The Invisible World of RSS

RSS has remained a foundational information tool for me for well over a decade. Its light dimmed a little in the public view when Google killed off its Reader tool, and each successive RSS tool failure, like Digg’s just announced closure, suggests a narrowing of interest. But in reality, it thrives in the same way that e-books do, adapting in some areas and growing in others. Dedicated tools remain and offer opportunities to law librarians to implement their selection and access roles.

I won’t retread what RSS is. In many cases, the RSS newsfeed is something auto-generated by a site. But it’s easy for a law library to make their own (using Excel, for example) if they don’t have an automatic source. Most law librarians can hunt down plenty of RSS sources to use: blogs, court sites, primary legal information databases, Google Alerts, and so on. The question then becomes what do do with it all? If you’re like me and follow 100+ feeds, you’ve probably already thought about how best to access the steady news stream. Do you use a web-based tool? A mobile app? Both?

I also won’t retread what I use – Tiny Tiny RSS. I use it because it is a web-based tool, so I can access it in a web browser. It has a mobile app in case I want to check in that way. And most importantly, it has the ability for me to select items that I can share on a public page. A law firm or law library could run a system like Tiny Tiny and create its own, tailored feeds for lawyers and practice groups.

Under the Hood

One thing that struck me, post Google Reader ,was the shift towards news apps. Unlike a newsreader based on RSS, where you add your own sources, the news readers come pre-populated. I suspect it was because of an ad-like monetization of the information streams, because the apps seem to discourage customization. As the woman at Bob’s Country Bunker might say: we’ve got both kinds – country AND western! Apps that have this limitation provide a publisher silo’d view. That’s not inherently bad, but it means that the news flow is going to be pre-selected for you and I tend to use those apps for finding serendipitous information.

Typing an RSS URL into Google Play Newsstand will result in a bunch of rubbish topic suggestions.

Google’s Play Newsstand is a good example of this. It supported RSS feeds at first but if you try to add one now, it just suggests topics based on keywords in your RSS URL. Other than controlling which content – and which publishers are paying for that content – can be displayed in the app, I’m not sure why they’d do that. It’s not a technological issue.

Interestingly, Flipboard, an app that allows you to create your own magazine from its news sources, does allow you to populate it with RSS feeds as well. It’s not obvious how to do this, but if you

  • Explore Sources,
  • Select Search and paste in the URL to your feed, you should get an option to look at Social results (an otherwise unhelpful blue bar).
  • Click it. My experience was that the feed usually appeared here, and clicking the feed added it to the magazine.
A Flipboard magazine with RSS feeds from CanLII for Ontario case law, from Google Alerts, and from a (my) WordPress blog

Once added, you should be able to see all of your feeds. It’s not optimal – you can’t import an OPML feed from another service or from a colleague – because you have to add each feed one by one. However, it shows that, like a side-loaded e-book onto a Kindle, just because RSS isn’t visible, it may be an option.

Better – OPML-Compliant RSS Tools

The better approach for a researcher – legal professional or law librarian – is to have something allows you to move your knowledge base around. Once you’ve populated a reader, if you decide to move on to a new tool, you should be able to take your feeds with you. OPML is the XML file you can create that contains a list of all of your RSS feeds.

Zapier has a good, recent, rundown on RSS tools and makes a stab at which one is best for what type of functionality. Like post-Digg closure pieces on best (remaining) alternatives, it woefully undersells the variety of RSS tools you might be using.

Readers

Feedly is a common one and, for longevity, deserves a mention. People visiting my site use Feedly, Inoreader, and The Old Reader, among others. I’ve never used any of them but they all support import and export of OPML files.

But there are plenty of other RSS readers in the Google Play store, or over on F-Droid (or on this recent list from Opensource.com) if you prefer open source. Some haven’t been updated in ages but still work nicely. One example of these is News+, from noinnion (developers of the gReader app), which shows it was last updated in 2015. But it does a nice job of enabling input from a variety of RSS servers, so you can follow an account on Tiny Tiny RSS, for example, and another from Inoreader.

News+ with the Tiny Tiny RSS plugin, showing my server-based feed. News+ allows one free account but appears to have other hooks to bookmarking, clipping sites.

An open source reader called Feeder (not to be confused with Feeder.co) is rather ugly but useable, importing an OPML file and displaying results. It has the fewest features and is a good choice if you just want an app without a server feed.

Feeder, a free open source ad-free RSS reader

A far prettier, standalone app is Readify, which is an open source app available off Github or the Google Play store. It can import and export OPML files and seems to support more of the metadata that comes along with those files.

Readify RSS, not to be confused with the other Readify’s on the internet

It wouldn’t be right not to mention that Microsoft Outlook is an RSS reader that supports OPML import and export. Because of its ubiquitousness in law firms and legal environments, this may be the solution for you. However, having used it for awhile, I don’t think it’s a very good option if you have others to choose from. It’s the sort of half-baked approach Microsoft takes to information, unfortunately. Why not be able to share an RSS item from Outlook over to the law firm’s integrated SharePoint or Office 365 site? If it’s possible to do, I haven’t found it. However, if you are running a server that allows users to create a selected feed, displaying that on a law firm intranet or SharePoint site has some real value.

Servers

Personally, I prefer the server route. It means you’re not beholden to just an app, although you may be stuck with the app that goes with the server. As I said, I’ve used Tiny Tiny RSS for … a long time. But it’s hardly alone in the free, open source aggregator server world. FreshRSS is another one that uses standard LAMP/WAMP technology and can be read in any browser, mobile or not. Because it supports the original Google Reader API, any RSS reader app that supports it (News+ is one) can be used to access the server.

Both support multiple users, so you can have more than one law librarian using the tool and contributing to a shared stream of selected content. Both are extremely lightweight, so they are easy to setup and maintain. If you want more than one way to look at your feeds, or more than one person to contribute, an RSS or aggregator server is a great option.

Upshot

Every time we hear of the demise of an RSS provider, it seems to suggest that this information tool is diminished or dying. It may be for the average consumer who would rather get their news from MySpaceBookGram. But law librarians and other researchers can benefit from the very healthy world of RSS tools. Law librarians can go beyond by taking the information they’re selecting and making it available to the people they provide legal research services to.

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.