Internet column

Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 1 January 2006



O'Beirne, R. (2006), "Internet column", Reference Reviews, Vol. 20 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Internet column

The increasing use of blogs and aggregators is an important development for those who are keen to ensure that when searching the web no virtual stone is left unturned. The technology, which is obviously complex in its concept and design, is most pleasingly clever because it remains invisible to the end user.

There continues to be much talk about the problem of information overload. The information seeker is no longer faced with the task of simply finding information in a vast ever-changing space, but now needs to sift and filter this information according to various criteria. Thanks to the consequences of high-technology and communication systems information has moved from being a scarcity to being in abundance, a factor more than any other that has had a profound impact on the profession of librarian. Personal preference plays a large part in how we as individuals like to receive information. Many services now being offered via the web are those that make it easier for us to not only discover but also to digest information.

Despite, or perhaps as a result of, the many advances in technology, there remains a real sense of information anxiety. This may come from an unease that something crucial to one’s area of interest or realm of influence, has just been published on the web, either in the past few weeks or days or, in cases of acute anxiety, the past couple of hours. In subject fields where there is a rapid change this can become highly important. In response, the news media with its now iconic 24/7 news flow is a good example of this type of urgency. Getting there first is as always seen as being an important factor.

There is not only a concern about the currency and timeliness of information; issues of quality are seen as highly important. So, when information is discovered there needs to be a critical evaluation of its credibility; an understanding of the importance of its source and of course questions need to be asked; who “owns” these statements and what might be the consequences of quoting and attributing such statements and materials?

The most famous blog we have had is probably that of the Baghdad blogger who gave daily reports on conditions in the city during the aerial bombing of March and April 2003. Obviously understanding the context of this blog is crucial to making a balanced appraisal of its content. This is perhaps a good rule of thumb; when trying to evaluate a blog it is good practice to try to see the wider context. What makes a good blog is the standard of the narrative, and, if it can tell a story then so much the better. If it can be regularly updated then there is a real chance that it will be a success and have a loyal readership.

So how exactly do these aggregators work and what are seen as the main advantages to using such a service? Initially called a news aggregator, but now known simply as an aggregator, it can be an application, webpage or service that collects syndicated content, such as RSS feeds from weblogs and mainstream media sites for example BBC news. RSS is an acronym for “Rich Site Summary” and more latterly “Really Simple Syndication” and it is a way for web sites to summarize their content, such as news articles, to make it available in a different view. The job of the aggregator is to provide an overview or synopsis of the content, typically this is done through a browser or less frequently desktop application.

Aggregators are useful and are well-used because they hugely reduce the time and effort required to maintain a watching brief on web sites of interest for updates. Aggregators automatically “pull” relevant content from a range of sources to a profile stipulated by the information seeker. This creates a unique personal information space like a “highly personalised newspaper”. Well set up aggregators are able to subscribe to a news or information feed, check for updated content at user-determined intervals, and retrieve that content. Understandably, the content is described as being “pull” to the subscriber, as opposed to “push” as with e-mail. In contrast to recipients of some “pushed” information, the aggregator user can easily alter or unsubscribe from a feed.

One does not need to have a crystal ball to see that the whole world of blogging and aggregating presents new challenges for the reference librarian. The first step is to understand the concept and accept that the impact will probably be greater than first expected. A next step might be to anticipate how issues of quality and timeliness can be addressed and improved by the intervention of the librarian in the transaction.

Ronan O’BeirneInternet Editor, Reference Reviews, and Principal Libraries Officer Information, Libraries, Archives and Information Service, Bradford, UK

Related articles