RSS is hot! It’s very hot, as evidenced by the overflow crowd that turned out to hear Jenny Levine give an excellent tutorial called “How to Use RSS to Know More and Do Less.” In fact, when I arrived at the scheduled room to hear Jenny, there were more people outside in the hall than inside the meeting room! And when the conference organizers moved the session across the hall to a larger room, there was still a large overflow crowd. Clearly, RSS is a topic of keen interest to many information professionals, and Jenny was just the right person to explain it. Jenny’s information-rich presentation is available here, and I highly recommend it as a resource on RSS.
Briefly, an RSS file (a form of XML) is installed on a Web server, and it watches the indicated sites in the background. Once an hour, it checks for changes, and when it detects one, it lets the user know. The user must access a reader or aggregator (either one installed on the PC or a Web-based one), and by a single click can access the changed Web site. As Jenny said, it’s much easier to understand RSS by using it than by reading a description like this one. Many Web sites have an icon on them, indicating that an RSS feed is available (although sometimes the icon is very hard to find).
The advantages of RSS are that the user does not have to access a Web site (or remember to!); instead, the site can come to the user automatically. The process is simple:
1. Subscribe to a site’s RSS feed by adding it to your aggregator.
2. The aggregator will scan the sites and tell you if there is new content.
3. Click on the site to see the content.
There are a number of RSS aggregators available; Jenny suggested starting with Bloglines because it’s free and server-based, so you can access your account from anywhere. A number of customization options are available; you can categorize the sites you are watching into folders, etc. Some RSS aggregators have the capability to view feeds on an iPod or directly in Outlook folders, and it is reported that Microsoft is integrating RSS throughout its new Vista operating system scheduled for launch in the near future.
Jenny mentioned Feedster, an RSS search engine and called it the “Google of RSS”. It lets the user subscribe to keyword searches so there is no need to rerun the search every time a database update is made—very convenient! Now that RSS is entering the mainstream, large companies are even providing “canned” feeds for users to customize.
It is absolutely critical that librarians understand RSS. Libraries need to provide RSS feeds so that their content can be used effectively by their customers. Jenny stressed that as Web shifts, librarians will not be part of it if they do not have an RSS feed. There is a wide range of things that libraries can do with RSS, and Jenny’s presentation contains numerous examples of RSS feeds for new acquisitions, patron accounts so that one is always aware of loans and due dates (click here for an article on a sample service and here for another service on the same lines), creation of pathfinders on subjects of wide interest, or displaying headlines from news sites. One library patron (Edward Vielmetti at Ann Arbor) has even created an RSS feed of book covers of new acquisitions, making browsing them much more informative. Brian Mathews, Atlanta GA, (a librarian) got RSS feeds for 20 students and put them in Bloglines. When he saw somebody needed help, contacted them and offered it, thus reaching students before point of need. See Brians blog.
Some library automation vendors are installing the capability for integrating RSS feeds into their products; if your vendor is not doing this, ask them for it! It will allow you to make maximum use of the content that you have paid for. Content from several sites can even be integrated into a single virtual feed using Superglu.
Jenny concluded by urging the audience to “Go forth and RSSify!” Use Bloglines to stay current, start a blog so you have a feed of new items, start asking vendors for RSS feeds, get others to display your RSS, and market your RSS services.
This was one of the best talks on a technical subject at SLA. RSS is here to stay, and it is important to make as much use of it as possible. People ARE going to use RSS (some companies are already using it for internal communications). We will have to deal with it, and there is no better time than the present!
Columnist, Information Today