Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 3 • March 2001 

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Application Service Providers: Can They Solve Libraries' Problems?
by Fred R. Reenstjerna

So what's the real story on ASPs? Do they work? Are they viable options for purchasing applications?
Application service providers (ASPs) might be able to cure the common cold, or they might be the Edsel of computer software—depending on which hour you checked your NASDAQ stock. As always, the truth is somewhere in between these extremes. As working librarians, we need the power of ASPs to organize critical information for decision making. We also need to separate the hype from the reality, so we can decide when to use ASPs and when to use other software. Increasingly sophisticated databases, calendaring functions, and even financial management software make ASPs factors that serious managers must consider.

As catalog librarian for the Douglas County (Oregon) Library System, I oversee both acquisitions and cataloging functions in a 10-branch public library that serves 100,000 people living in a county about the same area as the state of Connecticut. We have a total staff of 4.5 FTE in acquisitions and cataloging, a materials budget of around $200,000, and limited funds for office automation other than our in-process DRA upgrade. I have been exploring free application service providers to use in our library, and I have found ways to use them both in library operations and in related organizational work.

A Little History on ASPs
ASP definitions can be so broad as to be meaningless—a problem that was exacerbated last spring when the tag "ASP" was good for a few million dollars extra in venture capital funding. In general, the consensus definition of an ASP is a Web-based computer application that resides on a server rather than on a local personal computer. The acronym ASP arose as a play on ISP (Internet service provider), when some companies began positioning themselves as providers of enhanced services in addition to plain Internet access. Now the term can apply to software available for anywhere from free to "only" $30,000 or more.

Large organizations use applications across the entire firm or enterprise. These enterprise-level ASPs require substantial local information technology and support staff, even if the application is running on an off-site computer, in addition to license fees and related costs. They are called "enterprise-level ASPs" not because you could build a Federation starship for the same price (it only seems that way), but because they are used throughout the organization.

Consumer-level ASPs are targeted to small businesses, individuals, and organizations. Many of these smaller types of ASPs are available for free at a basic level, with monthly charges per user for more advanced service levels. This consumer-level ASP market may be longer-lasting than enterprise-level ASPs because smaller organizations have less access to their own information technology staff or budgets. Also, the ASP offers what may be a small organization's only chance to obtain a specific type of software, such as project management software that's too expensive to buy outright but is affordable as a per-user monthly rental.

In addition to riding last year's venture-capital boomlet, ASPs were also heralded as the Next New Thing because of the expected spread of broadband Internet connections. If your Internet connection ran as fast as your internal network, what difference would it make if software resided on your PC or on a server in Milpitas, California? Unfortunately, as I learned decades ago while bodysurfing off Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, getting ahead of a wave leaves you just as dead in the water as missing one altogether. In business as in bodysurfing, timing is everything. Broadband connections didn't roll out as quickly as predicted, so ASPs were left to dog paddle in some very still water.

They Are Everywhere!
Just as you may be surprised by the silly advice you'd get from a Magic 8 Ball, you may be surprised to discover that you're probably using an ASP right now. If you have an Internet-based e-mail account—on Hotmail, AOL, or any similar service—you're an ASP user. You are using an application (e-mail) being provided by some service that you can access from any Internet-enabled PC or appliance. E-mail accounts through AOL or Earthlink are ASPs offered by ISPs, since the companies also provide Internet service as well as applications.

One of the first and still most widespread ASP uses, free e-mail demonstrates the advantages and inherent weaknesses of this business model. It's really great to read your e-mail anywhere you have Internet service, instead of leaving it inside some PC that isn't where you are when you need the information. Nothing's back at the office or scribbled on a note that's in your other coat/purse/laptop: All your messages are right there whenever you need them.

If you're lucky with your free e-mail ASP, enough other folks are clicking on those banner ads and ordering enough stuff to keep the advertisers paying the ASP so they can offer you free e-mail. (You're not ordering all those tchotchkes, are you? Lord knows, I'm not.) If the clicking stops—i.e., when folks stop buying stuff from online ads—your ASP is going to be hungry. We saw an outcome of poor ad revenue in December 2000, when AltaVista cut off its free Internet service because advertising revenue wasn't enough. The company added a subscription fee thereafter.

Following shortly after free e-mail, free calendaring services became a major consumer ASP. Calendar programs now accompany many e-mail services (see or for examples), so you can keep track of events while responding to mail. One merger that may signal an interesting convergence was the purchase of, a pioneer calendaring ASP, by Palm Computing, producing the site MyPalmportal, which opened for business late in December 2000, permits users to maintain Web-based calendars, notes, and contacts in a format that can be downloaded wirelessly onto Palm VII hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs).

ASPs in Action in Libraries
In my library system, we needed fast answers to questions about our continuations titles and budget. I discovered the Bitlocker Web site ( and found an easy-to-use, no-cost ASP that let me create our own database—right down to the names and qualities of database fields. Bitlocker gave us the power to manage our continuations information in a database that I designed. Our acquisitions unit replaced a card file with a database that tracks titles, prices, dates received, and anticipated dates of next editions. Selectors can get lists by title, by vendor, or by anticipated due dates.

