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September 8, 2003

Uh, oh. How had I missed that? Click, click. Type, type. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” I typed.

Someone wished to find the most recent CSAP test scores via the Internet. I found comprehensive access at the Department of Education web site and sent the information through the little chat window that contained our conversation.

This question was easily answered, but the question was typical, one that any librarian might get in person or by telephone. In this case, the question was posed via “AskColorado,” a new “collaborative virtual reference service.”

You may not be able to dissect that phrase and figure out what it is. But you can understand why someone would choose any other name, such as “AskColorado.”

AskColorado is a 24/7 online reference service organized and staffed by a variety of Colorado libraries.

I can’t tell you why, exactly, but we’re doing it. This sounds sarcastic, but it’s not.

When we first signed on to the project last year, I had the feeling that this was a solution without a problem. Would there really be a demand for this kind of communication, 24 hours per day, seven days per week?

But I also had the strong sense that this, or something like it, would be expected of libraries soon.

The time was right for developing some kind of collaborative reference project after the loss of state funding for the Colorado Resource Center at Denver Public Library. The CRC had served Salida library users well for many years. I wanted to support something that promised to pick up the slack.

Let’s examine the phrase “collaborative virtual reference service” to see what it might mean.

First, there’s really nothing “virtual” about it. It’s real reference service, real library help, gotten over the Internet in real time. Colorado already has seen a variety of similar services, such as Denver’s “SmartyPants” service.

It seems newer than it really is — it’s a variation on the usual library reference theme. Libraries provide help in person; by phone, fax, letter; by email; by intuition; and now by a form of instant messaging.

You can click the AskColorado logo on the library’s web page, sign in for session, and connect “live” with a librarian who will work to answer your question or guide you toward the information you seek.

The 24/7 aspect is new. It will be interesting to see how this is used. Colorado libraries will share coverage of the “desk” during usual library operating hours. After-hours coverage will be contracted through a private company. Yes, there are such services. One can get anything in this fascinating world.

But collaboration … that’s old hat to libraries. I think the collaborative aspect will prove to be the strength of the service. AskColorado will include a clearinghouse for difficult questions, so that librarians from the participating public, academic, school, medical and other special libraries can formally pool their expertise.

More and more households are connected to the Internet, and I’ve noticed more computers left on and connected for much of the day. This constant connection makes online reference a reasonable alternative.

If your computer is not on, you probably won’t turn it on to use AskColorado. Instead, you’ll pick up the phone and speed-dial the library. But if your computer is on and connected, there’s nothing to it. You click the logo and go.

It’s not the future — it’s just one small aspect of it — and it’s now.

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