The Tao of Law Librarianship: Using RSS Feeds for New Book Titles - Calling All Publishers

Last year at this time I was feeling singularly overwhelmed. Not helping matters was my “in box” of paper mail sitting beside my computer, stacked two feet high. It had been that way for over a year, but no matter how hard I tried to clear it out, papers still kept coming to replace them. I was desperate to get control of at least this one area of my life. I needed a plan!

I had a look at what was in the box. It seemed to be made up mostly of current awareness newsletters and magazines that I had asked be routed to me, and publisher direct mail advertising and catalogues. Anything urgent that had been put on top over time was already removed, so this is what was left. Seems like I never had time to deal with these remaining items. Much as I hate to miss out on any current awareness, I had my name removed from all but a couple of the routing lists. Since I have coworkers already reading a number of the titles, and I am an avid blog reader, I figured one way or another I would hear about anything essential I had missed. I don’t recommend this move for everyone, but for me it has worked well.

But what about the publisher direct mail? I considered my role in our four-person library. I am responsible for collection development, ordering new titles and new editions, reviewing new books as they arrive or passing them along to our lawyers for review, sending them to my co-worker for cataloguing or returning them to the publisher, and then processing and authorizing all resulting invoices. Except for the ordering of new titles, I was pretty much behind in all aspects of this process. New books I had ordered were stacked up waiting for my perusal, or were waiting to be sent to cataloguing or back to the publisher. Invoices for new titles we had decided to keep were waiting for payment.

I hate to admit it, but I was definitely failing to keep up with this whole process, one of the core aspects of my job. My whole problem seemed to be a lack of enough time to get everything completed on a regular basis. My attempts at binge processing of books or invoices were just not helping fight back the beast. I needed to develop a process that would flow smoothly throughout the week, that I could do quickly and easily.

I thought about all the direct mail coming in, and how I managed to order in far too many books without even looking at that mail. Then the spark of an idea came to me. What if I just threw it all out? What if all these catalogues and advertisements were just put into the recycling bin? And not just this one time, but always? My co-worker who does some of our ordering had already stopped collecting catalogues a few years earlier, favoring searches on publisher websites. It seemed absurd to throw everything out, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this simple move would have no affect on my life other than removing all the stress of the overflowing in box.

I asked our library assistant who opens our mail to throw out all direct mail from publishers other than notices about change to service, and anything from the very small publishing houses whose books I might not otherwise hear about. The effect was immediate. Once I had cleared out my in box, it did not fill back up.

I still had the other areas of my work to tackle, but felt a wee bit of relief. Not one to live with the status quo, I wondered how I might improve on this result. Where else might I save some time?

I considered my book ordering process. Other than the direct mail, I had a cadre of publisher reps visiting me on a regular basis to tell me about new titles. Representatives of four major publishers each visiting at least four times a year. I totaled up the hours and realized that might make a small dent in my time if I could reduce those meetings. And how many books had I been talked into buying during those meetings which I now had stacked up for return because they did not meet our needs? Or how many duplicates had I ordered during their visits because I did not remember I had already ordered them? If the number of these visits could be reduced, I might actually be able to make a larger dent in saving time than I originally thought.

Email messages about new titles were coming to me from the reps, book requests were coming to me from our lawyers, and the publishers were periodically sending quarterly lists of new titles also by email.

For at least one publisher, I was visiting the website and ordering books directly from the site, which has ultimately become my favorite way to buy new books, akin to buying from Amazon.com. But every publisher seems to have new books listed in different places.

Then a bigger light bulb went off in my head. Why do the publishers not just each have their new titles in an RSS feed, which I could read in my aggregator (feed reader) like I do a number of the blogs and news feeds I follow? And why could those feeds not be taken together into one feed, or filtered according to my collection subject needs? Why could my library association not pull all feeds together onto one webpage for those people who don’t use an aggregator? I quickly surveyed the websites of major Canadian legal publishers, and discovered not a single one had an RSS feed of new titles, or any other RSS feed for that matter. Clearly this was something to work on.

