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Features - RSS For Non-Techie Librarians

By Steven Cohen, Published on June 2, 2002

Steven M. Cohen is Assistant Librarian for Rivkin Radler, LLP in Uniondale, New York. He is also the creator/webmaster of Library Stuff, a library and information science weblog. In addition, he is a contributing editor of the Internet Spotlight column for Public Libraries Magazine.

Over the past few years, the amount of information available via the Web has multiplied exponentially. Still, it is in the best interest to the people we serve (whether they are lawyers, the public, or students) to keep abreast of new developments in databases, search engines, new sites, changes in sites, and news that effect our careers and the way we deliver information to our constituencies.

In order to keep current, like many librarians I had all of the web sites that I visited daily bookmarked (about 50) in my browser at work and I would painstakingly visit each site throughout the day. Of course there were days that visiting each site was not possible (on very busy days I was lucky to get to one). And if three days went by without reading these favorites, I would get too bogged down trying to catch up. This was all before I was introduced to the wonderful world of RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds. Now, I get almost all of the content I want from all of these sites delivered to one place as soon as the site is updated, saving precious time. The most amazing part is that I am notified when any of the sites I subscribe to are updated within minutes. And I didn't have to be an experienced techie to set-it-up.

If you have used the customizable web portal services like My Yahoo or My Netscape, you are already ahead of the game with RSS feeds. These programs were very popular (many still use them) and were used to bring general content, specifically chosen by the user, into one interface. For example, users can choose which stock tickers they want shown, regional sports scores, schedules, weather reports, news, movie listings from local theaters and much more. For general news and information, these services were sufficient, but they were unable to keep up with the new content providers (i.e., weblogs), and companies that contain other types of news items (i.e., Wired News or CNN).

Using RSS, users can have content from web sites delivered to (and constantly updated) via a news aggregator, a piece of software freely available via the web (or purchased for more options), specifically tailored to receive these types of feeds. Other types of files that can be read by aggregators include XML and RDF. The point of this article is not to describe how RSS feeds work or the technology behind them, but to describe a practical tool for the "non-techie librarian" (NTL) to easily set up an aggregator and start receiving feeds. For an introduction to RSS, see Webreference on RSS.

The first step is to download a news aggregator to your desktop in order to receive feeds. There are many to choose from (for an incomplete list, see RSS Info), and in my quest to find one that suited my needs, I tested three; Headline News, Feedreader, and NewzCrawler. After experimenting with them all, I chose NewzCrawler because it provided the most features and was easiest to set-up.

Below is a screen shot of the interface of Newzcrawler (version 1.2). It is broken up into three parts. The sites that are providing the content are on the left, the headlines are on the upper right corner, and the bottom right corner acts as the browser (in fact, it is an actual browser), where the feeds are displayed. Users can toggle back forth between the sites providing the feeds, the headlines within each site, and the feeds themselves.

Clicking on any of the headlines will bring up the article in the browser box as shown below. Once this is done, the user can navigate through the story as if reading it directly on the web itself.

Now that a news aggregator has been downloaded and installed, news feeds need to be placed inside. You may have seen sites with or RSS placed inconspicuously on the page. This means that this site is set up with RSS feed capabilities and can be placed in an aggregator for viewing and constant updating. If you click on these orange and blue icons, you will see something like this. Placed in an aggregator, these feeds can be read. Simply right click on the icon, select "copy shortcut" and paste it into the aggregator (or locate the tool bar that allows you to add new feeds). You now subscribe to the feed for this site. Once a new item appears in any of the sites that are "subscribed to", the new information will pop up on the desktop, alerting the user of the new post.

There are many options available to the user depending on the news aggregator used. Newzcrawler will update a feed at any interval the user wants, such as every 30 minutes or every hour. Also, the new version of Newzcrawler allows webpages and newsgroups to be placed into the aggregator and the sites will automatically refresh according to the users specifications. I have placed all of my favorite sites that do not have RSS capabilities and get updated on a consistent basis into Newzcrawler, bringing almost all of the web content I monitor into one place.

