Since my office started offering RSS feeds of Harvard University Gazette headlines, we’ve been getting about one inquiry a week from someone who doesn’t know what RSS is or how to use the feeds. Since I’m the office’s expert on the technology, handling these e-mails has become part of my job.
I realized I know about lots of sources that are appropriate to use when explaining to information professionals/librarians what XML feeds are, like Gerry McKiernan’s Rich Site Services General Bibliography or the weblog RSS4Lib, but I don’t know much about what would be good to recommend to the general public.
After digging around quickly, I came up with a few links:
RSS / Atom and Content Syndication at About.com
What is RSS? from xml.com
Wikipedia’s What’s RSS?, RSS (file format), and
List of news aggregators
I found other sites that I excluded because they were written for people considering syndicating content or were much too technical. I hesitate a little to recommend Wikipedia to others, though, when I’m at work because of the controversy about the source. I read the entries again to make sure there were no glaring errors or inaccuracies I could catch. They’re quite good. What’s RSS? is much less techie than RSS (file format). The list of news readers is one of the most comprehensive on the Web that I’ve seen. The About.com article has some flaws, so likewise, I hesitated before including it.
One of the things I noticed while looking for a good lay person’s explanation is how difficult it is to find one. The xml.com piece is very technical. I’m considering possibly writing another line or two of text for the RSS page to make it clear to those not in the know that you may need another piece of software to interpret the XML feeds–some kind of feed reader–but I’d still like to be able to point inquirers to a longer, more thorough introductory document that’s easy to understand.*
It would be horribly inappropriate for me to write something in this space and then suggest it to people who write to me at work for help.
One thing I’m learning is that it’s still early in the game. Making feeds available means we’re educating people about RSS and aggregators as well as just providing feeds of our content. We’re becoming advocates for the technology, not just enabling people who already use it.
Addendum: *One of my blog readers wrote to remind me that some Web browsers do handle XML feeds, so I added the word "may" to this sentence per his request. Thanks for the correction!