ALA Midwinter 2011: Straight from the Stacks to the SmartphoneBy Michael Kelley Jan 20, 2011
As quick response (QR) codes become more prominent in daily life, librarians are seeking the best way to incorporate this simple and free technology into their operations.
At a discussion group on January 8 during the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting in San Diego, four academic librarians gave details on pilot projects at their institutions.
Benjamin Rawlins, a systems librarian at Kentucky State University's Blazer Library, described a pilot program he led, "Application and Mobility: Extending Library Services with QR Codes."
"I think that QR codes are an excellent tool to reach mobile users," Rawlins told Library Journal in a follow-up interview. "As we see more and more patrons with smartphones, libraries need to find ways to adapt and offer services to reach those patrons, and QR codes provide that bridge."
QR codes at Blazer Library are incorporated into the catalog records. To the right of the typical bibliographic information, embedded with other choices such as "print" or "email," is a QR code that patrons can scan in order to deliver the bibliographic record to their mobile device.
Blazer Library is also planning to create QR codes for the library's mobile resources, so that a patron could scan a code and be taken, for example, to the library's mobile website, or the mobile catalog, or to a host of EBSCO databases.
"QR codes offer the ability for libraries to connect the physical environment with the digital environment, which is increasingly important as more materials become available electronically," Rawlins said.
Connecting physical objects to virtual locations
This desire to bridge the physical and digital environment also motivated Caroline Sinkinson, a research and instruction librarian at the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who, along with her colleague Alison Hicks, devised a program called "QR Code Connections Pilot" this past fall.
Sinkinson said she had read Jeff Wisniewski's "Bridging the Other Digital Divide" before starting the project, and the article, which discusses how a QR code "comes closer to the frictionless convergence of the online and the real world" than other technologies, helped define the project's goals.
"Part of our motivation in exploring QR codes was to see how they could act as a conduit between the physical and digital space at the library," Sinkinson said.
Sinkinson wanted her project to have a narrow scope so that she could measure its impact. "We looked at the literature and the different generators, and we chose Microsoft Tag," she said at the session. "[It] has strong reporting and statistical capability, plus it's easy to use, and it's free. It was easy for us to just do it and explore," she said.
Sinkinson's project focused on wayfinding, technology, and librarian contact.
The wayfinding, essentially providing maps to patrons who scan QR codes placed at strategic places throughout the library's stacks, grew from the antiquated nature of the library building, which was constructed in the 1930s.
The difficulty in navigating through the building's five floors, replete with mezzanines, plus the inconvenience of having few workstations that patrons could easily consult should they find themselves deep in the stacks made the QR codes an attractive solution.
Sinkinson generated five codes using Microsoft Tag manager, which gives the options of generating a URL, free text, vCard (electronic business card), or dialer. She then made posters, which were affixed to the end panels of rows in the stacks. A patron who scans the appropriate QR code can receive a map of the stacks, ask a question via instant messaging, call a librarian to ask a question, find out what to do if a book is not on the shelf, and find out where to check out a book.
Sinkinson also posted codes by printers and other machines to give operating instructions, as well as a large poster with a code at the reference station to provide answers for patrons when a librarian is not on duty. The most popular scan, according to the stats: the map of Norlin's stacks.
Boosting the browsing experience
Rawlins pointed to the Mobile-Barcodes site for exploring the variety of QR readers and determining whether a particular reader is compatible with a mobile device, which will be more and more necessary as patrons adopt the technology.
"[That] QR codes are a free technology is a big reason libraries will look to experiment and implement them as a way to extend services," Rawlins said. "As libraries become more aware of this technology and the benefits, I believe we will see the use of QR codes increase significantly."
He pointed to library vendors, such as Alexander Street Press, who use QR codes in their collections as another force (along with increased patron awareness) that will drive usage.
According to LJ's 2010 Mobile Libraries Survey, the majority of academic libraries (65 percent) "currently offer" or "plan to offer" services to handheld devices, including QR codes.
Danielle Kane, a research librarian for emerging technologies at the University of California-Irvine Libraries, also believes usage would grow but she added one caveat.
"[I]t really depends on if our user group will continue to use the codes and find them useful," she said. "It also depends on if the codes continue to be used in marketing and stay in the public eye or if they are used and then forgotten. It's too early in our pilot to determine their overall long-term impact."
Kane's ten-week pilot was "In the Stacks with QR Codes."
She focused on boosting the browsing experience of patrons in the art and math sections. So, for example, patrons wandering the art stacks could scan a code posted at the head of a row and be taken to the Library of Congress classification page where they could determine what call number range they needed to access.
"In the math section, the librarian wanted to highlight the SpringerLink ebook collection," Kane told LJ. "The math section is split into LC subject areas, and a code was created for the corresponding section in SpringerLink. Instead of multiple codes going to the same virtual location as in the art section, we have multiple codes that go to multiple locations."
Kane and the other panelists also said they are grappling with the best way to ensure equitable access for patrons who don't have a smartphone, such as providing a text URL as an alternative so there is no perceived preferential treatment.
The most fun use for QR codes came from Nora Dimmock, the head of the multimedia center at Rush Rhees Library of the University of Rochester, NY. The library staff created "League of Librarians" trading cards that depicted the staff as various characters (Flickr gallery here), and they use the cards as a business card. On the back is a QR code that contains all the contact information.
"It got a fabulous reception," Dimmock said.
Sinkinson said that greater user education as well as institutional coordination would be necessary if these programs were to be rolled out on a larger scale.
"The biggest barrier is patrons not knowing that their phone has this capability or that they have to download an app. We have to provide support for that," she said.
Check back for updates to Midwinter coverage this week.