Middle School (MD), aka the Daring Librarian, introduced me to Sqworl. In a recent blog post: Sqworl is More Tasty than Delicious! Gwynethnotes shared how effectively the site produces pathfinders of thumbnails with shortened URLs.  In blog mode, Sqworltracks the RSS feed of a page, and mode the site indicates when your sites have been updated.  It also tracks views and stats.  A handy bookmarlet allows you to add sites and descriptions to a Sqworl page on the fly.

Gwyneth shared a lovely instructional poster detailing Sqworl’s features.


Joyce’s Sqworl of Pathfinder Building Tools http://sqworl.com/uoc9jw
Gwyneth Jones’ Animation Sites and Education Resources http://sqworl.com/gnvsck
Additive Tech Crisps for Education http://sqworl.com/lviewf


I’ve been using Only2Clicks for several months and have created a variety of thumbnail pathfinders for our more visual topics.  Students seem to like this visual format (similar to Sqworl) and have come to recognize the thumbnail interfaces of their favorite sites.



I’ve played around a bit with Weblist as a pathfinder tool and I also like to use it when presenting research options live at conferences or during lessons. It’s got visual appeal and it gathers links, files, videos, documents and more into one URL.


Symbaloo EDU

Create a matrix of tiles, or webmixes for individual or shared use—with friends or with the world. I’ve only begun to play with this one, but my friend Buffy Hamilton recently blogged about its use with students (http://theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/comparing-symbaloo-and-netvibes-as-information-dashboards-and-ples/) and is currently maintaining a LibGuide on her Symbaloo resources http://www.theunquietlibrary.libguides.com/symbaloo

It looks promising and attractive, though it does not offer embed features.  And it seems that RSS feeds and Web sites must live on separate webmixes.

Examples are available on the matrix on the home site.

Other interesting bookmarking/webtour sites mentioned by my colleagues include:

Paying for a platform?


Although I am a huge fan of free Web-based tools, I have recently begun to migrate a lot of my pathfinder content to LibGuides. The pay service offers a few distinct advantages at a reasonable price.

Why pay for a platform with all those free options?  Well, I’ve been burned a few times this year, most notably by the flickering unreliability of PageFlakes. I spend a lot of time building pathfinders and other guides for my learners and teachers. I need to be able to rely on my platform. And I want that platform to grow with me and changes in the information landscape.

I’ve been playing with LibGuides for a couple of months now and I have fallen deeply in love.

  • I can embed like crazy, combining my own content–my documents, handouts, advice, with dynamic widgets and feeds and video and search boxes.
  • I can borrow from the brilliance of a community of other librarian creators.
  • I can flexibly move my boxes around a page and copy them on multiple pages.
  • I can customize my pages with color, font, and my own banner branding
  • I can build a rather complicated network of pathfinders using tabs and subtabs
  • I can invite multiple editors (like teachers, my practicum students, our volunteers)
  • There is support.  Unlike the confusion you feel when your favorite free tool just up and disappears or surprisingly goes down or adds unexpected premium prices.  There are a multitude of models and options and templates for sharing in the LibGuides Community Site. There’s a Springshare Lounge for user discussions, a support blog. thorough FAQs, phone and email support, and webinars!
  • I am exploring new features like mobile apps, a browser button for easy additions, Twitter and Facebook news and updates, and a link checker.
  • For a reasonable price I can rely on the survival of my professional content.


But Really, It’s Not about One Platform

Note: I fall in love easily. But, the beauty of all this variety is that you do not have to settle for one platform.

Although consistency is nice, I’ve discovered that I don’t want to limit myself to one tool.  Different tools do different things best.  My pathfinder needs run the gamut—from quick lists of links to fully-developed curricular spaces and knowledge building centers. Sometimes a page of visual thumbnails does the trick. Sometimes I want to surround a simple pathfinder with a collaboratively-designed learning activity, with written guidance and advice, with media, with links to our students’ own project spaces, with artifacts of completed student work.  Sometimes I need to create something beautiful and use my space in ways one tool cannot offer.

And so . . .

All the content I have on Only2Clicks, has found a home as screenshots in the boxes of my LibGuides pathfinders. My pathfinder glogs are also embedded in those boxes and on my wikis.  My LibGuides are linked to my wikis.  I plan to use LiveBinders and Sqworl to support upcoming student projects.  My Virtual Library wiki offers widgets leading to our LibGuides pathfinders.  This variety is largely invisible to my users.*

Sure, you may have to select one starting point, or a preferred parking lot, but to me it makes sense to mash-up your pathfinders, to decide what platform works best for a particular task, and to embed one tool into another.

And, after years of creating Web-based pathfinders, it occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one out there doing this work.  As a profession, we continue to reinvent wheels when we could instead build on each others’ best work, discover new resources more quickly, and share models of effective practice.

Please consider sharing your own examples of effective pathfinder practice on Pathfinder Swap and the School Library Websites Wiki.

Additional Resources:

*One unintended, but lovely consequence to this mashing is that some of my students are themselves noticing that they can connect their tools and stretch them to meet their own learning and communication needs.  This is fodder for another piece!

