Wednesday, December 31, 2008

23 Things Vol. 4: RSS and NewsFeeds

The fourth 23 Things volume deals with RSS feeds and new readers. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication is a publishing standard for updating/reading websites using the multifaceted XML web language. RSS or “Really Simple Syndication” has proliferated the internet as blogs have become more popular over the last half decade. A user can sign up for a particular websites “feed” through a popular news-reader like Net Newswire or now through web browsers like Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari. When the website is updated the news-reader displays a short title, and summary about the change. This alert system or push component makes RSS feeds for people who need to stay informed about a particular topic. There are RSS feeds from various websites on every topic imaginable from cooking to knitting. As RSS feeds become more popular libraries can use them to better communicate with their patron base.

History:        The origins of RSS come from the development of Resource Description Framework (RDF) in the height of the internet boom in 1997. The first RSS technology was created by Netscape for inclusion in their “My Netscape” web application suite (1). The technology is based around XML so it is infinitely adaptable for displaying news, sport scores, interviews and other content types. When Netscape abandoned development RSS was adopted by O’Reilly and Userland who each produced their own versions called RSS .91 causing great confusion for consumers(1). The two companies continued to produce their own formats until RSS 1.0, and RSS 2.0 respectively. Then Userland donated the rights to RSS 2.0 to Harvard Law to hold in trust and oversee any further development. Thankfully, most feed readers can interpret both feed formats.
        Libraries can use RSS feeds to help keep their patrons updated on events happening in the library, and the community. Feeds can be established that highlight guest speakers, community gatherings or what new books have arrived. While blanket e-mails have long been sent directly to the junk mail folder RSS feeds can be tailored to highlight a particular type of event, or new book arrivals within a particular genre making them more relevant to the particular patron. Also, since it is the patrons feed reader that grabs the updates the library keeps no records according to users preferences or borrowing tendencies.

RSS Feeds in Special Libraries:
        Special Libraries focusing on business or medicine have begun adopting RSS feeds to help deliver time-critical information to their patrons. Business and medicinal advances can happen overnight so delivering content to patrons requires system that allows for quick delivery. Publishers like the National Library of Medicine, and the New England Journal of Medicine have established RSS feeds to help distribute information to customers, and patrons. Similarly, special libraries could discontinue routing paper journals in favor of using RSS feeds to disseminate information. Rather than a patron receiving a paper copy the journal would be delivered electronically through an aggregator with the patron receiving a RSS notice that the content was available.
        Switching from paper to electronic routing would save the library money and time. Once the initial system was established the librarians would only have to oversee the operation rather than actively routing each journal. Some database aggregators like ABI/Inform have a built-in system that alerts patrons when particular content is available. Additionally, the library would be able to keep better track of the print copies because they wouldn’t be sending them through inter-office mail, and they wouldn’t run the risk of being lost en-route.

Creating RSS Feeds:        
        RSS feeds are XML based so there is no subscription cost associated with the service, and many news readers are also free. The librarian could even create the feed in a free text editor like notepad, taco, or text wrangler. However, while economical creating the feed by hand would make it hard to update. There are several programs specifically designed to create RSS feeds: Super Simple RSS, RSS Dreamfeeder, or Feedforall. There are also several free weblog suites like Typepad or Blogger that include RSS syndication within their program. Though these suits often come with built in advertisements or restrictions to impinge upon their “free” status. Otherwise the librarian only requires a active internet connection, and passable computer by today’s standards.

Adding Content:
        Once the RSS feed has been established then the library can begin distributing content to the patrons. Though the librarian has to make sure that they don’t violate copyright laws while trying to keep their patrons informed and happy. If the research division published an internal article then the librarian could disseminate that over the feed, but they couldn’t scan a newly received journal into the feed directly. Possible compromises that allow the library to still alert their patrons while not breaking copy include:
The RSS feed could include a short description about the serial or periodical and include a link to the aggregator that displays the electronic version. (This would be the idea method.)
If the library patrons required a more in-depth look at the journal then librarian could include a scanned copy of the table of contents or cover in addition to link to the electronic version within the feed.
If the resource is a niche market publication like Turkey World, and it is not available in an online format then the RSS feed can contain information where the patron can contact the library and arrange to have the journal sent through interoffice mail.

Concerns over Implementation:
        While RSS technology is relatively easy implement there are several hurdles that need to be implemented before successful implementation. The first obstacle is the patron base. They have to be open to the idea, and willing to accept the method for content delivery. The librarian can push the odds in their favor by having training sessions or traveling to the patrons office for one-on-one tutorial session. The second, obstacle is the administration at the company or academic institution. Without their support, and contribution any attempt to implement any technological change will meet resistance or be stopped outright. The third problem is trying to maintain a feeds usefulness while respecting other copyright holders. Ideally, RSS feeds work best with circulating locally born content from faculty or staff.

Conclusion:
        The business, medical, law worlds are moving faster everyday. Professionals employed in the field require quick access and notification of newly available content. They often lead busy lives packed with meetings, research and other activities. They may not have time to investigate every new article or book within their field. They might not even know it exists. The library, and librarians can help. While there are potential technical, and ethical quandaries in implementing RSS feeds they can increase the value of the library to the patron immensely.