What (good) are QR codes?

My email in QR

The future is here. Well, not really. But these are fun.

The jumbled graph above is my email address, depicted as a barcode that is referred to as a QR Code. QR stands for “Quick Response,” and the QR Code is designed to do exactly that: provide a quick response to a user’s request for more information. These codes are used in a specific context: they are for use by internet-enabled mobile phone users only. Certain mobile phones (currently, they are in heavy use in Japan, though they are beginning to be noticeable elsewhere) can take a picture of the code, and, using a piece of software (iDecode, say, for the iPhone), be directed to the content–be it a URL, an email address or even a pre-formatted SMS message.

Imagining the utility of a code like this in one of its more popular incarnations and the purpose becomes a little more clear: a concert advertisement plastered on the side of a building has a QR code linking to an online ticket vendor. What better way to populate your show with potential concertgoers? If they can book while waiting for the bus, the less likely they are to have a second thought before Googling it at home after dinner. Convenience is key, and in a mobile world, there is no reason not to provide it.

HarperCollins has announced that they will be launching exclusive book-related content through QR Codes this summer, and there are even the odd movie or concert promotion taking place in North America now via this mobile content. Here is one I saw in a local Vancouver newspaper:

Rogers QR Promo

After I noticed that one, I saw one on a box of Swiffer refills I bought recently:

Swiffer QR

Extending the QR code to the library is a process that can extend the accessibility and utility of library catalogs, as well as library promotion. Recently, Bath University, one of the leaders in implementing QR in UK libraries, held a contest in which users had to decode a QR Code on their phone, and present it to library staff to claim a prize. The object of this was to raise awareness of QR Codes and generate some ideas on how users thought QR Codes could be leveraged in their learning activities. Some results of this were reported on their blog.

Some library catalogs have also begun to include QR Codes with their records. Here is an example (again from the UK). Imagine looking this book up on the public access catalog terminal (saving you the search time and effort on your phone’s tiny keyboard), scanning the QR Code and walking with the full record and call number in the palm of your hand. No more scrounging for golf pencils and cut-up catalog cards. Hooray! (Might I also mention that cool delicious and bookseller links they included with this library record? LOVE it.)

There are some real issues here of course, not the least of which is that most library patrons (particularly those, I imagine, in the public library system) just don’t have smartphones that can access the internet. A QR Code as a certain aesthetic appeal, to be sure, but without a Blackberry or iPhone it can’t take you much farther than that. This doesn’t mean that innovation in this area isn’t valuable for libraries, but if you’re already strapped for resources, maybe an SMS reference campaign is something to consider first. Or, you know, shelve it for now, since keeping your library open may be challenge enough these days.

More on QR Codes:

7 Things you should know about QR codes (Educause, pdf)
Piloting the use of QR Codes in teaching and learning (JISC)
QR Codes at Bath (Bath University blog)
QR Code Generator / Another

Bonus for fun:

QR Code Cake (Fun Flickr set)
QR Code design for Marc Jacobs (QR Codes invade the public consciousness in Japan)


2 thoughts on “What (good) are QR codes?

  1. Another whammo post, Daniel.

    A few suggestions:

    – check your spelling of ‘convenience’
    – this is a techy post, but you mention library applications – what about QR Codes in reference services?
    – isn’t the QR Code fad about ‘mobile geo-orientation’?
    – Is this how we might be able to sell the technology?

    Good work,


    1. Thanks, Dean. A typo! As a former English major, that has chilled me to the core.

      As for QR in reference? I’m not sure what we can do there, because the QR code has to be pre-generated to point somewhere. Perhaps signs advertising AskAway or similar virtual reference service carry a QR code to a mobile-friendly client. Other informational boards, or ready reference things could carry links to more information or (gasp) Wikipedia or encyclopedic articles.

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by Mobile geo-orientation. Orienting technology around a GPS enabled phone technology? Orienting our library services around mobile phones? Some combination of the two? QR codes could certainly assist in providing quick links to information about the place in which you find yourself (a campus map, for example), but the door is open I think to take our thinking about mobile tech further than that–into a realm of this concept of mobiquity or “augmented” reality that the library could support by being its information base.

      But, like I said, that may be taking it too far until we see a stronger uptake of devices that can support this technology. Until then, I think it will be difficult to sell as anything more than a novelty.


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