Saturday, February 27, 2010

QR codes for libraries - some thoughts

QR code stands for "quick response", it's basically a 2D barcode that can be used to store urls, text etc.


QRcodes can be used to quickly pull data from the physical world into  mobile phones which are equipped with free QR code readers (many free ones exist,but Beetagg supports quite a few phones) automatically. Simply scan the QRcode with your phone's camera, and the QRcode reader will pull the information into your phone.


QR codes are not new and are popular in Japan, Bonnie Peirce talked about QRcodes in libraries as far back as in 2008, but was probably a bit ahead of its time. With the rise in the use of smart phones, there has recently being a spate of interest in QRcodes usage in libraries and education.

Like my earlier post this is just a blog entry to pull together all the ideas I have seen on the use of QR codes in libraries.

Andrew Walsh , University of Huddersfield  and Andy Ramsden, University of Bath have good  presentations on this. Particularly interesting all photos of use cases. I have also looked at ideas  from various blog posts (including Joeyanne , Lonewolf librarian, here also  and  tweets from the Hand Held Librarian 2). 


Thinking about usage

There are many blog posts that simply list numerous QRcode ideas for libraries, so I think it is helpful to step back and try to come up with some framework to classify the different uses.

There seems to be 2 main uses,

(1) Embed QR codes in the virtual world (e.g. blogs, online catalogues, webpages,)

(2) Add QR codes in the real world (e.g. At book shelves, checkout machines, posters)

The other aspect seems to be what data is embedded in the QR codes, again there seems to be two main choices

(1) A URL (maybe even to a RSS feed)

(2) Some other data (Text, SMS, Phone number, email)

I think there are other more exotic data that can be encoded? (Vcard formats? geolocations?) using various QRcode generators , but this suffices for now.

I think is that while you can easily embed a url for QRcodes, if the destination (OPAC, blog etc) is not mobile friendly, it might not be such a good idea to link to the site?

For example, the University of Bath Libraries, embeds QRcodes to each library catalogue, scanning the QRcodes yields you text - The title , the author and the call number/location, rather than bringing you to the Online catalogue.

I suspect this is because the university of Bath Libraries' catalogue is not mobile friendly. Even if the library has a mobile friendly catalogue is it really better to link to the online record itself? I'm not sure.

In any case, the more mobile friendly your site is, the far more use you get out of QRcodes, because you can directly them seamlessly to a mobile friendly site. Without mobile friendly sites you can still of course embed urls, it just wouldn't be that effective, as the user would need to struggle to surf on a site that isn't suitable for mobile surfing.


Embed QR codes in the virtual world


This seems a little counter-intuitive, QR codes have being described as a way to link the physical world with the digital world, so why would one embed a QR code on a webpage? Simple, a QR code that appears on a computer screen can be scanned as well as one in the real world! 


It seems to me though, that the use cases for this category of QRcodes, rests on the assumption that users are surfing on a regular desktop/laptop and then want some fast way to get information from the screen to their mobiles. 


Libraries are currently betting that mobile surfing will become huge in the future, so the importance of these use cases might diminish in the future. 



  1. Online catalogues
  2. Library Blogs
  3. Other Library webpages & virtual material

Online catalogues


This is the most obvious use case. These days, it's very common for users to show me library catalogue records (call numbers, titles) on their hand phones when I'm at the desk. This seems to be quickly replacing scribbled notes on paper. I'm never worked out the courage to ask them though, how they got the information onto the handphones. 

I suspect, most of them used desktop/laptop computers (either at home or used the ones in the library) to look up the book they want, and then they entered it into their handphones manually, where in the past they would write it on their notebooks. 

As a side note, another way would be to take a photo of the record online (bonus points if they used Evernote which has text recognition capabilities), but  this probably hasn't occurred to most users yet. 

This is obviously very awkward and slow ,compared to just scanning the QRcode. As mentioned earlier, the University of Bath Libraries, allows users to scan the QRcode, and information about the item is pulled into the phone.

So far, we have being talking about library records for physical books, but what if the record is for a online database or electronic book? Perhaps in such cases, it makes more sense for the url to be pushed to the phone.

