RSS and the Audience

I’m a dedicated RSS user and I’ve gone through the same process of embracing, evangelizing to lawyers, and failing to gain traction that I expect others have.  It’s not surprising to me that RSS appears to have submerged below the curation and aggregation chatter.  It’s hard to see where it’s used without looking under the hood. It makes me wonder about whether we’re matching the RSS input with what the audience wants to see.

Content tools like WordPress or SharePoint generate RSS feeds automatically (add /feed to a web site URL to see if one is there, like or  This is useful because you don’t want to have to create them manually (although you can) on your own sites and don’t want to have to try to scrape news to create your own on sites that don’t have them.

I can see visitors to my site using a variety of news readers – not what I would have termed content aggregation tools, like this list from the Knight Center for Journalism, which I also use to find information out of my normal filter bubble.  Folks on this blog are using tools like:

and a couple of Manzama users, although I can’t tell whether it’s RSS or an alert that sends them my way.  I use Tiny Tiny RSS.

Each of these tools strikes me, now, as middleware, although I did once think lawyers and others might use them directly as a regular item in their legal research toolbox.  Whether it’s the law librarian or the business development team, this is just the information acquisition role.  The ability to select and shift that information – curate it in the current parlance – into the audience workflow can be the trickiest step.

Tiny Tiny RSS has a publish function, so that I can select a news item and publish it to a page of selected items.  This is similar to things like Livefyre’s Storify or Twitter’s Moments, which enable any platform user to bridge the acquisition and selection roles and deliver the information.

In environments where the librarian has close information proximity to the audience – law firm, corporation, academic department – these publishing tools can be powerful.  Even just being able to generate a selection to appear in an intranet or SharePoint site widget for a practice page is a way to add value.

I struggle with this middleware challenge.  It’s easy enough to gather information and to shake out the chaff.  But there has to be someone at the delivery end – or else who are you selecting for?  The further away the librarian is – public libraries, courthouse law libraries – from the personal workflow of the audience, sharing this information effectively can be harder.  Re-blogs and re-tweets are, like this blog post, shouts out into the ether and the people who might be interested may not hear (or even know to listen).

That personalization and customization piece still seems to be the one that is the most difficult to figure out.  It’s not a technology issue – there are plenty of tools, from tailored discussion lists to portal widgets to e-mail alerts – so much as ensuring that the right end user has access in the way they desire to the information you provide.

I wonder if it’s partly an issue similar to railroad track gauges.  You’re traveling along one train line and then the train stops.  You get off, get on another train, and continue your trip.  The train change is required because one set of track is wider than the other.

RSS news aggregation, selection, and sharing is often a real-time experience: the news appears when it happens, the paper or case when it’s published, etc.  But lawyers and others may have a time-of-need research approach.  The delivery of the news item may be too early or too late as often as it’s just in time.

This junction of two research approaches may mean that some journeys aren’t completed; the change of trains breaks the workflow.  Data showing clickthrough – follow through – can help with the mechanics of this: scheduling to coincide with higher likelihood of visibility, one tool over another.  The question is really how to maximize the library time spent gathering information to make sure the greatest amount reaches the audience at the most useful time.


David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.