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Get Your Head Around: RSS Feeds
by Reba Leiding

RSS is one of the newest services available through the Internet. Even if you know about RSS feeds, you may not realize how you can use them to aid in your research.

RSS stands for a couple of different names, including “rich site summary” or “really simple syndication.”  You can think of RSS as a kind of automated news alert service. Many news sources offer RSS feeds, including BBC News.com, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio. Once you “subscribe” to the RSS feed (see below), headlines and summaries from news sites or blogs are directed to you. To find whether RSS is available from a news site, look for an orange button or other link on the web page. Orange RSS button

To get your head around the idea of RSS feeds, it might help to think of the “push – pull” dichotomy in Web technology. A traditional news web site like the New York Times is an example of a “pull” medium:  the well-known brand and strong reputation of the New York Times pull readers to the site. A local newpaper's website like the Daily News-Record pulls readers because it is the main online source for local news.

News alerts, on the other hand, are a “push medium.”  You can sign up for Google Alerts on particular topics, for example, and receive email notification of news items when they appear in one of the many news sources that Google monitors. Many library databases also offer an alerts feature (see for example Web of Science, Scopus, all CSA and Ebsco databases). You can register to get a message when new content is added based on keywords and preferences you have set. Think of RSS as a new automated way to get news updates.

You need something that will serve as a “mailbox” to receive the RSS feed. If you use the Mozilla Firefox browser, an easy way to keep track of a small number of RSS feeds is to display the feed as a bookmark on the browser's Bookmark Toolbar (see illustration below); to add the bookmark simply drag the orange icon from the news site to the toolbar.

Screen shot of Mozilla Bookmark Toolbar

Another way to receive RSS feeds is to register with a news reader or aggregator. You can find lots of readers on the Web. Some popular free or fee-based aggregators are Bloglines, AmphetaDesk, NewsFeed (go to http://www.2rss.com/readers.php or look RSS up in WikiPedia to find more). Using these readers, you can subscribe to Web feeds, whether from blogs you like to follow, or from established news organizations, and create a personalized portal for one-step shopping of updates of special interest to you. Bloglines has lists of popular news sources from which you can choose to build your personal list of RSS feeds.

Bloglines.com screen shot

The method for subscribing to a Web feed can vary somewhat depending on the particular reader you use. Usually you simply click on the orange RSS button and copy the feed's URL from the displayed page, then paste it into the reader.

Many newspaper executives had mixed feelings about offering their news content for free with RSS feeds, but most now realize that the popularity and convenience of RSS is a powerful way to reach and maintain regular readers. RSS feeds from news sites typically include brief headlines and lead sentences. When readers click on a story from the Washington Post, for example, they are taken to the article in the Post's web page.  This means increased traffic for the newspaper's web site.

Virginia.gov, the state's award-winning web site, offers RSS feeds on several topics such as Family and Education, or Virginia tourism, covered by the web site. Traffic on the web site increased dramatically since the new web site was launched just a few months ago.

Using RSS feeds for research:  Student and faculty researchers can use RSS feeds to stay informed on current topics. Some major news organizations like the BBC offer RSS on broad topics such as Technology. Or you can go to topix.net, a news aggregator that allows you to focus your news search by topic keyword, geographical area, or zip code. JMU Libraries' Shenandoah Valley Business Link uses topix.net to provide state and Harrisonburg area news.

Some observers think that keyword-specific feeds will be a coming trend. You can get a feel for how this works by going to Yahoo News (http://news.yahoo.com) and doing a search for a particular news topic, such as “stem cell research.”  You can then double-click on the little orange XML button near the bottom of the search results page. Simply copy the URL for the RSS feed from the page that appears, and add it to your bookmark toolbar or list of feeds on your Bloglines account.

Engineering Village 2 is the first of our library databases to add an RSS feature. If you search Engineering Village regularly on a particular topic, you can now use this RSS feature to get updates on your query in your RSS reader. Simply click on the little orange button that appears at the top of your query results screen; a new window opens that has the URL for the link to the RSS feed, and easy instructions to paste the link into your RSS reader. ProQuest has a number of RSS feeds based on business curriculum topics; these can be found at http://www.proquest.com/proquest/rss/rss.shtml . Look for other databases to move to this mode of alert service in the future, as a way cutting down on email clutter for users.

A word of warning:  for library databases, this technology may not be completely seamless. If you check your database RSS feeds from off-campus, you may run into authentication difficulties, because the database won't know you are affiliated with a library that has a subscription to the database.

Here's a list of sources for information on RSS:

RSS – A Quick Start Guide for Educators
by Will Richardson, www.weblogg-ed.com

RSS - A Primer for Publishers & Content Providers

Rich Site Services: Web Feeds for Extended Information and Library Services
by Gerry McKiernan, Science and Technology Librarian and Bibliographer at the Iowa University Library

A podcast from Minnesota Public Radio on RSS feeds and libraries

Wikipedia's entry on RSS offers a detailed history of the development of RSS technology, and includes a list of news aggregators.

Thanks to Mary Ann Chappell, Systems Librarian, for providing background and sources on RSS.


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