Joyce Kasman Valenza loves her work as the librarian at Springfield Township High School (PA)! For ten years, she was the techlife@school columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Joyce is the author of Power Tools, Power Research Tools and Power Tools Recharged for ALA Editions. (PowerTools Remixed is currently in progress.) She currently blogs for School Library Journal. Her NeverendingSearch Blog (now on the SLJ Web site) won an Edublogs Award for 2005, was nominated in 2008, and won again in 2009. She was awarded the AASL/Highsmith research grant in 2005. Her Virtual Library won the IASL School Library Web Page of the Year Award for 2001. She has won her state’s PSLA Outstanding Program (2005) and Outstanding Contributor (2009) Awards. Joyce is active in ALA, AASL, YALSA, and ISTE and contributes to Classroom ConnectVOYA,Technology and Learning, and School Library Journal. Joyce speaks nationally and internationally about issues relating to libraries and thoughtful use of educational technology. She earned her doctoral degree in Information Science from the University of North Texas in August, 2007. Resumé. Full C.V. Contact Joyce at joyce_valenza@sdst.org



  1. […] one using LiveBinders: And one using Weblist: And one using Jogtheweb: See the VOYA piece for more details about my pathfinder journey and the road to […]

  2. Sharon Brennan says:

    Thanks for this fantastic post. I have just started playing with a demo libguide account and I love it. Can’t wait to meet you in Australia later in the year.

  3. Great article on Pathfinders, Joyce!  I couldn’t agree with you more that Pathfinders are a great way to connect  your students with the resources they need and to help form a collaborative team with teachers. I’m a fan of Google Sites myself as well as some other Google apps which are perfect tools for Pathfinders: Google Custom Searches can be embedded to a Pathfinder limiting student searches to the just the websites which we find to be most valuable and valid. Google Books can also be embedded so that students can research the books directly from your Pathfinder.
    I’m looking forward to exploring the Pathfinder Swap and adding to it. What a great concept!

  4. Pathfinders says:

    […] After inspiriation from Ms. Valenza I started to think about pathfinders.  Currently I have not really utlized them in the traditional […]

  5. Pathfinder Platforms « Y's Guide: SLMPS says:

    […] Valenza on the “Perpetual Pursuit of the Perfect Pathfinder Platform.” […]

  6. Joan McCall says:

    Joyce, you continue to be my mentor in all things library. In the last couple of years, I have gravitated to Google Custom Search. It is not as attractive as some of the other aggregators you covered in this article, but it is familiar to students. When I have time, I try to include sqworl or other such visual alternatives, but at the end of the day, I am happy showing them a familiar search and how they can choose from ten results rather than reflexively picking the first result of 4 million options. I am also recently awed by the resources in Google Books. I think it is a game-changer for us library folks. Thanks again for all you do for our profession.

  7. nora quinn says:

    Dear Joyce, Started re-building my M.S. Word/PDF pathfinders via FREE LiveBinders last summer, and onward throughout this school year. Found LiveBinders so very accessible and accepting of all the different kinds of media I wanted to tuck into the tabs. [ Work in a 6-8 Middle School b-t-w ] Just yesterday, one of my teachers stopped in to say that when she was finished going over the description of their latest research project in her classroom, one of her students asked “will Ms. Quinn have a ‘binder’ online for us to use?” Fair made my heart melt. Naturally I will explore all the other options here to give my teachers / students the best combination of tools available, but want to thank you as always for “falling in love” over and over on my behalf, & for sharing those infatuations, flirtations, and passionate affairs, so I benefit from YOUR experience.
    Belated Happy b’day b-t-w and many more, ( she said selfishly.) Cheers!

  8. Hi Joyce – Thanks for this great summary Joyce.  As you say – so many tools and the excitement of discovering what works for you.  State Library Victoria has a wonderful LibGuide on bushfires that you may find useful as a demo when you’re here in Australia
    On the ‘pay for cloud’ issue.  I’ve recently bitten the bullet and transferred my Linkingforlearning.com site onto the Squarespace cloud platform which is very simple to edit.  The transfer is still a work in progress but has gone live.  Cost is approx $240 pa but it’s given me the social media aggregation into the site that I’ve been seeking to keep up to date without constant editing so I’m building it into personal expenses.
    Looking forward to seeing you again midyear.   Cheers.

  9. Testing Topic 7 | Infoventurer says:

    […] Valenza, J. (2011). My Perpetual Pursuit of the Perfect Pathfinder Platform. VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates. Retrieved from http://www.voyamagazine.com/2011/03/18/tag-team-tech-april-2011/ […]

  10. […] Tag Team Tech April 2011 | VOYA […]

  11. […] Tag Team Tech April 2011 | VOYA My Perpetual Pursuit of the Perfect Pathfinder Platform Joyce Kasman Valenza April 2011 Having a strong library web presence is no longer optional. Source: http://www.voyamagazine.com […]

  12. luận văn quản trị kinh doanh says:

    thanks you very much .

  13. […] not directly connected to our work life in the way that I have seen suggested by practitioners like Joyce Valenza and Buffy […]

  14. […] 2011: My Perpetual Pursuit of the Perfect Pathfinder Platform by Joyce Kasman […]

  15. […] Valenza: My Perpetual Pursuit of the Perfect Pathfinder Platform […]

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