Vail librarians join live program |
Melanie Wong

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Vail librarians join live program

VAIL — These days, you can search for the answer to nearly any question on the Internet — but where do you go if you've stumped Google's algorithms or when you're just not finding a satisfactory answer on the Web?

Colorado librarians, through the sites and, are encouraging people to turn to their library resources, and now the Vail Public Library has joined in the effort.

The idea is simple — get on the site, ask a question and a qualified librarian will help you find the answer to your question. AskColorado is aimed toward public users, while Ask Academics is for the faculty and students at educational institutions.

“We’re kind of like a live search engine,” said Vail librarian Liz Willhoff. “People can go to their library’s Web page, click on ‘talk to a librarian,’ and chat with someone. We get questions that range from simple library account questions to ‘I’m writing a research paper and need help.’”

"We're kind of like a live search engine," said Vail librarian Liz Willhoff. "People can go to their library's Web page, click on 'talk to a librarian,' and chat with someone. We get questions that range from simple library account questions to 'I'm writing a research paper and need help.'"

The service is free for library members, and you can use the chat any day of the week — at most times, one or two librarians from anywhere in the state will be on to field questions.

Just this year, Vail has joined the service, with two staff members spending an hour each week as the on-call librarian. While this is the first year Vail has joined the staff, AskColorado has been around for a decade and now includes 130 staff librarians. Since its creation, ASK, as the service is known, has fielded more than 370,000 sessions with K-12 students and their parents, college students, business owners, military personnel and other information seekers. They'll do anything from help students with research projects to help journalists verify facts to answer inquiries about health and safety topics.

"We're there to put you in touch with info you'd otherwise be unable to get yourself, and that's different for every person," said Kris Johnson, the ASK operations manager, adding that besides helping people find answers to their questions, the librarians also can point you to other sources.

The human side

In the information age, when answers are at the fingertips of anyone with a smartphone or laptop, researching at your local library may seem like an obsolete method. However, as Johnson points out, a search engine doesn't tell you the answer — it simply offers links based on your word search that may contain the answers. It also can't tell you what questions to ask, nor can it always offer authoritative sources.

"What Google and other search engines don't have are the semantic abilities," Johnson said. "Librarians take your question and rephrase it and converse with you in a way that might narrow or refine your question. They might help you reason through the topic. Sometimes they can help you when you don't even know where to start."

Besides finding answers, ASK librarians can also access article archives and other paid databases that can't be found on the Internet.

Vail pitches in

ASK is funded by a federal grant, along with contributions from participating libraries. For the past four years, Vail has contributed monetarily but did not contribute staff hours to the program. However, budget and staff cuts across the state caused many libraries to drop out of the program. In response, ASK had to narrow its focus, offering its live chat services only to member libraries, instead of to the general public as before.

Lori Ann Barnes, Vail head librarian, said she thought it might be a good time for Vail's small staff to pitch in to support ASK.

"We have always thought that we had a really small staff and couldn't afford to devote a staff member to this," Barnes said. "However, with many larger libraries dropping out, there's a need for libraries to step up to the plate. We feel strongly about partnering with other libraries around the state, and we're happy to be part of the cooperative.

Vail's librarians said that ASK also gives them an opportunity to tackle some reference requests, something they don't see too often at a smaller community library.

"Reference is always interesting, and you never know what you're going to get," Willhoff said. "Those research questions keep you on your toes, and it keeps you sharp."

Ask a librarian

Have a question for a librarian? Ask about anything from current events to research topics by going to http://www.askcolorado.orgtarget=”_blank”>, or if you are a Town of Vail Library member, go to http://vail.colibraries.orgtarget=”_blank”> and click on “Ask a Librarian.”

A librarian from somewhere around the state will be online to help field your questions.