Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 13: November 2004


Perspective

RSS and Multimodes Revisited

Let’s not get into the expansion of “RSS” or why anyone should care. We may be past the days when “RSS bigots” were proclaiming that if something wasn’t available in an RSS feed, it didn’t exist as far as they were concerned. Back when certain younger library movers and shakers were making such pronouncements, I varied between disbelief and sadness. Disbelief: I did not believe that those people really get all their information via RSS feeds. Sadness: To limit yourself to any one technique, and to insist that others produce their output in a way that suits your preferences, is self-destructive arrogance. It’s sad to see anyone limit their own vista on the world by such narrow-mindedness.

Back then, I didn’t use RSS—which is to say, I didn’t have an aggregator. Why not? Well, I couldn’t see adding yet another piece of software; I had a short list of bookmarked weblogs and similar sites that I checked daily, with a somewhat longer list checked less frequently; and I cared about context.

Jessamyn West, the rarin’ librarian of librarian.net, had been slow on the RSS uptake as well—a different case, since West was one of the first librarians to start a weblog. On January 28, she posted a commentary on her experiences in finally trying an RSS aggregator. Ignoring what’s probably the more important part of that post (where she talks about using RSS to serve public library patrons, particularly ones needing special assistance), I’ll quote some of the key paragraph:

So I’ve been messing around with my RSS aggregator for the better part of a day now and I have this to say: I enjoy reading sites in the aggregator whose only [or main] function is to provide content. In fact, in some instances reading blogs this way allows me to avoid some very busy pages and just read all their content as black on white text with nice blue links. This is great for news sites, pretty good for most blogs, and downright disturbing for more arty sites where the design is really part of the content, or accentuates the content in some important way…

I sent Jessamyn appreciative email, the more pointed since I started trying out Bloglines in January—after all, it’s just another website, so there was no software and I could synchronize sites between home and work. My comment at the time was, “I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. (Already, I conclude that it doesn’t work well for context-heavy weblogs such as yours, mamamusings, LISNews).”

She responded with a note that she figured she was becoming a dinosaur not knowing anything about it (I know that feeling!)—and that it was great for “ugly sites or sites without too much back and forth.” On the other hand, “and this is a big other hand…it removes the rest of the site from the context of the news.” You don’t see the number of comments; you don’t see sidebars; you don’t see much of anything except the new stories. “I like to think of my site as more than a blog and I worry that people who learn about it and experience it only through an aggregator will miss out on some of the special stuff I have to offer…” West also gets tired of “new gadget” zealotry (I may not share her politics, but we have a lot in common).

My response to that—correct at the time: “For me, Bloglines is ideal for low-volume weblogs and those I’m not sure I care about…and, as you say, really ugly ones. Otherwise, I’m already starting to pull stuff back out of the feeds and into my Favorites list. Unfortunately, one weblog that I find interesting but is remarkably ugly, black on dark grey, is also highly unlikely to have an RSS feed, since it’s entirely hand-crafted HTML, I believe. … I find that I’m worrying less and less about looking like a dinosaur as time goes on. It helps that some of the great technophiles out there (Cory Doctorow but also others) are commenting on the growing irrelevance of the toys themselves.” I added as a footnote that I was still contemplating a blog for the stuff that doesn’t fit in C&I, but finding that contemplation less interesting as time goes on.

A few days later, there was a three-way conversation involving the Two Stevens and yours truly. I looked at Cohen’s PowerPoint presentation on RSS, noted that there was a slide about negative aspects, and noted that Jessamyn and I—“who are very different types in general”—seemed to be reaching similar conclusions about the usefulness of aggregators for us: neither to shun them nor to make them all encompassing. I wondered why that was. Cohen responded: “It’s because you both look at web pages in the same way. You see web pages as not just content. I only see web pages as pure content. At least, that’s how I want to view web pages as they relate to RSS.” Steven Bell popped in with a note about a Chronicle of Higher Education article citing an RSS expert who was, typically, badly informed as to how libraries work. I added another comment: “Your perception is interesting—and could be cited as a reason not to use RSS, at least some of the time: Some of us really, truly feel that you lose a lot in treating all web pages as pure content.”

The Reality

I’ll stand by that statement—but I should also tell the truth. I now monitor librarian.net via Bloglines, just as I do Library Stuff and 89 other sites (almost all of them weblogs). Admittedly, two of those are special cases: My recently-installed C&I Alerts weblog that really exists only so people can use the Atom/RSS feed to be notified of new issues, and—because of an interesting Bloglines feature—my own “blog lite,” my journal at LISNews. That feature: When you click on a feed, you see how many Bloglines subscribers subscribe, which is a rough measure of your popularity in the “blogosphere.”

I do feel the loss of context in some cases. That’s true for librarian.net. It’s probably true for a number of other weblogs. I get some context back because I’ll click through to the native weblog for stories that might have comments or stories that don’t show up with full text, but I probably miss a lot. In a number of cases, I also miss the horror of trying to read white text on a black background or small type on some over-designed page.

I don’t use Bloglines for everything and don’t intend to. Yes, I’ve moved most of those weblogs back from Favorites to Bloglines and added quite a few more. But I still deal with LISNews and its journals on their own merits; I still check mamamusings directly; I don’t use RSS for news or much of anything outside weblogs (my primary news source is still dropped on the driveway around 4:30 a.m. every morning, and I plan to keep it that way).

I use Bloglines for three reasons:

Ø    It spares me the horrors of overdesigned weblogs.

Ø    It is a lot more efficient—yes, Steven C., you’re right on that one. The daily blog crawl that used to take 45 minutes for 20-30 weblogs now takes 10 minutes for 90.

Ø    Most important, it lets me follow some 50 library weblogs that aren’t very active—a growing trend—but worth hearing from when the bloggers have something to say. I’d strike most of those from a Favorites list because they’re too much trouble.

I still worry about context. I still believe a multifaceted online (and offline) information regimen makes more sense than wanting to funnel everything through one resource. I wonder how Bloglines makes money, but that’s a different issue.

The day I wrote this essay, Bloglines added another new feature that’s delightful and also a little troublesome. To wit, I can (and did) set an option so that, when I open Bloglines, the only sites I’ll see are ones with new material. (That doesn’t always mean new material; I’ve noticed that some sites suddenly show 6 or 8 old stories as renewed, for no apparent reason.) Add that to the wonderful feature that lets me set one story as “new” to get back to it later, instead of having to mark a whole set of stories as unread, and it’s a nice tool.

The digerati will tell me I’m missing out on all sorts of other things—“delicious” with odd punctuation, for example, as well as “technorati” and its ilk. I suppose I am. Life is short.

Multimode?

In some ways, these ruminations are another “multimode” comment: Aggregators make sense some of the time; so does visiting specific web sites; so does email; so (for many people) does IM; so do books, newspapers, magazines and face-to-face contact. Karen Schneider recently posted an entry at Free Range Librarian inspired by an entry at It’s All Good, the latter including this note about library staff: “I had lost sight of the fact that we need all kinds of people in our libraries.” (“I” in this case doesn’t refer to Karen.) Karen comments:

Many of us are already “all kinds of people.” I have many modes when I am not expecting or desiring digital services, even when others expect me to prefer them. I already started a kerfluffle on Web4Lib when I talked about how I prefer to be an “analog” student and instructor. Online teaching, in both directions, teacher and student, is my least-preferred method for learning. I learn much more efficiently in a physical classroom, with a flesh-and-blood instructor, a small community of students, my pen scratching away on a paper tablet. But I understand that all kinds of learning are good. (It’s All Good, right?)

I won’t quote the whole entry, but she goes on to say that she likes browsing books on shelves—and at times just wants the information, in whatever form. She thinks she’s a better professional for having all of these sides—“Analog Karen, Digital Karen, and the Techno-Analog Remix Karen”—and thinks librarians need that ecumenicism to truly serve their communities. “A librarian providing storytime for toddlers doesn’t need to be able to be able to understand the innards of the OAI protocol. But she does need to appreciate and respect the role in library services of those who do. That works the other way, as well.”

There’s more—and it would be an insult to Karen to say I couldn’t have said it any better. In truth, I couldn’t have said it as well.

Shortly after I wrote the above, the Librarian In Black added her own comment, “Techno-analog remix librarian.” She’s a “techie librarian” and seems to get comments about not working the desk or failing to understand that reference books are sometimes faster than the web. “Pshaw! I work the desk about 5 hours a week, a condition for me continuing as an e-Services Librarian.” She believes every librarian should spend time on the desk to stay in touch with reality. And she gives a specific case where she understood the power of print: Trying to answer a virtual reference question on the difference between two types of a specific car model. “The manufacturer’s website didn’t help whatsoever, so I ran out and got our Chilton’s.”

I take slight issue with her final paragraph, at least in the real world and within larger libraries, although I believe she’s right in principle and for most smaller libraries:

Every librarian needs to be both analog and digital. Having two analog librarians and two digital librarians on staff isn’t going to help you, unless you have one of each staffing the desk at all times. We all need to be “multi-mode”; we all need to have skills in both areas. Welcome to the world of modern librarianship.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 13, Whole Issue 55, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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