Archive for December, 2010

QR code 101

In the Law Library, we’re in the process of developing a series of short instructional podcasts to walk users through every day library procedures, like setting up a photocopying account or placing a stack request.

It makes sense to promote these resources at the point of need. In the case of setting up a PCAS account, for example, that might be in the photocopying room. To join the dots we’re thinking of using QR codes. As we decide whether to use QR codes and how to promote them if we do, I wanted to make a quick guide explaining what a QR code is and how libraries have been using them to help their readers.

What is a QR code?

A QR code is a bar code that you can scan using a camera phone or smart phone. It can be programmed to take you to a URL, play an mp3, or send a text. It’s a blocky pixelly thing that looks like this:


And here is a QR code made from waffles.

How can I read a QR code?

Some phones come with a QR code reader pre-installed. If your phone doesn’t, you can search online for a program compatible with your make of phone, and download the software online for free.

I’m not about to endorse any particular program, but it looks like the following are compatible with many different brands and models of phone. Check the links below to see if your phone is compatible with them:

None of this is particularly complicated for the technology-savvy smartphone-owning crowd, but it is an initial barrier to participation, and I see installing this software as one of the biggest hurdles to our readers using QR codes. I think it’s important to be realistic and to provide clear guides to QR codes at the stage when we are promoting them in order to counter that.

How can I create a QR code?

I made the QR code above over at kaywa. It took a couple of seconds and no money. Go try it! There are a bunch of other sites where you can make a QR code online, including bit.ly and goo.gl (this is a bit more of a faff: you need to add .qr to the end of a shortened URL, as explained here).

QR codes and libraries

The Library Success wiki has a page listing libraries that use QR codes and how they’ve been using them.

The University of Huddersfield has used QR codes in their library to link students to video tutorials, as well as to electronic versions of journals and books. You can read a write-up of their experiences introducing QR codes into the library over here (pdf). Despite their efforts, the take-up amongst students remained quite low, and they discuss why that might have been the case.

At the University of Bath, QR codes appear on the library OPAC (here’s their record forFlim-flam! psychics, ESP, unicorns and other delusions) so that students can save the record and shelf mark on their phone, and refer to them later. As a student I collected lots of dog-eared scraps of paper with incomplete references on them; this seems like a much more reliable technique. QR codes are also included in library floorplans, where the QR code links to an mp3 tour of that floor.

In Guided by Barcodes, Meredith Farkas points out the potential for using QR codes in museums and cultural heritage institutions:

An academic library with a collection of historic campus photos could post QR codes at sites around campus. Each barcode would link users to historic photos of that location. A museum could provide additional information about an artifact with a QR code at the end of the item description or could even use it to link patrons to related content such as videos or primary source material.

Possible Pitfalls

I feel like QR codes are not particularly well known in the UK. This is confirmed by a survey carried out by the University of Bath in February 2009. In “Are students ready for QR codes?“, only about 13% of students surveyed knew what a QR code was, and just two percent had previously accessed one. However, the same survey showed that 92% of students owned a camera phone, which is the basic requirement for reading a QR code.

It’s probably worth saying that QR codes may not be a good fit for every library. Using them assumes that a significant proportion of your user base owns a relatively new model of mobile phone, and is comfortable downloading and installing software. On the other side of the equation, if a QR code is used as a link to a URL, it requires having at least a passably mobile phone-friendly website.

Over the past few years libraries have embraced technologies precisely because were popular amongst their patrons. I think it’s great that libraries are doing IM reference and updating their readers about snow days over twitter. By contrast, many library users are probably not aware of QR codes at all. I worry that attempts to introduce QR codes into libraries might not catch on because they seem rather top down — students are instructed to adopt a service which, however useful it may be, isn’t familiar to them.

At the very least, as more and more people own internet-enabled phones and it becomes more common place to use them to check email or go online (something like 91% of mobile phones owned in the UK can access the internet, and in a survey 1 in 6 adults in the UK said they had used a mobile phone to go online), it makes sense to develop services for the library which incorporate mobile phones.

This has turned into a bit of a novel. If you want to read even more about QR codes, check out the following:

Jo Alcock : Bar code and QR code fun

Lex Rigby: QR codes in libraries and higher education

Robin Ashford: QR codes and academic libraries: reaching mobile users

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My supervisor sent me a link to this article in the Times Higher Education Supplement about the present and future of academic librarians.  It’s interesting food for thought, and might also be useful for those with interviews coming up!

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