Bitlocker allows you to create fields and define them as text, numeric, date, or yes/no test questions. The date field can default to today's date, permitting one-click entry for check-in. Also, fields can be preset for specific values that appear as pull-down menus. The Vendor field, for example, is set with a list of our continuations vendors (and choices for "Direct" and for "Other," since you can choose only from the options in a value table whenever you link that table to a field).

There are limitations (hey, it's a free database), but a database like Bitlocker has its advantages. For one thing, you can add fields after the database has been created and you have entered data. Say you'rehalfway through entering 1,200 titles, and you realize that you don't have a field for the local bibliographic control numbers. Just create a field, specify whether it's text (alpha or alphanumeric) or numeric (to be used in computations), and the field is added to all items in the database.

One of the limitations to Bitlocker is that it's a flat database. You can't create multiple levels of information for each item (e.g., price per title per year for several years) to generate multidimensional reports (e.g., average cost per title per year). Within that limitation, however, you can sort the database by any series of fields you choose and arrange the resulting report according to fields selected.
... you may be surprised to discover that you're probably using an ASP right now.

We have used Bitlocker to help plan our reference book budgets. Douglas County is in an area that's on the information tar-and-gravel road rather than the information superhighway, and we've been experiencing budget declines due to structural economic changes. This isn't the Oregon of today's high-tech plants; it's the Oregon of yesterday's timber mills. Our county's declining timber-based revenues have required rapid budget revisions (Some revenue reductions have been suddenly announced for the forthcoming fiscal year just after initial budgets were submitted.), so we've needed reporting capabilities to identify strategies for budget cuts. We can also coordinate our continuations lists more readily with vendors by e-mailing them published reports of titles.

You can design reports easily in Bitlocker. Simply name the report, select the fields you wish to include, and indicate any predetermined sorting (e.g., alphabetically by vendor and by title). All predefined reports appear as hyperlinks attached to the description of the database they use. For example, we have separate databases for continuations (reference titles) and for standing orders (predominantly fiction). Each database description includes links to specific reports. You can download reports or an entire database to your own PC. Downloads are sent as zipped files, but you can use any number of free or low-cost programs to unzip them into spreadsheets or word processing documents.

The ability to share reports via e-mail is an advantage of an ASP like Bitlocker. Reports and lists can be set to various levels of public or private access, so that only certain staff members are authorized to change data while many others can view the data.

I also use the calendaring application as a staff calendar for our acquisitions and cataloging units (see Figure 2). Always available at, this shared calendar lets us note meetings and appointments and send e-mail descriptions of the events to appropriate personnel (such as supervisors and timekeeping staff). Everyone has separate lines of communication—family, professional associations, library committees—that aren't universally known. Recording events on a shared calendar helps to coordinate meetings when everyone has to attend.

Project deadlines can be put onto the shared calendar just as well as meetings. Many calendaring ASPs can be coordinated with programs for PDAs, allowing Web-based synchronization for dates and deadlines.

Other ASPs and Their Uses
You can consolidate group calendaring and document management functions in a single ASP such as Planet Intra (, an office productivity suite (sorry to use that much-abused noun, but it's necessary here). It can give you an instant intranet—an Internet layout that is available only to employees with passwords. One feature is that you can name your workspace in Planet Intra, so you could have a URL something like

Groups of workers can collaborate on documents, share calendars, e-mail each other, and conduct threaded discussions on topics. They can also engage in real-time chat. (Yes, chat isn't just for teenagers anymore—it's increasingly important in real-time business communication.) Planet Intra is free for three users (perhaps a small public or special library, for example), and $12 per user per month for more than three.It's not the cheapest solution for more thanthe smallest operation, but it's an interesting alternative to PC-based software. A better ASP would have been HotOffice, which was consistently highly rated, but HotOffice has gone out of business. (Check out the article called "Cover Your ASP" in the January 2001 issue of eCompany NOW magazine, p. 138, or on the Web at

Financial ASPs allow Web-based access to your organization's books. An example is Netledger (, a system that is compatible with Quicken databases. Data can be uploaded into Netledger or downloaded into Quicken, if you want to maintain a file on a PC. The advantages of Netledger are that data are archived twice daily—so backing up is not an issue—and that the software is upgraded as needed without your having to purchase or even mess with downloads or CD-based installs on your PC. That's a time and money savings right there.

ASPs for Support Groups
From my experience on organization boards, I know that it's increasingly difficult to get people together for volunteer groups. The treasurer is away on business one month (or two, if your scheduled meeting is on the same date as his or her monthly audit), the secretary's out of town another month, and their reports are securely lockedaway in their PCs at their offices. Volunteer organizations are finding it more and more difficult to recruit board and committee members at all, much less to coordinate all of these folks into project-based groups.

