How we make Newslet - a self-referential current awareness and publishing tale

We recently published the 100th issue of Newslet, our CPD newsletter for library staff. And so we thought this would be a good chance to take stock (library pun achievement unlocked) and share some things we've learned along the way about current awareness tools, curation and publishing.

Newslet is a fortnightly curated CPD newsletter for library designed to help those working in the library and information sectors keep up with new resources, CPD and training opportunities and innovations in the sector.

It was started on a bit of a whim, a way to make use of all the links that Sara and I were sharing on our Slack channel or over email. But it wasn't a total anomaly, we're pretty deeply invested in finding new and better ways of supporting the professional development of staff in libraries (as well as galleries, archives and museums). This is one of the driving forces of Artefacto.

Newslet production image

The process of putting together an edition of Newslet for Libraries is a workflow that’s always being tinkered with, so our process will continue to change. But current awareness for library and information professionals is a big topic that we think about a lot (sometimes possibly too much). So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about some current awareness tools that we use to keep on top of things in the ever-changing library sector.

Current awareness on the go - keeping up with the sector while also doing a gazillion other things

There's lots of information out there, from blogs, Twitter, Instagram, journals and more. The influences on the library sector certainly aren't limited to library-related publications either. Other areas including emerging technology, copyright reform, user experience, design, wellbeing and lots more impact libraries and library users. That is one of the reasons we try to make sure we don't limit ourselves to library-specific sources.

The main challenge is getting the right signal to noise ratio for your sector or specialism.

We don’t want our other work to be disrupted when we come across an interesting news item or blog post so we rely on bookmarklets to save things for later. Bookmarklets are tiny applications that you can store in your browser to add a bit of new functionality, in our case a way of saving and tagging a link. Pocket is our current ‘Read It Later’ app, it’s now owned by Firefox and is built into the browser. Pinboard is one we also use - it’s a bookmarking tool (‘Social Bookmarking for Introverts’) that also has a ‘Read later’ option and supports tagging. Wallabag is a tempting self-hosted option for saving articles for later reading and Zotero is a tool that keeps getting better and better (it supports Feeds, tagging, formatting and PDF indexing).

Both Pocket and Pinboard have great integrations that help us bookmark articles across multiple computers and mobile devices. And thankfully they both support Really Simple Syndication (RSS). There’s also an IFTTT recipe in there somewhere that means tweets that are favourited are stored on Pocket for later (although there are also other ways to achieve this).

We use bookmarking to help keep note of things and our folksonomy (remember those?) for organising things the way we like, but RSS is still our main tool of choice for bringing together our deluge of content. Despite premature talk of its demise (and resurrection), it’s still the only open format that allows for syndication and is supported widely. Though ActivityPub (and the IndieWeb movement more broadly) are taking steps in the right direction.

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t support RSS - a decision that feels user-hostile and anti-web. Blogger supports RSS but… in a broken kind of way that makes our RSS Reader crash. Nobody wants to let users escape from their walled garden, it seems. As a result, we use these tools in a serendipitous, reluctant kind of way.

We also use Google Alerts for some key topics relevant to the library world, but these are more likely to return opening hours announcements of every possible US county library than anything about libraries in the rest of the world.

Curation - creating a list of useful, thoughtful and inspiring links

With every issue, we aim to create a varied and interesting selection of content that people can be inspired by and apply to their own work.

The links come from our PinBoard account, Pocket and sometimes from Slack and Twitter conversations amongst ourselves. These are then united in our RSS reader software. Various Feed Readers have fallen by the wayside (SelfOSS, The Old Reader and some overly-complicated IFTTT recipes) but we still keep a watchful eye on new RSS tools. Still searching for The One.

We currently use ReadKit for RSS because it has 'smart folders' that means we can use tags to bring together feeds from different tools, including Pocket and Pinboard.

Unfortunately, ReadKit is Mac only so we’ve also started using Winds which is cross-platform, open source, and uses machine learning for content recommendations.

RSS cheat sheet
  • There are various ways you can generate your own RSS feed from social media networks or other sites that don't have RSS - You can use IFTTT or Zapier or tools like FetchRSS for this.
  • Did you also know that Reddit supports RSS? You can subscribe to subreddits or create your own with RSS-Reddits.

Some things that we can do better is how we use social media as a current awareness tool. As well as ditching RSS support, Twitter has also moved away from a strictly chronological feed into mystery algorithm territory, which makes it even harder to manage your own feed. A workaround that we heard about somewhere (sorry, can’t recall where) is to use Lists to recreate a selective, chronological Twitter feed. So that’s something we’re now looking into.

Oh, and a tool for keeping up with open access journals by topic would also be aces.

Spreading the word - a note on newsletter tools

The area of the newsletter creation that we’re least tied to right now is (ironically) the newsletter platform itself. And even though we’re big newsletter fans ourselves. We currently have a pretty simple Mailchimp setup. We also use Send in Blue and Revue and self-hosted mail software for other newsletter publications we produce so this could clearly still use some streamlining.

Mailchimp does have an interesting RSS newsletter option but we don’t use that because it doesn’t give us enough control over the summaries of the content or formatting we include. It’s still a solid option if you’re looking at quickly putting together a current awareness newsletter of your own.

No FOMO

One of the things this process has forced us to make our peace with is that sometimes we’ll see the perfect article or the perfect new resource the second after the issue is published. That used to cause way more newsletter anxiety than it does now. We've got more zen over the past 100 issues - it's encouraging to see how much great content is out there amongst all of the FUD.

As you can see, our process is certainly far from smooth and will inevitably continue to evolve and improve. We’re always looking for better ways to keep up with our favourite topics and more collaborative ways to discover and recommend content. If you have suggestions or want to chat to us about current awareness tools, please get in touch.

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