Tuesday, March 9, 2010

RSS Feeds and Periodical Databases

Those little square orange boxes with the radiating white rings, the symbol for RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication), have quietly advanced over much of the internet. RSS ennables the automatic gathering of the latest updates to online news sources, blogs, and other websites. Once established, the user may view their personal collection of RSS feeds in one place, such as: Bloglines, My Yahoo!, and Google reader, or browser customization, such as Live Bookmarks in Mozilla Firefox.

However, making use of RSS feeds in an academic setting is not necessarily seamless. Users who wish to access RSS feeds of scholarly journals and subscription news publications may be faced with several hurdles:

  1. The publishers of many scholarly journals provide RSS feeds of the table of contents of their most recent issues. The logical next step is to want to go directly to the full text of a featured article. However, RSS feeds obtained directly through a publisher/journal website (or through a service such as
    ticTOCs Journal Table of Contents service), are likely to require either a paid subscription to the journal, or payment for the individual article, when the user follows the link to an article. The user then has to check to see if their university/college library has access to the journal, and assuming the answer is yes, the user must go through the library's system to reach the journal.

  2. Many periodical databases offer 'journal alerts' (or RSS feeds of the most recent table of contents) for the journals contained in their databases. Theses alerts may be sent to an email address (where they may rapidly fill up an email box with new mail), or the user may subscribe to the alerts as an RSS feed. However, when users capture the feed URL and put it into a feed reader, they may receive an error message. This is because the URL code for feeds obtained through a periodical
    database are likely to include code that includes the library's proxy server (the system by which libraries authenticate their current students and faculty.) One solution is for the user to identify and delete the portions of the URL which designate the proxy. The RSS feed should then be legible to the feed reader, and as long as the links to the individual articles remain proxyized, then the user should also be able to reach the full text of the article, once (s)he is verified as a current student or faculty.

For example, to create a journal alert RSS feed for the journal Computers in Libraries, one could do the following:

  • Check the online catalog, or the Electronic Journals List to see if the journal is contained in any of the periodical databases that the library subscribes to. This journal is available through several databases. For this example, the Ebsco database Academic Search Complete was chosen.

  • From the record for that journal in Academic Search Complete, click on the Alert/Save/Share link.

  • Choose "Create an Alert" from the pop-up screen.

  • Copy the RSS Feed URL.

  • Before you submit the URL to your feed reader, edit out the parts of the URL that refer to the proxy server. A feed URL that started out as:


    will be changed to:


    The initial 0- (zero hyphen) and the .library.law.suffolk.edu are removed.

  • The advantage to using the Ebsco databases as a source for an RSS feed, is that the links to the individual articles retain the proxy code, thus enabling users to reach the articles from off campus through the usual authentication procedures.

Many periodical databases, notably Ebsco and Gale Cengage, offer 'Search Alerts' whereby a search strategy can be saved and captured as an RSS feed. All of the same problems (and possible solution) that 'journal alerts' have apply here as well: users must remove the proxy parts of the feed URL in order for a feed reader to properly interpret the code.

With a little bit of initial effort, RSS feeds can be an effective way of keeping current with specific publications and/or customized search topics. And for those who are willing to invest some extra effort, there are services such as Yahoo! Pipes that ennable the creation of
'mash-ups' of multiple RSS feeds into a single feed. There is a truely excellent post about this using Pipes on the Library TechTalk blog, by Michael Shochet, a Systems/Reference Librarian at the University of Baltimore.

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