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* Sunday, February 6, 2005

Short-Cited Insights about RSS

On page six of the February issue (PDF) of Cites & Insights (“Rss hub-bub”), Walt Crawford pooh-poohs the idea of ILS vendors providing native RSS feeds out of the catalog. It’s a difficult assertion to challenge because nowhere in his comments does Walt use the word “because,” thereby directly stating his objection(s). There are implications, though, so let’s examine them since they are all we have to go on.

First of all, Walt seems to think that someone has advocated libraries replace their email alerts with RSS alerts. That’s a statement Walt can’t back up, although I’m sure he’ll note it if he has proof of *anyone* ever in the history of the world using the word “replace” or a synonym. If he backs off from that statement, I’ll be curious to know why his first assumption was that the two can’t live happily ever after together, side by side, especially since RSS would be the driving force behind the new titles lists he claims will vanish into the olden days of yesteryear.

In reality, the only time I’ve ever received an email from my catalog is when I had a book that was really, really, really, really, really overdue and I think they were about to send Guido after me. That they’ll email me about. But the convenience notice when it’s a couple of days overdue (or even a couple of weeks or months)? Fuggedaboutit. So SWAN libraries, consider this me begging for email alerts! Oh, and I guarantee you that none of my libraries went to Innovative (or before that GEAC) asking for email alerts. It’s just something that made a lot of sense, the vendor understood what was happening in the outside world, and the code was relatively easy to implement. Just like RSS.

Next, Walt seems to advocate that libraries shouldn’t offer a service for what he asserts is 1% or less of your population. I’m not challenging the mathematical figure, but I can think of lots of services that libraries provide for users that comprise less than 1% of our patrons. Let’s use my home library as an example. They serve a population of about 30,000 people right now. One percent of the current population would be 300 people, and 1% of actual users would probably be closer to 150. So what services do they offer that only 149 or fewer people use? Here’s a list just to name a few:

  • Homebound service (even though we have a lot of senior housing in our area);
  • Sign language translators for patrons who are deaf and might attend their programs;
  • Night Owl telephone reference service;
  • A form for challenging “offensive” titles in the collection.
  • A web site that is accessible to blind users.
  • The ability to use a USB flash drive with the library’s computers (I’m sure that figure is rising, but I don’t see tons of patrons picketing libraries over this one and yet a lot of libraries are now offering this).

I don’t think Walt would quibble that these are all valuable, even essential, services, but then he’d probably be basing those decisions on factors other than how many people are using the service. Nowhere in his comments does Walt use any other criterion for RSS, so why the double standard?

In addition, far less than 1% of 1% of a library’s RSS users actually go to the trouble of programming for themselves services the library’s catalog doesn’t offer. However, I can name three off the top of my head (from across North America), the most obvious example being Peter Rukavina who rolled his own RSS but is [rightly] too busy to help the rest of us who would like to provide that service but aren’t programmers. If his home library wanted to, they could download his script and start displaying the list of their new DVDs on their own web site, but they can’t get it natively from their own ILS. What’s wrong with that picture?

Of course, you could also flip this example and argue that you really should be providing a service that your users want badly enough that they resort to hacking your catalog and then noting it on their very public blog. There are at least three examples of users who are running scripts against catalogs, and there are a lot more who have signed up with Library ELF, probably without their librarys’ knowledge. Disclaimer: I love ELF, and I use it myself. I’m willing to give my personal data to a guy in Canada in order to get the email and RSS alerts my catalog refuses to give me. I can’t imagine that Walt thinks that a non-programmer like myself should be forced to do that just to get an RSS feed of what I have checked out, but he also doesn’t seem to care about RSS in the context of patron data. I assure you there is no one at MLS or at a SWAN library that can code this themselves to offer it to patrons, which means we’d be forced to have someone else do this. Why shouldn’t that be the vendor?

But just because Walt doesn’t do it, doesn’t mean I won’t look at other criteria to discuss reasons to implement RSS. In a previous post, I noted that in my library system alone, we could conceivably save 924 hours of actual librarian work each year if our vendor, Innovative, provided native RSS feeds out of the catalog. Let’s take it a step further and come up with the number of potential saved work hours for just half of the 3,700 libraries in Illinois. Let’s say that only half of them might actually take advantage of RSS feeds to change how they display new titles on their web sites. If this saved just one hour per month for 1,850 libraries, native RSS feeds would save Illinois librarians 22,200 hours in just one year.

So even if there was never a single patron that subscribed to a single feed, it would save Illinois librarians 22,200 hours, and let me tell you something: other than funding, the biggest thing we could really use more of is time (which can also be translated into more staffing, but on a personal level, I feel very constrained time-wise). So now we’ve freed up 22,200 hours of librarians’ days, thanks to relatively easy programming on the part of the major vendors. How awesome is that?! And if my vendor can’t understand that kind of savings, then I have to question them as my vendor. Sometimes you really can make a big difference with just “a flip of the switch.”

Other ways I think native RSS feeds would be used, furthering the benefit to libraries:

  • I think there are users who would display queues (if we offered queues) or lists on their sites, just like they do now with NetFlix and Amazon. I’m even willing to bet my hat that some of them (yes, less than 1%) would display what they have checked out at this moment, just like they do with NetFlix and Amazon (“what I’m reading now”). While you’re at it, throw music in there, too, since a lot of people (less than 1%) like to post what they’re listening to as they’re composing their blog posts.
  • Library holdings could be displayed on third-party web sites, like a school’s site, an academic department’s site, or a community’s site. In fact, libraries could partner with newspapers, area sports clubs (a brilliant idea from Stephen Abrams), and other groups to more easily display material on their web sites. The content would update automatically, thereby keeping those librarian hours free for other tasks.

And yet, Walt doesn’t think it’s exciting that ILS vendors are starting to offer this type of support to libraries. In fact, Walt doesn’t seem to think that ILS vendors should be providing RSS feeds here and now at all. I don’t see any of my member libraries clammoring for Z39.50 compliance with the Bath Profile, but that doesn’t mean Innovative shouldn’t be compliant or working on it (number of patrons who are requesting this or even know about Z39.50: zero). I don’t hear about any of my member libraries doing anything with Dublin Core metadata, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be (number of patrons who are requesting this or even know about DC: zero). Should vendors offer only those services that are formally requested by 50% of library users (the implication Walt makes by noting that even in his high-tech community, less than half the residents probably know about RSS)? What’s the magic number at which Walt would consent to let ILS vendors start working on providing RSS feeds? 40%?  25%?  10%?  Hopefully he will leave a comment so the vendors will know when to start.

 I don’t know if he was just lobbing a softball over the plate in order to help prove the point that native RSS feeds would be valuable right now or if he truly believes the position he declines to actually support, but either way, this one clearly demonstrates Walt’s bias against RSS. That’s okay, because everyone has their biases. This time, though, Walt’s just asking for trouble.

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