Tech Time, July 13

13 Jul

RSS Feeds

Someone recently asked me about RSS Feeds, so I thought I’d include it in today’s session.

RSS has been around for a while now. It stands for Real Simple Syndication and it’s basically a tool on a website that lets you subscribe to content updates from your favorite sites (as long as the site gives you the RSS option). The major benefit to you is that, instead of manually checking through sites you like, you can just go to your feed reader and scroll through lists of posts – not unlike an email inbox.

You will need a feed reader to subscribe to and read RSS feeds. My favorite is Google Reader. If you have a Google account, you have a Google Reader account. You’ll find Reader in the “more” menu on Google’s main page (see image):

Google's homepage, showing the reader menu

Accessing Google Reader

When you first access Reader, all that you’ll find in there is some content that Google has pre-populated for you to see how it works. You will want to add things that you like to the Reader. As I mentioned above, the site you want to add has to provide an RSS feed for you to be able to use a feed reader to track it.

Many sites use the RSS icon to denote that a feed is available:

RSS feed icon

Standard RSS Feed Icon

Here’s an example of the icon in use, on Library Journal‘s website (and, yes, sometimes they are tiny and hard to see/find). This feed would subscribe you to all stories that appeared in Library Journal about academic libraries:

A Library Journal web page with an RSS feed icon

If you wanted to subscribe to this feed and clicked on the icon, it would take you to another page. This page will usually give you the opportunity to choose which feed reader you use and want to subscribe with. Sometimes it just gives you an URL that you have to paste into your RSS Reader. Either way will achieve the same outcome.

A feed subscription page

Clicking on the Google Reader button in the example above will reroute you to your Google Reader account, where it will ask you to confirm that you want to subscribe. Once you’ve subscribed to several sites, your Google Reader account will look like this:

Google Reader screenshot

Your subscriptions show up on the bottom left, and it tells you how many items are new for each source, just like your email inbox. Whatever source you have selected on the left, the content from that site will show in the main reading frame. For each item in the feed, you have many options that help you keep track of your reading, organize articles, and share with others.

Below this zoomed image of the individual item is an explanation of the options. (Click on the image to see a larger image – I know it’s small on the screen!)

An individual item in reader

I starred this item (which is why it reads “Remove star” instead of “Add star”). All of your starred items are easily accessible via the Reader menu, so you might choose to star items that are particularly interesting or that seem like they will be of use later on.

You can also “like” items (which I’ve also done for this item). It’s not clear to me that this has any practical purpose; it mostly seems to be a social feature, as are the “share” and “share with note” features. The share features just share the item with other people you might be connected to via Google.

Now, if you want to send the item you’ve read to someone else, you can use the email feature to send them the link and a note.

You can use the “keep unread” feature to keep an item new and to remind you to read it.

The “Add tags” feature is highly useful. You can organize items you want to be able to find later by “tagging” them. This is like putting them in file folders, but they can go in more than one. Later, you could access all items tagged with a certain word – say, “ebooks” – to find all items that you’d marked as related to that topic. This is similar to bookmarking sites with delicious (which I covered in an earlier tech time).

In the image above, you’ll notice the red arrow is pointing to a little yellow icon. That’s a Read It Later icon. I also covered Read It Later in an earlier tech time. Google Reader is integrated with Read It Later so that you could send articles that you wanted to read later to your Read It Later account.

RSS readers seem to have declined in popularity a bit in recent years, with people using Twitter and Facebook in a similar manner, but I think it’s a pretty handy tool for those who don’t want to do the social network thing – and, you just get the site content without all of the other noise on Facebook and Twitter from your “friends” or followers or those whom you follow.


Popplet is a very neat tool that I recently ran across, and I think it could be useful in the academic setting for research and group projects.

I have these really fond memories of writing projects in elementary school, the ones that would start out with a drawing of  a concept map (I can’t remember what we called them then, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it). You’d put your main subject in the center node, and then draw lines to connect the main node to supporting and related ideas. Well, this is what Popplet does.

You can sign up for free, and there is a free iPad app, as well as a paid version.

As an example, pretend you had to do a project on the Columbia River. Well, you could organize your research using a popplet (click on the image to go to the actual popplet):

An example of a popplet

You can put maps, videos, and images into popplets, as well as just text. The maps come from Google maps, the videos from YouTube, and the images can come from your computer or from Internet photo sharing sites, like Flickr. You can also draw on the individual nodes with a little free form cursor tool.

You can work on popplets with other people who also have a popplet account. Each node will display the user name of the person who added it or last edited it, though you can turn this function off if it annoys you.

Using the tools menu (looks like a little gear), you can turn your popplet into a presentation or export it as a PDF. I do think this has some potential for an interesting classroom tool.

Databases, databases, databases

We have some awesome new databases, thanks to Cat.

Our most recent subscriptions include Films on Demand (streaming videos on bunches of subjects), Safari Tech Books (online tech “how-to” books), and Image Quest (rights-cleared images for educational use; hey, a student could use them images in a Popplet for a class presentation!).

When I was recently working on updating the database lists, I was looking around in the databases for descriptions and info and I ran across a few interesting features while I was at it. I thought I’d share.

If you like Google’s Art Project, definitely keep OCLC’s CAMIO (Catalog of Art Museum Images Online) in mind. These high quality images of museum art work from all over the world are cleared for cited educational and research use.

The  Hospitality, Tourism, and Leisure Collection has the full text of about 550 guidebooks, if you’re planning a trip. They are a bit cumbersome to find, if you want to browse the collection instead of searching for a specific title. Click on the “Publication Search” tab and then on the “List All Publications” link. Use the limiters on the left side of the screen and choose “Handbook” under the “Publication Format” heading.

MedlinePlus is a great place to go for consumer health information – much better than a general Google search.

Bowker’s Books In Print (BIP) has an easy-to-use readers’ advisory tool, both for fiction and for non-fiction.

Credo, besides its useful concept map tool, also has a handy “gadget” built in (click on the “Gadgets” link in the menu at the top of the screen). The gadget tool provides conversion calculations and other features like a definition and pronunciation look up. Its topic pages are also good places to start research, generally speaking. Some topic pages are less useful than others, but I’ve found some good stuff there, overall.

Some databases include multimedia in search results. I ran across a link to streaming video (from PBS) via a Gale database and Opposing Viewpoints (also vended by Gale) includes NPR stories in their results.

Bonus for Bike Commuters

This last little bit falls into the “not work but useful enough to share” category. Google Maps has for quite a while now offered different directions for different types of travel: driving, walking, public transit, and biking. I’d never really used the directions for anything other than driving  or trip planning (if I’m going to bike or walk somewhere, it’s generally close enough for me to know how to get there). But, I recently needed to ride my bike directly from work to an appointment, and I realized that I had no idea how long it would take me to get to my appointment. While I have a good frame of reference for driving times, I don’t yet have that knowledge for biking times. So, I used Google Maps – not to get directions, but to get an estimate of the time it would take to get there. It estimated 15 minutes, and I made it to my appointment in 16 minutes; that was close enough for me.


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