Now that you know how to place feeds into the aggregator, finding them is the next step. As mentioned above, many sites provide a link for feeds directly from the front page, however there are many more that are "hidden" from obvious view. There are two major RSS feed directories available to those who want to find and subscribe to RSS feeds.

Newsisfree is a directory of over 2,900 sources for news feeds. Users of this site can browse by subject headings, search the extensive database by name or description, or search the latest headlines from these sites. Once a site is found, Newsisfree will provide the following information: information about the site, the latest posts, an RSS link for syndication into the news aggregator, links to that site in Daypop and other similar search engines, and links to automatically subscribe to the site via web based news aggregators. One of my favorite sections of the Newsisfree site is the "Latest Channels" portion which is updated daily and provides the newest feeds added to the database (ironically, I have yet to find an RSS feed for this section)

Newsisfree can also be used as an web-based news aggregator for subscribing to feeds that are situated in the site. One of the drawbacks of using a software-based aggregator as opposed to one that is web-based is that it will not be available from any computer except the one on which the software was downloaded into. Using the web-based aggregator via Newsisfree is available via any computer with an Internet connection, but does not have the options that are available to Newzcrawler. In addition, using Newsisfree as the aggregator means that you can only subscribe to feeds available from that site. There are more feeds available on the Web than those found on this site.

Syndic8 is another directory of RSS feeds which contains more content then Newsisfree (over 4,500 feeds) and is geared more towards the technological aspect of feeds I have found the database very useful when attempting to locate a feed for a particular site. Of particular interest is the categorization of the feeds in their directory. Users can browse feeds via subject headings used by the Open Directory Project, those by the Newsisfree directory, and those used in the directories provided by Headline Viewer. While these directories are useful for browsing purposes, they do not incorporate everything available via searching the Syndic8 database.

Syndic8 also allows users to submit URLs that already have feeds to be entered into the database and a "wish list" of sites that have yet to be "syndicated" (do not presently have a feed available for subscription). The search capabilities are more advanced than Newsisfree in that searchers can limit by the date the feed was created, approved, or changed as well as the status of the feed and type of software used to create the feed.

Like Star Trek and klingon, those who have been using RSS for a while use lingo that may be unfamiliar to the common Web user. For example, when something is "scraped", "ripped", "parsed", "syndicated", or "aggregated", this means that the content of a web page has been embedded into .xml format andreadable or being read by any news aggregator. If someone tells you to "RSSify" your site, you are being politely asked to create an RSS feed so that others can "subscribe" to it.

Authors of web sites that get updated on a daily basis can "RSSify" their site very easily (so easy, even an NTL like me can do it), by using one of many free web based products. Using Voidstar, one can have their feed ready in about 2 minutes by plugging the URL into the "RSSifying Machine" and a certain piece of code before and after each post. For those who use Blogger, "RSSifying" is much easier to use.

Librarians who strive to keep current with the latest news and trends in the field have started using feeds and readers to save time and organize materials. I have shaved off at least 2 hours of my daily research time for Library Stuff by receiving all of the content in one place. In the future, I hope to retrieve saved searches from the popular news engines like World News via RSS feeds and postings to listservs to which I subscribe.

I use feeds to help stay current. Others who have more knowledge of the inner workings of RSS can use feeds to deliver content to their constituencies, either via portals or collaborative weblogs. As for myself, I enjoy receiving feeds and updated sites on a consistent and up-to-date basis. I'll leave the rest up to the non-"NTLs"

Links Mentioned in this Article

Blogger

  • Link: http://www.blogger.com/

Daypop

  • Link: http://www.daypop.com/

Feedreader

  • Link: http://www.feedreader.com/

Headline News

  • Link: http://www.headlineviewer.com/

Newsisfree

  • Link: http://www.newsisfree.com/

Newsisfree directory

  • Link: http://www.syndic8.com/feedcat.php?Scheme=NIF

NewzCrawler

  • Link: http://www.newzcrawler.com/

Open Directory Project

  • Link: http://www.syndic8.com/feedcat.php?Scheme=DMOZ

Syndic8

  • Link: http://www.syndic8.com/

Voidstar

  • Link: http://www.voidstar.com/rssify.php

Webreference on RSS

  • Link: http://www.webreference.com/authoring/languages/xml/rss/