An Introduction to RSS
Michael Sauers
as published in Business Information Alert,
August 2003

Think about all the Web sites that you access weekly, daily, or hourly to collect up-to-date information on a topic. These sites might be major news sites, such as CNN or MSNBC, or they could be less formal — the millions of blogs on the Web on all conceivable topics. If you are not taking advantage of what RSS has to offer, and I am working from the assumption that you are not, then you, no doubt, have bookmarks for each of those sites. You access them one by one, looking for what might have been added to the page since the last time you checked. Needless to say, this is not efficient use of your time. 

What if you could be automatically notified when new articles appear on sites you are monitoring? You would no longer have to check those sites daily. 

RSS, one of the newest technologies on the Internet, gives you the ability to automatically receive headlines from Web sites. By accessing an RSS file through a special piece of software known as a feed reader, you can be automatically notified when new articles appear on that site.

Whether you are told that RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or for RDF Site Summary, RSS is a language that can no longer be ignored. The purpose behind RSS is to give web authors the ability to syndicate their content. With this ability they create feeds and users can use these feeds to monitor Web sites for updated information. Before I describe exactly how to take advantage of RSS, let me give you a brief overview of the technology itself. 

The Technology

RSS is an XML-based (eXtensible Markup Language) language used to describe the content of an article. Another way to describe an RSS file is that it is just raw meta-data (data about data) about a particular document. If you have created a Web page, you should be familiar with the <meta> tag. This meta-data usually includes information such as a brief description of the document and keywords that should be used to index the document. RSS takes that to the next level. 

Depending on the version of RSS being used, the file may contain different amounts of information. There are currently four different and somewhat competing versions of RSS being used on the Web: 0.91, 0.92, 1.0 and 2.0. For a good discussion of the differences I suggest you pick up a copy of Content Syndication with RSS by Ben Hammersley.

RSS Files Examined

Here is an example of a simple RSS file (more recent versions of RSS allow for more information to be included within the file but this one will serve our purposes):

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
<rss version="0.91">
    <title>BCR Online</title> 
    <description>The Bibliographical Center for Research (BCR) is 
    organized as a nonprofit corporation to assist in the effective
    and economical delivery of high-quality library and information 
    <copyright>Copyright 2003, BCR</copyright> 
    <rating /> 
    <pubDate>Fri, 25 Apr 03 03:03:00 GMT</pubDate> 
    <lastBuildDate>Tue, 10 Jun 03 19:24:00 GMT</lastBuildDate> 
      <title>BCR Online</title> 
      <description /> 
      <title>Price List, Prepaid Subscription Packet Mailed</title> 
      <description>Directors of BCR member libraries should have 
      received the 2003-2004 fiscal year BCR Price List and prepaid 
      subscription packet. The deadline for prepaying your annual 
      BCR subscription is July 25.</description> 

Let’s break down this file:

Why Use RSS 

An RSS file can be created to point users to just about anything on the Web. In this example, the RSS items point to pages on the BCR site that we wish to make sure people are aware of. These articles are also highlighted on our homepage. In the case of blogs, we may use RSS files to point users to every new posting as it appears.

RSS files can be generated through an automated process, via a PERL script for example, or “hand rolled,” typed manually as the need arises. (For more information on creating RSS files, especially through automated processes, I again point you to Ben Hammersley’s excellent book.)

All of this technical information is interesting, but how does it affect you as end-user researchers? Well, as I alluded to in the introduction to this article, it makes your ability to keep up-to-date on web sites that you track much easier.

Getting a Feed

In order to take advantage of this wonderful technology, the first thing you need is RSS feed reader software. My current favorite is NewsGator ( which costs $29 but integrates directly into Microsoft Outlook, which I use as my mail client and calendar. If you’d like to start out with a simpler (and free) program, I recommend FeedReader (

Think about all the Web sites that you access weekly, daily, or hourly to collect up-to-date information on a topic.

Once you’ve installed reader software, the next step is to find an RSS feed. This can be done several ways. The most direct is to go to one of the sites you monitor and see if a feed is available. In many cases, sites display a small orange icon labeled “XML” to indicate that a feed is available.

Typically, this icon also links to the RSS file itself. Once you have found the URL for the RSS file, you subscribe to it following the directions from your software. NewsGator, allows me to right-click on the link to the RSS feed and select “subscribe” in NewsGator. In most of the more-powerful programs, it is about that simple.

Although RSS feeds originated in the blog world, more and more major sites are offering RSS feeds every day. For example, earlier in 2003 CNET started offering them. If your favorite sites don’t offer them, e-mail site authors and suggest that they consider adding one, since it can benefit the site by bringing in more traffic. 

There is a way to get RSS feeds from sites that don’t officially support them. Take a look at MyRSS ( This site offers a service that creates RSS feeds out of web pages that don’t have them. I have tried this a few times with mixed results. Depending on how the site is coded, some work better than others. You are better off getting a site owner to create an RSS file, but the MyRSS service can work in a pinch.

. . . to take advantage of this wonderful technology, the first thing you need is RSS feed reader software. 

If you don’t have a site in mind, or the site you want doesn’t have a RSS feed, there are sites available that provide subject-based directories to existing RSS feeds. The largest one today is A quick search on “libraries” found more than 25 available feeds.

Once you have subscribed to a feed, you tell the reader program how often you would like it to check the RSS file. The available time frames vary from program to program, but usually range from once every 15 minutes to once every 24 hours. I recommend setting this to the longer end of the spectrum, since every time the program re-checks the RSS file, it is hitting the server at the other end, which can cause problems and slow-downs if everyone is hitting a popular feed every 15 minutes.

All you need to do then is sit back and wait for the news to come in. The first time the program checks a feed, all of the items in the RSS file will be considered “new.” Typically, you will be provided with some sort of on-screen alert that new items are available for you to read. You then open your reader and take a look. When you select one of your subscribed feeds you will be presented with a list of headlines, which are the item titles from the RSS file. When you select a headline, the item description and the link to the full document will be presented. If you wish to read the full article, click on the link and the document will be retrieved. In some cases the document will be displayed within your reader software; in others it will be opened in your browser. Again, this functionality varies from program to program. NewsGator does everything within Outlook, so it doesn’t even seem like I have additional software on my computer.

. . . sit back and wait for the news to come in.

From that point on, based on the update schedule you set, your software will re-check the RSS files and alert you to any new items that have appeared in the RSS file. It couldn’t be easier.

Popular library-related RSS Feeds:

Additionally, I have discovered a few very interesting uses of RSS that might interest you. In each of these cases individuals have created ways to harness RSS feeds so as to provide you with information of your choosing. Each of them allows you to enter search terms that will be returned to you via a subscribe-able RSS file. 

Michael Sauers is the Internet Trainer for the Bibliographical Center for Research in Aurora, Colorado. His e mail address is: