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In 1731 an Englishman by the name of Edward Cave devised a new business model. It was, at the time, a wholly original idea, most likely born out of his experience working in the London Post Office. He took selected articles printed in books and newspapers — which by then were an old idea, having been around for six score years — and repackaged them into a bound set of pages and advertised them for home delivery via the post. Since Cave saw his enterprise as a “storehouse” of articles and poetry relevant to the educated man of his day, he used a synonym for storehouse in naming his publication — The Gentleman’s Magazine.
His endeavor was successful. In time, Cave — publishing under the more literary pen name “Sylvanus Urban” — collected a stable of writers who would submit original work as well. An industry — and a new meaning for a word, now more widely used than the original — was born. The Gentleman’s Magazine is widely referenced as the first periodical magazine (Bond, pgs. 85-86).
It was also, in many ways, the first RSS Feed Reader. After all, Cave was taking articles, essays and poems you might find elsewhere and collecting them in one place — and delivering them to your door. Sure, 268 years may have passed between the first issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine and the invention of RSS Feeds by Netscape in 1999 (Farkas, pg. 50), but the idea remains unchanged, only modified by the technology available in this day and age. The Reader is a magazine, custom tailored by each individual “subscriber”.
And a powerful technology it is. It is one of the primary engines of the internet, feeding content into countless aggregators and custom pages (such as My Yahoo! or Google News). Web-surfers browse across RSS Feeds daily without even knowing it.
My first witting foray in RSS Feeds was the use of Google Reader. It was one of many tabs on the top of my gmail page that I never used, until I saw a friend reference it in her blog. Using Google Reader was easy and immediately appealing, as I had about thirty blogs already bookmarked. I simply cut and pasted the relevant URLs into the Google Reader, and voilà, the blogs came to me whenever they were updated.
However, the “power” comes in the form of slicing and dicing the information as desired. If I subscribe to a newspaper, I receive (and pay for) the whole thing. What if I only read the sports section, the comics, and the letters to the editor? Can I pay less, and only get those pages? No. But with an RSS Reader, I can do the equivalent. I can subscribe to a search string on a specific aggregator; I can subscribe to a folksonomic tag on flickr.
Meredith Farkas lays out a number of methods libraries can harness this tool to better serve patrons. A few of her examples:
- The University of Alberta provides RSS feeds on new titles organized by library and subject;
- Seattle Public Library uses RSS Feeds to create dynamic reading lists tailored to a patron’s individual interests;
- Hennepin County Public Library (MN) has search feeds for not only its catalog but also for events and classes (Farkas, pgs. 56-58).
RSS feeds are an old idea reinvented; a new technology mimicking a centuries old concept. What worked to make Edward Cave a fortune now makes the internet hum. Learning to use these tools — both as an individual pursuing information, and as an information professional looking to share it — is vital. The Gentleman’s Magazine may have ceased publishing in 1907, but it had a good long run — and so will Really Simple Syndication.
Bond, D.F. (1940). Review: The Gentleman’s Magazine. Modern Philology 38 (1), pg. 85-100.
Farkas, M.G. (2007). Social software in libraries. Medford: Information Today, Inc.