RSS Discussion (or lack thereof?) on MedLib-L (Take II)

Update: 7/21/2006 – Rrrrg. Been having some sort of feed/aggregator issue that I think may have prevented this going out to a number of subscribers via RSS when first posted. Posting it again in hopes that this will resolve the problem. Please forgive the duplicate if you received it the first time. Originally posted 7/20/2006

I was excited to notice this morning that someone had posted some general RSS questions to the folks in medical librarianship who subscribe to the MEDLIB-L listserv. I wondered at first if it was okay to post these online, then realized they’re ALREADY posted online and are universally accessible, so there seems to be no ethical problem in reposting them here.

From the original excellent post, full of good questions:

“…I’m looking for some input on the whole concept of current awareness by RSS versus TOC emails.

I see RSS as a pull technology and emails as a push tech. By that, I mean, that the user has to actively seek out their RSS aggregator and read whatever it contains. Emailed TOCs, however, are pushed to their email box and they don’t have to actively seek out another program to get info. I suspect that expecting busy HC professionals to seek out anything else (such as an RSS aggregator) will decrease current awareness usage.

I can see the advantages of RSS for SDI in which the user has an ongoing interest — and therefore motivation — to seek out that extra program with info tailored to their interest. I find it less compelling for the more serendipitous method of scanning TOCs.

Am I missing something here? Has anyone tried both methods for current awareness and one way clearly won out over the other? If so, I’d like to hear from you….”

I was very disappointed, though, to read this response:

“I personally have never seen the point of RSS when we have toc’s. Looks a lot like a wonderful solution for a problem which does not exist. (some thing like my husbands ongoing need to buy power tools for the furniture he will build me someday when he has a work shop and time)”

I’d like to share both what I posted to the ListServ, and a couple of additional notes. First, here’s how I replied on the ListServ (with corrections for spelling and grammar, and one edit for clarity [in brackets like this]. You can read the original here if you prefer):

I don’t believe in irrational technology evangelism. I think we should use what works for our environment and users, not champion digital solutions as one-size-fits-all cornucopias.

That being said, I think that both emailed TOCs and RSS are great, but that they have different strengths and uses.

If you don’t mind trying to manage an already overstuffed email inbox, TOCs are great for general awareness and serendipitous discovery of “information you didn’t know you wanted.” (Thanks, L, for that phrase) But when a clinician has a very specific SDI need, RSS can be amazingly helpful.

Say a gastroenterologist at my hospital wants to know any time “Probiotics” and “Ulcerative Colitis” both appear in a specific set of journals he/she cares about. I can set up a custom feed at PubMed for this clinician that will ONLY send him search results that meet his/her specific criteria as soon as they are indexed by the NLM.

Also, RSS feeds can be set up to create email subscription forms or can be easily re-parsed into a web page for medical libraries that want to have Up-To-The-Minute medical news pages on their intranets for clinicians to make use of. RSS also allows data about medical literature to be re-parsed for other purposes, (like those being developed at

Another reason why I prefer RSS to email is that email is used for an extraordinary variety of purposes: Hospital communications, family correspondence, SPAM, vendor solicitations…you name it. Adding a fresh new email for each TOC can make managing an inbox (often already a difficult task) even more extremely difficult. An RSS aggregator can be dedicated exclusively to current awareness/SDI needs. A good, easy-to-use web-based aggregator (like BlogLines) can let the user easily and automatically separate new information by subject, source, or search parameters. I get somewhere between 50 and 300 emails daily and find that hard to manage sometimes.

I have about 150 RSS feeds (yep- mostly about librarianship and technology) in my aggregator and NEVER have problems managing those because items I’m not interested in are so easily discarded.

But the shortest answer is that use of RSS and aggregators is growing, and we should be prepared to help deliver medical information to our users [by this method and using this technology] when they inevitably ask for it.

If anyone has specific questions about RSS, I would be pleased to receive them. If and when I cannot answer them, I can definitely point out good resources for further reading.


David Rothman
Community General Hospital of Greater Syracuse

Just to add a few additional notes:

  • I have received great emails with good ideas and clear questions from a few other MebLib subscribers, and their questions/concerns will be used to create some new posts next week on accomplishing particular tasks. Thank you to those who sent these my way!
  • Another topic for a future post will be explaining the difference between “pull” and “push” technologies, and how to help make RSS feeds a “push” from the perspective of the user.
  • Contrary to the comment above from the MedLib subscriber who dislikes her husband’s taste for power tools, RSS isn’t a solution for a problem that does not exist.

    It is a tool we can use (at very low cost of time, effort or money) to enhance the services we offer to our users. Ranganathan said a library is a growing thing, and it frustrates me to hear anyone in librarianship dismiss this potential for enhanced services because she sees nothing wrong with the status quo.

  • I have an acquaintance who is fond of saying that one should “never let best get in the way of good enough“.

    It is a fair point, but I might counter with “never let good enough get in the way of better.” My view is that if we are satisfied with mediocrity, we will never do anything excellent.

    I believe that if we fail to innovate, if we fail to continually refine, enhance, and improve our services, we are failing both our users and our profession.

2 thoughts on “RSS Discussion (or lack thereof?) on MedLib-L (Take II)

  1. A couple of other benefits that are important to me (although the unclogged inbox was a major factor in setting up my Bloglines subscriptions):

    1) I have interests aside from my profession and my blog. If I’m a physician in a particular field, I can have RSS feeds of TOCs (and sometimes additional content) from journals in my field. Maybe I’m an immigrant and want news feeds from my home country, or am from another state and want feeds from my hometown. Maybe I do volunteer work and want news related to that. Maybe I just need a laugh once a day, and want to get feeds from Overheard in the Office. Hey, maybe I want to be an administrator someday and want to keep up with the problems other clinicians are facing through feeds of other medical and nursing blogs. Each is an information need, and not limited to what we might superficially assume of Dr X from area Y.

    2) Related to the first item, I can organize my feeds by subject. I can group journal TOCs or medical subject feeds into one folder, my personal stuff in another, blogs I like in another, news in another. Maybe I want grant notices or FDA safety alerts in another folder. Then I can prioritize what I read on any given day by my subject knowledge/interest needs, rather than swimming around in my flooded inbox.

    3) I can save things for later. Sure, I can save emails for later, but I find that I rarely revisit TOC or listserv emails older than a week. In Bloglines, I’ll go back to something even a month old because at some point, I thought it was worth exploring.