Since many databases like EBSCohost are beginning to make mobile friendly interfaces, this works well. For ebooks, can I imagine a day, where scanning the QRcodes checkouts the ebook and desposits it into your phone? With Overdrive being supported on Android phones this might be possible one day.

One wonders though with mobile friendly catalogues and the rise of mobile surfing, would the need for QRcodes (at least for this use case) diminish, since one could directly view the information on the webpage? Probably not, since it would still be awkward to save the page or copy and paste the information from a mobile friendly OPAC. Also sometimes you want the information to be on your phone without relying on wireless connections. 

Library Blogs
This one is obvious, simply generate a QRcode that goes to your library blog url. Since most blogs are automatically mobile friendly, this works well. Many libraries today are on Facebook, Twitter etc, and almost all social networking sites have mobile friendly versions as well, so linking to these accounts work fine as well. 

Other Library webpages & virtual material



You can basically embed QRcodes on any webpage you control. LibGuides has a mobile friendly page (though it doesn't auto-detect) so you can link to that as well on any instructional material or on LibGuides itself.


Besides urls one could embed

(1) Phone numbers, emails or contact numbers
(2) SMS for textalibrary type services,
(3) Text or geolocations of the library location (sends you to Google maps?)

Anything else?  Could one embed QRCodes in powerpoint presentations? This could work fine in sessions held in computer labs, where everyone has access to the powerpoint presentations on a desktop, though one wonders how easy it would be to scan QRcodes off a large slide projector!


Add QR codes in the real world


This class of use cases are probably more interesting. The problem here is that you can add QRcodes to literally any real world location both within and outside the library, hence there are many  possible ideas. Add the fact that QRcodes cost nothing to generate (except maybe a bit of ink), and one can go crazy with them.

But when should one embed additional information in a QRcode and what information should be added? The paradigm example could be a real-world object, say an object on display, and a QRcode to meta-data. Perhaps links to constantly updated information such as schedules, interactive media that work well on computers.

But one must be careful not to leave out users who do not use QRcodes. It seems to me in most cases you must include information in both normal text form as well as in QRcode. Sure you could add QRcodes to promotion material say link to your webpage, but you definitely need the text as well.

But should one provide equal access to information and interactivity to users who use QRcodes and non-users? Sometimes it's not possible.


Some ideas here

(1) Posters and promotional material

The usual things could be added here, QRcodes to urls (see here), contact details of librarians etc. If it's an event it can be a link to the events calender booking system, or just the event details if no booking is required, or geolocations to googlemaps etc

(2) Book/Journal shelves

QRcodes at print journal shelves, linking to electronic versions?

As for book shelves, perhaps each book shelf could be embedded with QRcodes linking to catalogue records, reading lists/recommended books in the specific shelves. Special collections could link to metadata, video, podcast, feedback, interactive game etc


(3) Individual books or journals

Could QRcodes totally replace barcodes? QRcodes could possibly be linked to RFID tags, so users could do self-check outs. Even if they did not, librarians could be armed with Itouches and roving librarians could quickly check status of books.

If this is too much effort, one could this for

(4) At self-check machines or various locations of interest

Create instructional views on how to use self-check machine on YouTube? Add a QRcode that goes to the YouTube video. Want to book a discussion room or computer? Scan a QRcode that sends you to the online booking system.

Have a book display? Add QRcodes to the book covers!

(5) Direction/Signs

Makes signs more interactive. Instead of just a sign that says "Level 5 : Reference" , perhaps the user could scan the QRcode and be sent to a webpage describing the level? Or Flickr pictures? How about a treasure hunt/library orientation?

(6) Others

QRcode on business cards? Use QRcontacts to generate QRcodes of your contacts on Iphone screen. Frequently asked videos or podcasts on pads at the reference desk? or even on Librarian shirts? QRcodes to location based sites like foursquare? Use in classrooms? Or totally wild ideas like augmented reality.

Other issues



Okay I was trying not to make this just into a list of possible uses, but I failed.

One issue is that it's unclear how many of our users are aware or willing to use QRcodes but this Bath University survey indicates about 14%  know what a QRcode is, but only 2% have used one.

Another issue, how do you ensure QRcode you add are not tampered with?
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