That Barcode Thingy


QR Code I am the FutureIn her lecture this week, Meredith alluded to the fact that the wisdom of QR Code usage in libraries remains controversial.

Which is it gonna be?  

Will QR Codes infiltrate even tombstone epitaphs or are we writing epitaphs for QR Codes? 

Until Meredith’s lecture and this week’s readings, I was pretty steeped in the doomsday scenario view of QR Codes.

In Michael Stephen’s LIBR 281 Transformative Learning & Technology Literacies class, my team built a Library 2.0 abbreviated 23 Things for an actual library.  The elementary school librarian who commissioned our project specifically asked that one of the modules cover QR Codes, which he expected to have great applicability for his elementary school library.  When our design team checked in with Michael Stephens, however, Michael voiced an extremely lukewarm assessment of the future of QR Codes.  Not a stance you might expect from a guru of transformative technologies. He was firmly in the camp predicting their demise in library settings.   The next semester, Michael shared the following from a fellow blogger and QR naysayer: http://implementingqrcodesinlibraries.org/

In an October 22, 2011 post to his Tame the Web blog, Michael featured an article by the blogger and marketing strategist Sean X Cummings, entitled Why the QR Code is Failing.  If you scroll down to the comments section, notice also that, in response to Michael’s request for library success stories about QR Codes, Alison Hicks chimes in about the work that she and Caroline Sinkinson put forth in the article from our reading list this week.

Cummings lays out one of the potential nails in the QR Code coffin.  Basically it goes something like this:  If QR Codes are deployed to perform an existing function and don’t do so with added elegance and efficiency, they are doomed.   The application must offer some compelling enticement to overcome the prevailing lack of knowledge about QR Codes.  The “barcode thingy” reference in this post’s title is based on one of the more frequent responses to Cummings’ ad hoc street survey about QR Code recognition by your average Joe and Joanna.

In spite of his criticisms, Cummings isn’t totally down on QR Codes in his field of advertising.  He just thinks they’ve been used without much imagination. That is definitely worth pondering in the library context as well.   This week’s examples of QR Codes in libraries, particularly Meredith’s excellent contextual instruction applications, make that a more promising exercise…one that has actually given me my first real glimmers of hope about QR Codes.  I can see QR Code instructions at some of our pesky “points of pain,” to borrow Meredith’s expression….for instance, our danged dinosaur of a color printer and our brand new vinyl cutters.  I can also see QR Codes working well as a way to showcase ebooks by genre in our library’s new bookstore layout.

QR CodeBut, honestly, I remain a bit of a skeptic.  I am concerned that the payoff, in terms of usefulness to the patron, is not yet worth the effort on the part of librarians.   We have so much to do to improve our point-of-need service. Rushing QR Codes to the top of the priority list would be a bit like slapping a new technology on an old edifice.   In my pocket of Asia, QR Codes are not yet the rage.  And, until they are, QR Code deployment would add just a new instructional burden, swirling around the very basic question of what is that barcode thingy?   

Images used in this post:

Alpha. (June 26, 2008). Telstra Mobile Codes Demo. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/2611750549/in/photostream/
Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

N Stjerna. (December 2, 2009). Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/24005067@N06/4153941728  Available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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8 Responses to That Barcode Thingy

  1. ZemLee says:

    Which is it gonna be? Will QR Codes infiltrate even tombstone epitaphs or are we writing epitaphs for QR Codes?

    Love it! Yes!

    Ruth, like you, I really am on the fence over these “barcode thingys” (smile–you hooked me for sure with that title!). To point out the obvious, they really don’t look very attractive. I mean, neither do actual bar-codes, but unless they serve an immediate purpose (like affixed on library books for self-check out for example) most of the time they’re accompanied by some sort of colorful packaging. It’s the packaging that lures a consumer in, and it’s the bar code that checks them out and maintains the inventory for whatever item needs to be tracked. I really have to think of QR codes as the same kind of thing. I don’t think it’s enough to put a poster up with words about a resource and then a QR code and expect it to be enough to entice someone to take out their phones because they want to know more. You hit it dead on with that Cummings quote: If QR Codes are deployed to perform an existing function and don’t do so with added elegance and efficiency, they are doomed.

    Sure, it’s really a super fast way to link people to information, but if we talk about the accessibility issues with putting everything on the Web, we’re dealing with even more accessibility issues with assuming most everyone has a personal device that can read these codes in the first place.

    [I’m thinking now that maybe I should have just written about this in my blog for the week as I can see my mind going haywire with so many conflicting arguments on the topic of QR codes…]

    Really, it’s a great idea but needs more finessing. Curious to see what everyone else has to say on the topic!