ASPs offer an alternative commons, as it were, permitting people to meet and work together in spite of schedule conflicts. People can get together via a meeting ASP like Webex ( or establish common meeting times with calendaring software. Prior Web-based committee meetings can lay the groundwork to make in-person board meetings more effective.

An ASP-based organization, which has a chiefly virtual presence, is the ideal model for ad hoc activities like bond campaigns for publicly supported libraries. You assemble a team of community leaders; coordinate contact among them, your electorate, and the media over a discrete time interval; and then your team dissolves after the election. This is an ASP-based model if ever there were one: Press releases, databases of contributors, reports to governing authorities, and Web site content all can be generated with a minimum of "face time" in meetings. I experimented with this possibility by creating a small Web page for lead workers in a State Representative race in the 1998 election. At one site, campaign officers had access to e-mail links to the candidate and campaign manager, to the opponent's Web page, and to logins to the Bitlocker and Anyday ASPs for the volunteer database and campaign event calendar. The system worked, but it also pointed out some of the limitations of ASPs. In the next section, I'll look at those issues.

Asking the Right Questions
OK, you're saying, if ASPs are this great, then why aren't librarians welcoming them as openly as the townsfolk in Blazing Saddles greeting the new sheriff? As I mentioned at the beginning, bandwidth is one problem. Here are some key questions to ask, to decide whether you and your library can deal with ASPs:

1. How old is your hardware? ASPs don't like legacy systems, and they'll die on a 386 PC. If you don't have higher-level Pentium (and its upper-level competitors like Athlon) or later-model Macintosh equipment, you're in for disappointment.

2. How robust is your Internet connection? If you're in an isolated rural area (such as the empty quarters of Oregon), your phone company's idea of a cable modem is an extra layer of wax on the string connecting tin cans—and you're probably going to have trouble dealing with the data volume requirements of most ASPs. You'll get slow loads at best, and timeouts at worst. Check for wireless, though: There may be wireless alternatives in your area that will put your computer in bandwidth city.

3. How much data are you willing to risk in a Web-based setting? Forgetting for a moment those bugaboos raised by Ann Landers and Dr. Laura about the evils of any Internet contact, you still need to decide if the connection between you and the ASP is secure enough for the kind of work you're doing. Much of the ASP dream was to run big, mission-critical applications for large companies who would rather pay therental than buy the application. Those samelarge companies, however, are loathe to put their company's most sensitive data on a server in Milpitas, California, when they'rein Davenport, Iowa. This is a combinationof human factors and technological factors—and it's a big reason the ASP market is growing faster in smaller organizations that can't afford to buy their own copies of applications than in large ones that can.

But the most important question is, Will your ASP be around in a year or two? The original draft of this article had a few paragraphs on HotOffice, an excellent ASP for office productivity. HotOffice, rated tops by computer magazines evaluating digital offices, went away—there's no connection to anymore.

Probably more than other factors, this issue has contributed to the slow adoption of the ASP model in business. Statistics show that, of around 480 ASPs now in existence, 60 percent will be gone in 2 years. Another 18 percent will be merged out of existence in 4 years. Perhaps as few as 5 percent of the ASPs now functioningwill be functioning in 2004 as they are now. So, it's not a file-and-forget situation by a long shot.

It's Hard to Predict ...
Will ASPs succeed or fail? The correct answer is, "Probably." Nothing ever works out in real life quite the way it was supposed to. (Remember how television was going to raise the average intelligence of Americans and bring families together?) The ASP model can work within certain parameters right now, as I have learned, and it can supply important management software that would be otherwise unavailable. There never have been simple answers to complex managerial questions. There are, however, always better tools—and an ASP, used judiciously, can be one of them.

Webliography for ASPs

General Information on the Process

Online newsletters covering this industry are available from, a weekly online newsletter from Windows2000 Magazine, and (look for the ASP link from the home page).

Calendaring Applications — Compatible with Palm operating systems — Integrated office support, including customized domain naming

Database Applications — Create-your-own database program for any sort of application; data can be exchanged between spreadsheets and Bitlocker.

Financial Applications — Netledger online accounting/bookkeeping program; compatible with Quicken — Receive or make payments between any two e-mail addresses, using a deposit system involving either bank or credit card accounts.

Specialty Applications — A Web-hosting service for libraries. Limited services available for free;most seem to be connected to traditional library automation circulation systems sold by this vendor. — Online live meetings

Fred R. Reenstjerna is catalog librarian for the Douglas County Library System in Roseburg, Oregon. In addition to an M.L.S. from the University of Maryland, he earned an M.Ad. (human resources) from Lynchburg College and an Ed.D. from West Virginia University. He has worked in technical services and reference for public, academic, and special libraries. Being a "geekosaur," he has used computers ranging from the era when he keypunched programs onto cards to today, when he synchronizes his Handspring Visor PDA to his PC. His e-mail address is
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