RSS – The Swiss Army Knife of the Internet

You will find several meanings for the acronym RSS – I stick to “Really Simple Syndication”. RSS is being used to distribute information. In contrast to HTML web pages or PDF documents, RSS-style information can be easily managed, manipulated, mixed or re-arranged and allows therefore for the syndication and synchronization of web pages.

RSS has experienced a widespread use in the last years. It is unique in contrast to other forms of web-based information such as HTML, Flash or PDF because you can subscribe to it. RSS is based on XML and, according to Wikipedia, it is one of the first applications of the Semantic Web. After the advent of desktop publishing in the 80s and the web pages in the 90s, RSS is considered the most important Internet technology of the 2000s. With RSS it is possible to control the flow of information far more effectively than with E-mail: with a click of the mouse you can subscribe/unsubscribe and so determine which information is “fed” to your desktop. RSS has become commonly used for dissemination of information in the scientific setting too. Some examples include:

  • RSS feeds of newspapers, news and broadcasting agencies such as the Nature news feeds (1), Reuters consumer health eLine service (2), Yahoo health news (3) (with in depth subject categories) or the feeds from the National Library of Medicine, USA (4);
  • PubMed searches can be subscribed as RSS feeds as well;
  • scientific journals offer table of content services via RSS;
  • libraries use RSS to inform their customers on opening hours, new services or acquisitions.

If you are looking for a directory of 6,000 medical RSS feeds, give Medworm a chance (5).

RSS feeds can be read by modern browsers, but to make the most out of RSS you should use a RSS reader such as Bloglines or Google reader. Please note that frequently RSS readers allow the up – and download of RSS feeds as socalled OPML files. This universal archiving format makes it easy to down- and upload comprehensive lists of RSS feeds.

How to create your own RSS feeds?
The easiest way to offer your own RSS feeds is to write a blog at platforms such as wordpress.com or blogger.org. These services automatically generate RSS feeds of your blog entries. So even if you do not promote the weblog as such, you could offer a RSS feed of the entries.

How to publish other people’s RSS feeds?
Because of the universal nature of RSS you can embed RSS feeds in any web page you like. For instance, the Google reader allows not only for easy reading of RSS feeds, but also for remixing und republishing them. Go to “Manage Subscriptions” and assign a folder name to some of the feeds you have subscribed to. You can choose from existing folders or create new ones.
Each feed can be assigned to more than one folder. Once this is done, go to “Folders and Tags” where you will find your folders listed with three options:

  1. public page;
  2. e-mail link;
  3. add a clip to your site.

The “public page” lists all entries of the specific folders on a dedicated web page. The second lets you mail around the link to this page, and the third provides you with a HTML code, which you can embed in any web page you like. This code creates a window or a box with the collected news entries from the very folder you have chosen – whether it contains one RSS feed or hundreds. They are nicely sorted by date and you can choose from a number of layouts. The German Central Medical Library shows on its homepage an example of such a “news box”. You will find another example at the sidebar of the blog of NVB-BMI (6).

With this method you can easily enhance your library’s homepage or your blog with additional information which are updated dynamically without any further involvement of you. At our campus we promote two such news feeds:

  • a feed of ongoing activities in our faculty, merged from news items from the university clinic, the Dean, the students and the library;
  • a feed of medical news from all over Germany, merged from various resources such as scientific newspapers, blogs, and press agencies.

Our customers love this kind of service because previously they had to monitor dozens of web pages to find the information we now offer all in one place.

1. http://www.nature.com/webfeeds/
2. http://www.reutershealth.com/eline.rss
3. http://health.yahoo.com/news/rss/
4. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/listserv/rss_podcasts.html
5. http://www.medworm.com
6. http://biomedbiblog.blogse.nl

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