    • embendered says:

      Zem, you highlight two important considerations that libraries experimenting with QR Codes must attempt to solve: accessibility and usefulness. If they don’t, their QR Code foray becomes a gimmick, or as you point out, a form of advertising that just dead ends. Libraries posting QR Codes must invest in helping users who don’t know what a QR Code is nor how to use it…eg., post the abbreviated URL or have a fleet of QR-capable devices in the library for patrons to use. But the higher order consideration, I think, is that ibraries need to insure that the QR Code destination is valuable to the patron. Just a few unrewarding trips down the QR Code path can convince patrons that QR Codes have offer nothing.

      I hadn’t thought about QR Codes as unattractive so I was very interested to hear that reaction. I certainly think their appearance alone is capable of confusing the heck out of people and ratcheting up “library anxiety” to new levels. I can just hear my parents, for instance, despairing about yet another newfangled thingy. One additional observation I have about their appearance is that, when presented on a small scale, they often have a way of disappearing into any interface. This, I think, is both a blessing and a curse. They could act beautifully as unobtrusive, point-of-need portals to more in depth information OR they could just be overlooked altogether.

      Hmmm. So I agree: Great Idea. Needs Finessing!

  2. hannah says:

    Honestly, I’ve never been too excited about QR codes. I know it is a quick way to access information, but it also seems like we’re adding another step or just replacing one step with another. I like Meredith’s point about placing QR codes on instructional handouts for students to use to access additional information, but since not everyone has a smart phone, we’d have to include a URL as well, and having both is kinda silly as it clutters up the page, so we might as well only provide the URL.

    That said, I’m not exactly against QR codes or similar technology. Maybe they will take off some day. Maybe they work in particular setting and not others because although many people seem to think they are useless, others have seen good results.

    I downloaded a QR scanner on my phone over a year ago and haven’t used it since. I guess I’ve just haven’t come across a QR code that enticed me enough to pull out my phone and scan. In theory, I can see how it would be cool to go to a museum or someplace and be able to scan a QR code to get additional information about an art or historical object, but I don’t want to walk about a museum with my nose in my phone. I want a more physical and emotional experience.

    • embendered says:

      Me too! I have a QR scanner on my phone but rarely use it. But I remain open to the possibility that I might one day get on board! Perhaps the more success stories we gather, the more likely that becomes. Here’s one:

      I just communicated with the elementary school librarian for whom my team built the QR Code module back in November 2012. I asked him if QR Codes live on in his library today. He gave an enthusiastic YES!

      They use QR Codes in 3 ways:
      1) throughout the collection, which is arranged by genre, to give kids and parents an idea about what books they’ll find in that section,
      2) on book jackets for accessing a student-produced book trailer,
      3) and throughout the 4th & 5th grades where every student keeps a yearlong bibliography on a Google doc of any sources used for projects (images, music websites, books etc). Each student’s bibliography is linked to a QR code which then sits at the end of multimedia or digital projects in lieu of a more traditional citation list. Kinda cool.

      His library has a bunch of iPads for kids to use in the library to read QR Codes and the 4th and 5th Grades have their own sets. Access problem: solved! The QR Code destinations are student created….genre lists based on student recommendation, trailers produced by students, bibliographies tied to student learning. Usefulness issue: solved!

      These kids know that there is something worthwhile on the others side of a QR Code. They are schooled and will be on the alert for them everywhere. Pretty cool.

  3. Meredith Farkas says:

    As I’m sure you gleaned from my lecture, I, too, am on the fence about QR codes. There are so many clever ways that they can be used, but they’re a technology that has not increased in terms of adoption (at least in the U.S. and Canada) which seriously limits their viability. I know Michael Stephens is vehemently against QR codes, but I think some libraries have used them in smart ways and I think they can be used in promising ways for instruction (scavenger hunts, games, etc.) if you tell people in advance what app they need or provide student teams with devices. Like you mention in the comment above, it totally makes sense in some contexts. But when you think of how easy QR codes are to implement, even if they only benefit a very small portion of your population, they’re still benefitting someone and might be worth the tiny amount of effort.

  4. Oscar says:

    Hey, I’m glad you brought up the Farkas lecture early on in your post. I literally could listen to her all day. I don’t know what it is. I think she has practiced writing and storytelling for so long that she now just effortlessly weaves mental tapestries that feel like the gentle breeze from a unicorn flipping its mane.

  5. georgereads says:

    Ruth, your opinion about QR codes is one of the most balanced I’ve read yet. I, George, am admittedly a QR code freak. I completely understand when people tell me they don’t see the point, especially if they are just linking to existing content. In the beginning of the academic year, I did rush them to the top of my overwhelming to-do list. There was a short lived buzz in the library with our lower primary students. I linked QR codes to book talks by teachers and students and put them on random books in the library. The students used our ipods to scan them. It was a cheap hook to get more kids into the library and check out books. They were excited about them. However, the upkeep takes a lot of time out of other important projects and potential collaboration time. If you are that rare librarian who has ample support staff–go for it! Moreover, I think those kinds of activities might be better suited to do as a class then as a ‘always available’ activity in the library. Lesson learned : ) Thanks for your insightful post!

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