23 Things for Archivists

Thing 4: RSS and RSS Feedreaders

By Kate Theimer

RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication” and that’s basically what it is. RSS is one of the essential building blocks that makes practically everything “Web 2.0” work. It enables people who create Web content to establish a “feed” for it, to which interested users can subscribe, meaning that they are automatically notified when new content is available. This video provides a good overview of what RSS does and how feedreaders work:

Or, in more technical terms (taken from the Wikipedia article) RSS is:

a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format. An RSS document (which is called a “feed”, “web feed”, or “channel”) includes full or summarized text, plus metadata such as publishing dates and authorship.

You can create an RSS feed for Web 2.0 products you create, like blogs, podcasts, or your Twitter account. When you visit sites like blogs, popular news sites, or virtually any kind of Web site that updates its content, you will probably see options for subscribing (as shown in the video).

To conveniently manage and read the content you subscribe to, you will want to set up an account with a “feed reader” (also known as “feed aggregator,” “news reader,” RSS reader,” or simply “aggregator”). These readers collect the latest information from the feeds you subscribe to, and then provide the updates to you in an easy to use interface.

RSS technology makes it possible for anyone to keep up with fresh content without having to visit the site in question. Now the same holds for webpages without RSS thanks to a new Google Reader feature.  Google has rolled out a subtle change to Google Reader that lets you create custom feeds to track pages that don’t already have them. So you can subscribe to updates for any webpage simply by typing the URL into the “Add a subscription” text box. Should you put the new feature to work, you’ll start to receive short snippets for any updates made to the pages, and Google asserts that it’s committed to improving the quality of these tiny blurbs over time. On the flip side, webpage owners can choose to opt out by adjusting a few lines of code.


  1. Set up an account with GoogleReader. If you already have a Gmail or Google account, you basically already have a GoogleReader account waiting for you. If you are using Gmail, just click on the word “Reader” up at the top left of the Gmail page and follow the directions they give you. 
  2. Now, find some things to subscribe to with your new account.  You’ll find there are two ways to do that. As they described in the video, on most sites, you’ll see the RSS symbol somewhere on the site and/or the words “Subscribe.” Once you click on it, you’ll see a dropdown menu that lets you select what tool you want to use for your subscription. The other way to subscribe to almost anything is to add the subscription from your feedreader, which requires you to paste in the URL for the site (under “Add a Subscription” to Google Reader). You can add subscriptions for some of the other participant’s blogs, archives blogs, news sources, or anything that has an RSS feed.  Every time you access your reader you will see any new content that has been posted since you last visited it (although there may be a short delay between the time the information is posted and the time your feed reader picks it up).

Advanced Task

  • Already have an RSS feedreader account?  Look at Yahoo Pipes and set up a Pipe for something you are interested in.

Blog Prompts

  • Describe what you thought of the process of setting up a feedreader.
  • Talk about some of the things you’ve chosen to subscribe to and why you chose them.


  1. […] Thing 4 basically says what I just did– RSS “enables people who create Web content to establish a “feed” for it, to which interested users can subscribe, meaning that they are automatically notified when new content is available.” (I think saying that it makes practically everything Web 2.0 work may be a bit of an oversell, but undoubtedly my internet life is improved since I started using it.) At this point, the RAO folks just want their participants to follow feeds rather than to create their own, which is probably for the best– RSS feeds involve XML and markup and all sorts of icky stuff that you want to leave to your blog platform if you can. (At one point I tried to create a feed for the UWM Records Management homepage– that lasted for all of about 3 months.) I can’t speak to the ease of creating a Google Reader account or adding feeds, since I do it on a fairly regular basis (RIP Bloglines), but I will note again that since this Thing was written, Google has “demoted” Google Reader to the “View More” part of its toolbar, in favor of such critical tools as Google Play and YouTube. Sorry, did that sound bitter? Good. If I want to buy a Google App I’ll go on my damn phone. Anyway. […]

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