:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Feed Your Head: Keeping Up by Using RSS


   Keeping up has never been easy, although we can probably be forgiven if
   we think it is harder today. From print magazines to journals, from
   electronic discussion lists to web logs, there seem to be more sources
   of information than ever. Wouldn't it be nice if you could filter all
   this stuff and receive brief notes for what interests you?

   The idea of a current awareness service is nothing new. What is new is
   that recent web-based technologies have made it easier to discover and
   subscribe to these services and to create and manage them. But the
   potential for these technologies is not limited to individual
   notification. They are increasingly used for other functions, such as
   automatically updating web sites.
   How it works

   The linchpin technology is RSS, variously described as "RDF Site
   Summary" (referring to the Resource Description Framework), "Rich Site
   Summary," and "Really Simple Syndication." But RSS, as used on most
   sites, has nothing to do with RDF. It is a very simple XML syntax for
   describing a "channel" or "feed" of information that consists of
   "items" (e.g., news items) with titles and URLs.

   In fact, that's just about the whole thing. Each channel is required to
   have a "title," a "link" (URL), and a "description." Other tags are
   optional (for the complete spec see RSS 2.0). Each channel has one or
   more items, of which only a title or description is mandatory, although
   most items typically have a title, link, and description (often
   commentary rather than true description). There are optional fields for
   each item, but simplicity in production and use is one of its strong

   Feeds are typically read through an "aggregator," which allows the
   informaton to be presented in a variety of ways. Feeds can be either
   web-based or special client software. Client software is available for
   all platforms, and Peter Scott's web page "RSS Readers" lists the
   options. With client software you can subscribe to feeds and have them
   automatically updated when starting up the client. Steven Cohen's
   article "RSS for Non-Techie Librarians" is a good introduction to
   readers and their uses. Web-based aggregators do not require the
   downloading of special client software, but options for interacting
   with the feeds are fewer.

   Finding & searching

   So how do you find feeds that interest you? One way is by serendipity,
   which may happen when visiting a web site and seeing an orange "XML" or
   "RSS" button placed on the page--an indication that an RSS feed is
   available. But a more systematic way is to visit one or more web-based
   aggregators--no client software required--that bring together a variety
   of feeds. A web-based aggregator useful for librarians is LIS Feeds,
   which offers a simple-to-use web-based interface for reading feeds from
   library-related sources. General purpose aggregators include sites like and One good way to find feeds is to use
   feed searching sites to search your favorite topics, then look for
   sites with information of interest.

   You can search feeds at and, which acts in
   a similar way to Google. Apparently, also indexes
   Newsisfree. com, since hits from that site appear as well. The search
   results include a link to the feed that provides the news item, as well
   as options to see all items from that feed, just the links and titles,
   or the raw RSS.
   Roll your own

   Where it gets really interesting is using RSS to update web sites
   automatically. Jonathan Eisenzopf, in "Making Headlines with RSS,"
   offers a Perl module for both maintaining and using (as in a web site)
   RSS feeds (XML::RSS, dependent upon XML::Parser). Imagine creating an
   RSS feed of new books arriving at your library. You could allow users
   to subscribe to this feed and use it to highlight new books on the
   front page of your web site. Once the basic Perl (or PHP, or other
   scripting language) is in place, you sit back and do nothing. Now
   that's my kind of assignment!

   Of course, creating your own RSS has potential problems. But that is
   what validators are for. These software programs--often available
   through web submission--check your syntax for errors. RSS is no
   different; there is a web site to make sure your RSS is valid according
   to the specification (see the "RSS Validator").

   RSS is a low-overhead way to provide current awareness services within
   a digital library environment. The XML syntax is brain-dead easy while
   the software is freely available. We are just beginning to explore how
   to integrate it into library services.

Link List

   Introduction to RSS

   LIS Feeds

   Making Headlines with RSS

   RSS 2.0

   RSS for Non-Techie Librarians

   RSS Readers

   RSS Validator