Features - Rich Site Services: Web Feeds for Extended Information and Library ServicesBy Gerry McKiernan, Published on September 20, 2004
Gerry McKiernan is an Associate Professor and Science and Technology Librarian and Bibliographer with the Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa. He is the compiler of several Web registries that include All That JAS: Journal Abbreviation Sources, LiveRef(sm): A Registry of Real-Time Digital Reference Services, and most recently B-Feeds(sm): Web Feeds for Books and Monographs, eFeeds(sm: Web Feeds from Electronic Journals, and RSS(sm): Rich Site Services.
“There are several practical ways in which the LIS (Library and Information Science) community can both exploit the content of RSS, and improve their services through the presentation and re-presentation of RSS feeds. These do not amount to a revolution, but rather represent a step on the path to better information services, and one which takes advantage of advances in technology.”
‘RSS’ is an umbrella term for a variety of XML files which enable the sharing of Web site content. It can be understood as “a Web syndication protocol that is primarily used by news Websites and Weblogs. RSS allows a Web developer to publish content on their Website in a format that a computer program can easily understand and digest...[R]SS simply repackages the content as a list of data items, such as the date of a news story, a summary of the story and a link to it. A program known as an RSS aggregator or feed reader can then check RSS-enabled Web pages for the user, and display any updated articles that it finds.” For many, RSS is an initialism for ‘Rich Site Summary’; for others it refers to ‘Really Simple Syndication’; while for others it stands for ‘RDF Site Summary.’
At present there are several flavors of RSS, not all of which are related. The earliest RSS versions (.91, .92, .93, .94) and latest RSS version (2.0) were developed by UserLand, while RSS version 1.0 was developed by the RSS-DEV Working Group.
News Aggregators and Feed Readers
Through an RSS or other feed types, new and updated Web site content is received automatically by subscribed users who have installed and activated a news aggregator or reader. As defined by David Winer, the developer of original and current Web feed formats (scriptingNews, RSS 0.92, and RSS 2.0), a ‘news aggregator’ is “software that periodically reads a set of news sources, in one of several XML-based formats, finds the new bits, and displays them in reverse-chronological order on a single page." Among its many potential benefits, Web feeds can significantly reduce the need to individually re-visit sites of interest for changes or additions.
Among the popular free or fee-based aggregators for news feeds are AmphetaDesk, Bloglines, FeedDemon, FeedReader, NetNewsWire, NewsDesk, NewsIsFree, Radio UserLand, and SharpReader. Feeds need not be limited, however, to news or accessible from ‘news’ aggregators. Using many of these readers, as well as others (e.g., Pluck) individuals can subscribe to Web feeds of interest to create a customized, personal portal.
In addition to their common use within personal and professional blogs, Web feeds are offered as well by major state, regional, national, and international broadcast, print, and Web-based publications and services. Current news sites that syndicate all or part of their content include ABCNews.com and BBC News.com, as well as online versions of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Similarly, national magazines such as Time and U.S. News & World Report offer a variety of feeds for their respective content. National Public Radio (NPR) offers RSS Web feeds for ‘Top Stories,’ ‘U.S. News,’ ‘World News’, as well as ’Business News’ and ‘Health & Science News,’ as well as for its major syndicated programs (e.g., All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Talk of the Nation) and select member stations (e.g., Minnesota Public Radio).
Figure 1. Screen print listing the variety of RSS feeds offered by Amazon.com for its variety of its product offerings.
The Little Orange Button(s)
The availability of a Web feed for a site is typically indicated by one or more button icons (e.g., , or ), or by a hot linked word (e.g., ‘Syndicate’) or phrase (e.g., ‘Syndicate This Page’).
Depending on the particular reader, users can subscribe to a Web feed in a variety of ways: by double-clicking the RSS feed option, or by clicking the icon and copying the Web address (URL) from the displayed page, and pasting the associated address into the reader. Some readers also allow users to subscribe to a web feed by simply dragging and dropping the associated web feed icon (e.g., ) into the reader.
Library Web Feeds
Use of feeds is not limited, however, to blogs, news sources, or commercial Web sites; an increasing number of libraries have also begun to offer feeds to promote and extend their services with content syndication. 
The current major use of Web feeds by libraries is to alert subscribers to current activities. Libraries that offer Web feeds for announcements include:
- Georgia State University Library (‘Library News,’ ‘Science News,’ and ‘Social Sciences News’) (see Figure 2)
- Lunar and Planetary Institute, Center for Information and Research Services (‘New and Noteworthy’)
- Minneapolis Public Library (‘What's New at the Minneapolis Public Library’)
- Northwestern University Library (‘In the Spotlight: News from Northwestern University Library’)
- Ohio University Libraries (‘News’)
- Rowland Institute at Harvard Library (‘Rowland Institute Library Blog’)
- Suburban Library System (‘Suburban Library System [News]’)
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries (‘UNC-Chapel Hill University Libraries -- RSS News Feeds’)
- University of Windsor, Leddy Library (‘Leddy Library News’).
