E-Discovery with QR Codes

Connecting physical and digital content

February 27, 2013

The fully electronic collection is pretty far from being a reality at most libraries. Given the current limitations of ebooks and the large print collections that libraries continue to manage and grow, most libraries exist in a hybrid space where much is digital, but also, much is still in print. For patrons, this can be confusing, as most libraries still don’t have a single system for searching all of it. Libraries have a lot of great stuff, but surfacing it for our users can be a challenge.

In addition to better online discovery tools, libraries need ways to connect what is in the physical library to digital holdings. QR codes are one possible solution. These are square barcodes that any camera-enabled mobile phone can read with a free downloaded application. There are plenty of free websites where librarians can create QR codes that will take patrons to a specific URL, send a text, load a video, and much more. What excites me about QR codes is their ability to connect the physical world with the digital, building a bridge between our various content types.

With the conversion of subscriptions to print serials and reference works to buying digital publications, it can often be difficult for patrons to know where to look for a specific volume. While our catalogs tell users about the physical and digital holdings, our print collections rarely provide clues about their digital complements. At George Fox University in Portland, Oregon, librarian ­Robin Ashford has put QR codes at the ends of some print journal runs that link patrons to the electronic ­record for the journal. Similarly, at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, librarians have put QR codes next to the current issues of their journals to lead patrons to the online ­version.

Many libraries have developed pathfinders and research guides on specific subject areas, but these treasure troves of information are often underutilized by those who could most benefit. At the Half Hollow Hills Community Library, serving Dix Hills and Melville, New York, posters with QR codes that link to pathfinders are placed in the stacks near books on the relevant subject. In academic libraries, I could imagine putting fliers or posters that link patrons to specific research guides in departmental offices, lounges, and labs. Getting this content out of the library and at users’ points of need could provide tremendous value.

While QR codes are simple to implement and provide a great service for those who use them, they suffer from some major limitations. Many people don’t know what they are, and most phones in the United States don’t come standard with a QR code reader. In light of this, librarians can also generate shortened URLs (using tools like ­Bitly, ­TinyURL, and goo.gl) that ­people can easily ­enter into a smartphone or tablet.

I see QR codes as a stop-gap solution toward better tools for connecting the physical and digital worlds. A technology like near-field communications (think RFID) could take a patron’s phone to an online tutorial on how to use the microfilm scanner as soon as he or she approaches the machine. With mobile visual search, a patron could take a picture of a journal and have the electronic version pulled up ­automatically. These technologies are still not quite ready for prime time in libraries, but near-field communications especially holds promise for easily connecting our users to our collections, instructional content, and more.

At this point in our history, libraries need to think about how the various pieces of our fragmented collections fit together. Using QR codes or other technologies to bridge the divide between physical and digital holdings will help patrons navigate this often-perplexing information landscape.

MEREDITH FARKAS is head of instructional services at Portland (Oreg.) State University. She blogs at Information Wants to Be Free and created Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. Contact her at librarysuccess[at]gmail.com.


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