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October 13, 2003

My Saturday mornings covering Colorado’s new online reference desk, called “AskColorado,” have been pretty dead. I fielded two questions the first four weeks.

Saturday morning is likely to be a quiet time regardless, but statewide promotion has only just started.

In September, the start-up month, 865 “calls” were made. That surprised me, given the lack of promotion.

But during the first week of October, 563 calls were made — even before the first press conference. Since last week’s press conference, AskColorado has been covered by several newspapers and television stations, including a Spanish station.

So, this Saturday morning was livelier. I fielded four questions. The first was straightforward: Who was the first governor of Colorado?

The first trick is to be right. If I’d been cocky and careless, I might have dashed off William Gilpin, but he was the first “Territorial” governor. I asked if the questioner wanted the first governor after statehood and he said please.

The second trick is to give an authoritative reference, and for AskColorado, the preference is an online source first. I was able to point to a good source: the Colorado State Archives web page has a list of territorial and state governors.

The next question was also straightforward: What days does the Pikes Peak Cog Railway run?

Pointing to the railway’s website doesn’t necessarily answer the question.I pointed out that it was a very busy page and might not seem immediately to answer her question, but that a detailed schedule was located near the bottom. The railway is generally open seven days a week, exceptions noted on the grid.

The busyness of the page design didn’t bother her one bit; she loved it. If you’re really interested in something, you can often see what others miss.

Then an apparently straightforward question arrived: What is a beta neuron?

Tricks one and two must work again. I could explain that it had to do with excitatory (alpha) and inhibitory (beta) neurons, but I struggled to find them an authoritative definition at a reliable online site.

I say “them” because it became evident at least two college students were working together.

The only discussions I found via a quick search of journal articles concerned the beta function in electronic neural networks. I quizzed them again: Did they need only a definition?

But AskColorado was getting busy. I saw a call that was not yet answered after nine minutes, so I took a second question. This is generally not advised, because opening multiple chat and search windows can get confusing under pressure.

Imagine sending a salsa recipe through the wrong window to someone seeking health information about heartburn … it might not seem an honest mistake.

This next call sought total voter registration in a certain Colorado county broken down by race and the like, such as Whites, Hispanics, etc.

This was tough. Related statistics are easily had, such as a similar breakdown for the entire population of the county. Other states offered nice grids showing voter registration per county by such categories, but not Colorado. Not in a convenient place, anyway.

So, I’ll be getting back with this questioner as soon as I dig up the information, or get help doing so. AskColorado includes a lot of experts.

Meanwhile, the college students had found what they needed. I’d given them enough to find their own way, and they reported back that they were happy.

An hour in the life of AskColorado.

(P.S. Library book sale Saturday, Nov. 1, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)


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