[Published in the OSALL newsletter of November 2006]
Regardless of the largesse of those who control the purse-strings, IT budgets generally absorb phenomenal amounts of money. The purpose of this column is to focus on applications that are easily acquired, low-cost (preferably completely free) and, the crux, time- and labour-saving for the information community.
Most of us have discovered products or shortcuts that have become indispensable in the never-ending cycle of managing information. Here is a forum to share this knowledge with colleagues and to glean tips to make us individually leaner, meaner information brokers.
To kick off, this is why and how RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds have changed my life.
A large part of my working day is spent on the compilation of three electronic current awareness newsletters so I have a particular interest in products or services that facilitate the identification of Internet-based resources of relevance to the legal sector while filtering as much superfluous material as possible.
Scanning individual newsletters is neither time- nor labour-efficient as only a small-percentage of the headlines is relevant and important items from other sources are obviously excluded. Setting up alerts remains an essential element but can also result in a lot of useless email traffic.
So the search continued. Criteria : needed to be free, secure, and filter more effectively than previous solutions.
RSS has been discussed at SLIS/OSALL/SAOUG conferences over the last two years and it is hard to overestimate its value. In brief, one identifies which websites are to be watched and the RSS Reader then reports back whenever new items are added. Only sites that have been RSS-enabled are compatible with this service ; this is usually indicated by the presence of an orange “RSS” button (tip : found quickly by clicking somewhere near the top of a page and using <control F> to find the acronym).
It is appropriate at this point to explain why I find some of Google’s services, although no panacea, of definite value. A few IT departments have issues with security/privacy factors. Both matters are important and I regularly delete cookies from my computer. However, the benefits need to be weighed against any risks (more at http://knowgozone.blogspot.com / “They’re watching what?”). Going beyond the superficial, the scope of Google’s indexed resources is the widest and judicious use of appropriate parameters can mine into relatively untouched areas of the Web. I also know of no other search facility that is as up-to-date : both the websites I administer are re-indexed by Google approximately every three days. News items seem to reflect within minutes and changes I make to my blog are reported independently by the Reader within ten to fifteen minutes.
The Reader does require one to have a Google account. This does not have to be a Gmail facility. I have used my own email address that was registered with Google Alerts some years ago (with no apparent dire consequences in the interim). So far ‘my’ Reader has been directed to automatically search about a dozen parent sites including both news websites and three blogs. It has reduced the number of daily newsletters in my Inbox quite remarkably.
Taking the Google Reader Tour (www.google.com/help/reader/tour.html) is well worth a few minutes for those unfamiliar with the concept. Others may find the dedicated blog of interest : http://googlereader.blogspot.com/.
A bar on the left identifies the targeted sites, enabling one to prioritise one’s scanning, and indicates the number of unread items within each (very similar to the way in which an email account indicates the presence of unread messages within folders). The right side of the screen displays headlines and short excerpts from the source. The choices include clicking on the hyperlinked headlines to open each full-text article in a new window, tagging them for various reasons which are not elaborated on in this column, and emailing them directly to individual recipients (note : this does require a Gmail account). It takes a second to identify whether or not to pursue a link and one uses the spacebar to move onto the next link – extremely user-friendly, especially if one feels like one is working at the pace of the Road Runner.
A big advantage is that this is a web-based service so no installation is required, it is accessible from any Internet-connected computer, cannot be lost through a local system crash, may be ‘shared’ with nominated friends/colleagues and included in one’s own website. For those who already use their cellphones to surf the Web, this service works on mobile phone browsers too.
As with any Internet service, it is faster before 11am (SA time) and can be abysmally slow at times, particularly when the Google servers pause gasping for breath at the side of the Internet highway. However, the product is in beta and it’s still way faster than any other alternative at this stage.
While I find the speed at which Google is expanding a bit alarming, its services are capable of interacting quite effectively if one so chooses. At this stage I have chosen to use them separately and keep my personal details to a minimum (so far all that has been submitted are a username, email address and password of choice).
The second service of note comes with a personalised invitation to the South African community. It is LibraryThing (www.librarything.com), very loosely described as an online catalogue. Within four hours of blogging about this service, the creator sent me an email asking for input from our country. Tim Spalding is a South African and a librarian and is keen to know which libraries have open Z39.50 connections. He would also like to hear of problems and receive suggestions on improving the site. Please send your comments to ***@*** as OSALL will be collating these to forward to Tim.
Back to the service . . .
Mary Ellen Bates describes it as “the love child of Melvyl Dewey and Web 2.0”. A classic description that defies improvement.
At this stage it is aimed at the organisation of personal libraries, drawing on existing information from Amazon.com, LC and other major sources. It allows one to share details of one’s collection with others and also to benefit from others’ personal collections.
A feature that has a lot of potential results from an overview of one’s collection, returning a list of suggested reading material that may be of interest to the owner of such a combination of titles. As someone who frequently doesn’t know where to start when visiting the public library or bookshops, what a bonus!
LibraryThing has numerous social networking features : it allows participants to access reader reviews, share information with similar interest groups/individuals and, yes, even access it from one’s cellphone.
It does cost $10 a year or $25 a lifetime ; profit-making organisations pay $50 a year for up to 5 000 titles. A professional version is in the offing.
Take the Tour at http://www.librarything.com/tour/.
Current statistics imply that almost 36 000 titles were added in the last 24 hours. This service excels in producing an amazing array of stats including top books, authors and tags.
Opportunities to make constructive input into a beta-product are not as frequent as they might be. Here is one begging for attention.
Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer