Why Must a Card Be a Card?

With little risk and a small investment, patrons can turn mobile phones into virtual library cards

October 29, 2010

The library world, in general, has done a poor job of keeping up with new technologies over the past decade, and that has hurt us in many ways. Many libraries and librarians are working hard to catch up, but the broader library culture is still sluggish. The world of information exchange is in constant flux, and we are slow to change. Our risk-averse, conservative approach has made many of us maladaptive.

Too often, libraries and other institutions create policies with the comfort level of the staff as the main consideration, instead of taking the patron perspective into account. Over the past year, you may have seen store clerks scanning customers’ mobile phones. Some are using coupons sent to their phones by the store, but others are simply using their phones in place of reward cards.

There are numerous apps for both iPhone and Android phones that can generate these barcodes. The customer just has to enter the reward-card number to add it to a digital keyring. Some customers simply take a picture of the back of the card. Savvy store chains like Target encourage this activity, seeing mobile phones as a whole new marketing channel.

Some libraries have reported patrons doing the same with their library cards. Our reaction? Library policies run the gamut from outright refusal to enthusiastic adoption. The biggest objection to the use of mobile phones as library cards appears to be the possibility of patron fraud. A patron could take a picture of someone else’s card, for example, or could use a sample card to generate a random barcode that follows the appropriate number pattern.

Though fraud is a valid concern, it is already possible to trick self-check machines that don’t use PINs or other fraud-prevention mechanisms. It is a relatively simple task to generate barcodes and print them out. There are a number of websites that enable anyone to do so for free. It would only take a few minutes to create a batch of barcodes if the patron had a sample card to use as a reference.

How often does that happen, though? I don’t get the sense that it’s a widespread problem. Is it really that risky to allow a patron to use a mobile phone in place of a physical library card? We could take a hardline security stance and say that any risk is too much, but why hold back a service option from all patrons because of the potential abuse of a few? Most of the risk could be eradicated by simply requiring a patron to give a PIN at the self-check station or the circulation desk.

The only real monetary cost to libraries would be the possible need to buy more modern scanners. Standard one-dimensional laser scanners don’t work well with images on screens, but there are exceptions. For example, the $250 hand scanners at my library are not able to read my mobile phone, but the $60 scanner I use at home reads my Droid X screen with no problem. The newer two-dimensional scanners work best, though, and have the additional benefit of being able to scan QR codes, which are also growing in popularity.

Ultimately, the real issue is with libraries, not with the phones or the patrons. In the end, the biggest reason to accept mobile phones as library cards is simple, old-fashioned customer service. More patrons will want to be able to use their phones in this way, and it is a relatively simple service option to offer. We should adapt to their world; after all, they are the reason for our existence.

JESSE EPHRAIM is the director of Roanoke (Tex.) Public Library.


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