Learn More: RSS feeds and feed readers

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

If checking a website for information is akin to picking up a morning paper at a newsstand, then using an RSS feed is like subscribing to the newspaper. It give you the latest info and saves you the trip.

That’s the metaphor. In real terms, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a snippet of XML code that retrieves a website’s latest content. Paired with a feed reader (or aggregator), that content is delivered to single place: a web page of your own design. You choose the sources of information (i.e., blogs or frequently-updated websites that you hope to keep up with), and RSS will “feed” all that new info to your page.

MEANING FOR LIBRARIES

As a user: If you routinely check a dozen or more sources, a feed reader will make you more efficient. It could save you A LOT of time. Most (if not all) library-world blogs provide feeds. Blogging software, in fact, usually includes it as a basic tool. Many websites and virtually all news sites offer feeds, too.

As a provider: A library could (dare I say “should”?) include RSS feeds on many of its web pages, all of its blogs, and even within its catalog. When a page changes or a new blog is posted, subscribers will immediately see it on their feed readers. To maximize effectiveness, libraries should advertise the possibilities (or explain the feed concept) when opportunities arise. Don’t be content with providing an RSS icon; be proactive by explaining that RSS icon.

As a conduit: A library’s website could include RSS feeds from other sources. Do you know of a reliable RSS source of local traffic information? Does your town have a website with a community events feed? Maybe you could pipe that content (or content even more imaginative) into your page. When the information is updated on the original website, the RSS will feed it to the library’s page where your patrons can see it.

LEARN MORE BY PARTICIPATING

Some browsers (including Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox) have built-in feed readers which simplify the process but limit your feeds to one machine. Skip to the “get a few feeds” section below if you want that option. Follow the whole process if you prefer a web-based feed reader.

Start with a feed reader or aggregator.

  • Open a free account at GoogleReader, Bloglines, Technorati, or other feed reader or blog reader service.
  • Each site works a bit differently but I’m hoping you’ll be able to navigate the set-up process once you’re in. Look for links offering to help you add RSS, XML, subscriptions, or feeds. (This set-up is usually the most difficult step in the process. Fortunately, you will only need to do this once. Seek an experienced friend if you get stuck.)
  • This will be the beginning of the web page you’ll use to collect all those subscriptions.

Now, get a few feeds.

  • Open another browser window. (This is not required, but it will make returning to your aggregator much easier in a moment.)
  • Go to a blog or webpage to which you’d like to subscribe.
  • Scan the page for a (usually orange) button or link denoting RSS, XML, or FEED. It might also be an orange ’emitting’ logo like the one shown a few paragraphs above. (LibraryStream has an RSS box on its sidebar with an “Entries RSS” link, but the RSS/XML box right here works, too.)
  • Click that button or link.
  • Depending on the site and your browser, the page that opens might resemble computer code gibberish. That’s XML and you need not understand any of it. What you want is the web page address for all that XML. Right-click your browser’s address window, and click COPY.

Return to your aggregator.

  • Right-click into the aggregator’s RSS text box and click PASTE.
  • Once that address is entered, you should see the latest content (or a clickable title for the latest content) in your feed reader.

What you do next is your call: find more feeds to add to your aggregator,rearrange your aggregator’s display,adjust the feed settings (to display full content, titles only, number of posts to display, etc.),or close for the day. You can return to your feed reader at any time and see all the new stuff that your favorite blogs and websites have fed to you while you were away. And of course you can add other feeds whenever the need or mood strikes.

Make your feed reader work for you. Have all the stuff you like delivered. And why not? It’s your web now.

One Response to Learn More: RSS feeds and feed readers

  1. Alex says:

    Hooray, RSS! When it works, it’s a great thing to use for keeping track of just about anything. The receiving end is pretty easy, as you’ve shown here. For librarians and the curious who might be interested in serving up RSS feeds for their websites, how hard is it to set up so that other people can receive your RSS feed?

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