RSS feeds and aggregators provide a way to keep track of frequently updated, web-based content without requiring the user to repeatedly visit a web site to see if things have changed. While feeds don't bring you information you couldn't get through other means, they do allow you to interact with information in new ways.
What is RSS?
RSS, or "newsfeeds," are a simple technology that allow web site publishers to let people know when something new is available. It might be a new item on a news site, a new post to a weblog, a new artice in a scholarly journal, or just about anything else. RSS is a "push" technology -- which means that once you've set up a feed reader (see below) and subscribed to a feed from a given source, you do not need to do anything else. You will receive notifications whenever that publisher or web site has something new. If you want to read it, follow the link. If not, ignore it.
While there is disagreement about what it stands for (variously, "Really Simple Syndication," "Rich Site Summary," or "RDF Site Summary"), at its core RSS is an XML format that allows anyone who publishes content on the web to offer a syndication service, much like the Associated Press does. As a content provider, one makes a "what's new" service available and people who want to receive it subscribe to that service. For a more technical explanation of RSS, please see the Wikipedia entry.
An RSS client or aggregator allows you to subscribe to feeds. Then it checks them periodically, alerting you when there's new content and displaying the content itself. RSS aggregators come in two basic flavors, browser- and desktop-based.
One advantage to web-based aggregators is that your list of feeds and information about what you've read is available no matter where you are doing your reading. There are a variety of free sites that allow you to maintain your feed list and read feeds on-line. The most popular are Bloglines and Google Reader.
Your web browser -- if you use Firefox 2.0, Safari 2.0, or Internet Explorer 7.0 or above, have RSS readers. You subscribe to a feed by bookmarking the RSS feed (just as you would any other web page), and the browser then provides access to the news stuff. Firefox and IE list headlines; Safari shows the number of new items.
Most Windows clients are essentially the same, with minor variations in settings and preferences and whatnot. We recommend: RSS Bandit. It has an internal browser based on IE, but you can also set it to open links in your default browser (e.g., Firefox).
There really aren't many Macintosh clients out there, partially because of the almost total dominance of NetNewsWire Lite and its non-free sibling, NetNewsWire. Look all the way at the bottom of the linked page for the (relatively hidden) link to the free NetNewsWire Lite.
Feeds offered by the University of Michigan Library
RSS feeds are noted on library pages by the icon.