In addition to offering feeds for news and announcements, some libraries also recognize the value of feeds for extending conventional library functions and services. Some libraries, for example, provide feeds for their Internet resource guides, such as that provided by the Minneapolis Public Library for ‘The List,’ its compendium of Web resources. A number of the major subject Web guides, such as EEVL: The Internet Guide to Engineering, Mathematics, and Computing, Humbul Humanities Hub, and PSIgate: Physical Sciences Information Gateway and SOSIG: Your Guide to the Best of the Web for Social Science offer RSS feeds for select updates to their respective contents.
A few libraries provide Web feeds that allow subscribers to receive updates for new acquisitions including books, compact discs, and videos. Libraries that offer such services include the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST, the National University of Ireland (Galway) library, and the University of Louisville Libraries. The State of Hawaii, Legislative Reference Bureau, provides select feeds for agency reports and recent acquisitions, while the library of the Lunar and Planetary Institute offers a feed that includes ‘Recent additions to the collection’ as well as ‘New and Noteworthy’ items. The Wisconsin Historical Society provides feeds for ‘Library-Archives Recent Acquisition' as well ‘Library-Archives Recent Wisconsin Acquisitions.’
E-Journals and Table of Contents Services
Feeds for new acquisitions are not limited to books, other monographs, or media. For example, the Legislative Reference Bureau (Hawaii) also provides a feed for citations for select professional journal articles, in addition to feeds for its institutional publications, while the library of the Royal Holloway, University of London, provides a feed for all recently received journal issues and feeds for individual titles (see Figure 3). OhioLINK, the statewide consortium, provides feeds for all journals available from its Electronic Journal Center.
Figure 3. Display of ‘Recent Serials Issues received for the Royal Holloway, University of London’ in the Pluck Web feed reader.
Libraries have also begun to use Web feeds to promote instructional and reference services. The University of Alberta (Canada) library provides a feed for its ‘Library and Instruction’ program page, while the University of Tennessee (UT) Libraries offer a feed for ‘Alpha Channel,’ a “guide to library multimedia services for the UT teaching & learning community.” In the arena of reference services, the Ohio University (Athens) provides a feed for its ‘Business Blog’ as well as one for its general ‘Reference’ service. The Moraine Valley (Illinois) Community College Library provides a feed for ‘Resources & Search Tips’ that profiles key print, electronic, and Internet resources, and the University of Winnipeg Library & Information Services department offers a feed that provides descriptions of major ‘Reference Sources.’
In addition to current implementations, other library functions and services could also be enhanced through a broader use of Web feeds. For example, the review of newly published and forthcoming titles by selectors and bibliographers could be significantly expedited if publishers and book vendors provided feeds for individual titles and disciplines.
If electronic journal vendors and publishers syndicated their content, users could choose to receive desktop notification for newly-published relevant articles by journal title or discipline. 
IngentaConnect, the e-journal collection offered by Ingenta Inc., is a notable example of a vendor service, providing Web feeds for each of its more than 28,700 journals (see Figure 4), while BioMed Central, “The Open Access Publisher,” is an excellent example of a publisher that offers feeds for all of journals (see Figure 5)
Ideally, such services should also enable subscribers to receive personalized feeds based on a saved search strategy.
The assessment, use, and integration of search results could be significantly improved if database and OPAC vendors offered a Web feed option. Noteworthy examples of the former include HubMed (see Figure 6) and my.PubMed, enhanced versions of the PubMed medical database made available by the National Library of Medicine.
 Roddy MacLeod, RSS: Less Hype, More Action, 161 FREEPRINT 7-10 (2004). Also available at http://www.freepint.com/issues/170604.pdf?PHPSESSID=18e229b6adc57736563635ce9a931348. <back to text>
 Mark Pilgrim, What is RSS, XML.COM (December 18, 2002), available at http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2002/12/18/dive-into-xml.html. <back to text>
 Dave Winer, What is a News Aggregator, DAVENET (October 8, 2002), available at http://davenet.scripting.com/2002/10/08/whatIsANewsAggregator <back to text>
 Gerry McKiernan, RSS(sm): Rich Site Services (2004), available at http://www.public.iastate.edu/~CYBERSTACKS/RSS.htm. <back to text>
 Gerry McKiernan, B-Feeds(sm): Web Feeds for Books and Monographs (2004), http://www.public.iastate.edu/~CYBERSTACKS/B-Feeds.htm. <back to text>
 Gerry McKiernan, eFeeds(sm): Web Feeds from Electronic Journals, 2004, available at http://www.public.iastate.edu/~CYBERSTACKS/eFeeds.htm <back to text>