The little campaign to clear out my in box had become a campaign to change some of the business practices of the legal publishers! I started with some posts on the well-read Canadian legal blog Slaw.ca cajoling our publishers into making RSS feeds available from their websites (see my February 17, 2006 post on Slaw.ca.) Then at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL) last May I talked to a number of publisher reps and fellow librarians, trying to build some groundswell for the idea.

LexisNexis Canada was the first to subsequently step in the ring with RSS feeds, then Irwin Law (a small independent publisher with big ideas), and CCH Canadian (see Slaw.ca for October 6, 2006). Thanks to my colleagues across Canada for requesting this service from the publishers! We are still waiting for others to get on board with the idea, and I am hopeful we will have some nice announcements at this year’s CALL conference in Ottawa.

Thinking that surely other publishers must have caught on to this idea by now, I have had a look through major legal publisher websites around the world. I was surprised to find that Canadian legal publishers are ahead of the rest in this area. Many other publishers have a “new titles” section on their websites. Some have “new titles” email alerts. But very few have RSS feeds, with a few notable exceptions. LexisNexis in the U.S. has RSS feeds available from the Press Center on their website (not from the new titles section). These feeds send out press releases about new products, which makes them difficult to scan in a feed reader since they are not by book title. But at least they’re trying. CCH Australia has a link at the bottom of its new book releases section called “RSS feeds available” but when I click through, it is a list of its news feeds and I see no new book releases feeds. The best is from John Wiley & Sons, which is made up of a fabulous selection of new book feeds by subject.

Still not sure what RSS feeds are? CCH Canadian Ltd. has a nice webpage called "What is RSS". The advantage of RSS for customers is that we only receive information from publishers that we want to receive; therefore, it is a lot less like spam or unsolicited advertising. We read it at our own pace, as we have time. The new book titles are collected all in one place so we know exactly where to find them, rather than having to rummage through email or paper mail. And it completely replaces direct mail, which aims to be equally targeted. From the publisher’s point of view, it can be a huge cost savings if they reduce or eliminate the paper direct mail advertising. Not to mention reducing the amount of paper waste being produced with this practice. But I don’t think they have figured this out yet.

What really makes all of this a fast and easy way to order books is clicking on a title I see in my RSS feed reader, thereby going to it on the publisher’s website, and then clicking to add the book to the publisher’s electronic shopping cart. After adding in all new titles to the shopping cart, I then just purchase them from the website. Those publishers who let me add in my customer number and be invoiced are my absolute favourites.

Compared to last year, these few changes—removing myself from routing lists, throwing out direct mail, reducing publisher rep visits, and using new book title RSS feeds--have made my work flow far more manageable. I am not nearly as stressed out, and I can actually get my work done and take on the odd new project. It has afforded me time to look for other ways to make my work more efficient, such as reviewing subscriptions for underused titles that could be cancelled. Wow—cost savings for my organization, and more time savings for the library staff. That’s got to make a place for me in law firm administrators’ heaven!

Now, in doing all this I do not advocate canceling all visits from publisher representatives. You still want to meet with them at least for the sake of maintaining good working relationships. Many of my reps I do quite like on a personal basis, too, so I would hate to completely cut them out of my life. Not to mention it is good to have them periodically point out titles I may have foolishly missed in this revolutionary new book ordering procedure. But it is nice to be able to meet with them when it best suits my needs, when perhaps there is a major issue to discuss such as an electronic service subscription renewal.

So, do you think new title RSS feeds could fit into your work processes? Which publishers would you like to see provide this kind of service? So many publishers already have new titles sections on their websites. It is not that difficult to code these in XML rather than HTML to create a feed. And possibly some are already being fed to their own websites as feeds, so why not make these accessible to the customer? The trick is getting the non-technical people who are in control in the various publishing houses understand what RSS is and how it would benefit both them and their customers. I’ve been known to give my reps demonstrations in my office of what their competitors have set up and how easy it is for me to buy books from them. If it would help in your effort, feel free to pass this article along to your favourite. And I’d love to hear about any progress you make.

Do you have career-related anecdotes or ideas for professional development that you would like to share with Connie Crosby? Email her.