Virginia Beach Public Library offers a wide variety of RSS feeds to their users. It is easy for users to click through from the main website on to the RSS feeds – the RSS logo and link are prominently displayed, with other social media options, at the top of the page’s main section.
From the main RSS page, the first link provided is “Learn more about RSS“, which is a really good idea – before the user can even say: what the heck is this anyway? they are redirected to a place where they can learn how to use this library service. These instructions are short, straightforward, and provide useful links to RSS readers and an instructional video from CommonCraft.
Returning to the feeds themselves, it is clear that a library patron couldn’t ask for more well-categorized, or numerous, RSS feeds to choose from. Aside from the categories you would expect from a library collection, such as “On Order Library Materials”, “New Library Materials for Children and Teens”, and “Recommended” (each further broken down into familiar genres and media), the list of feeds also showcases the library’s classes and events, broken down either by “Audience” (“Babies & Toddlers 0-2″, “Teens” etc) or by “Type” (“Arts & Crafts”, “Exhibits”, “Book Groups”, etc). This is a nifty trick – using social media to promote awareness not just of the library’s collections, but also of its more socially-oriented programming. There are those who question the value of social web tools like RSS, Facebook, tagging, etc to the traditional library catalogue, and they may have a point – but when it comes to promoting the library’s more active presence in the community, social media tools were tailor made for the library. VPBL is a case in point of the early promise of RSS – in 2004, Judith Wusteman wrote that RSS in the library could be useful for announcements in addition to catalogue-related news, and also emphasized the importance of allowing users to choose the most relevant feeds for their personal needs (RSS: the latest feed).
I selected one catalogue-related feed (“VPBL Recommends”) and one activities-related feed (“Babies & Toddlers 0-2″ – no I’m not trying to drop any hints!). I made sure to follow the provided instructions precisely, and added them to my Google Reader feeds. They worked just fine, and I immediately had a long list of recommended books and upcoming events to peruse in my own preferred RSS interface. I wasn’t sure how detailed or frequent the feed updates would be, but it turns out that because this website and these feeds cover the whole VPBL library system, there’s actually quite a lot going on: the updates are frequent and, in the case of the events, happen far enough ahead of time that users can plan to attend. The events articles are short and to the point; the recommendations are a little more lengthy, and include a review, links, and further related recommendations as well as a cover photo. Both of these feeds, particularly the recommendations, serve as yet another example of the power of social media tools to enhance browsing and allow for the serendipitous discovery of new books and activities – without ever entering the library! (I might actually keep the “VPBL Recommends” feed in my RSS reader, because even though I live far away from Virginia Beach, I can always use expert recommendations about good books!)
Overall, VPBL makes a really good use of RSS technology, and if I were a patron there or interested in their events and activities, I would definitely subscribe. As I said above, RSS can be a powerful browsing tool, which definitely fits with the mission of a public library – connecting users to new resources for both pleasure and necessity. Additionally, VPBL’s mission statement states that VPBL is there to promote “a sense of community” and to “promote reading as a critical life skill and enjoyable activity” – all goals that can be seen clearly in their use of RSS. Having information about events in my community library pop up in my RSS daily would definitely make me feel more connected, and the book reviews are so passionate and detailed, it’s difficult not to get excited about the books being recommended.
It’s tough to find fault with VPBL’s use of RSS, or indeed with their website in general, which is simple, clean, beautifully-designed, and quite functional. If I were to level one criticism at this library system, it would actually be related to another social media tool they make use of: the blog. I came across the VPBL website in the first place through a link provided by Michael Stephens in The Hyperlinked Library, where he discusses its staff blog, created and maintained by administrators to address staff concerns. While it’s held up by Stephens as an example of interactivity and social networking within a library’s staff, it’s really still pretty top-down compared to other “flatter” collaborative uses of social media. A wiki might be better (although then they would have to make it private) – that way, staff could contribute their findings, and answer each other’s questions, and not necessarily have to take administrators’ word for everything.