Situated Questions and Answers: Responding to Library Users with QR Codes

By Hicks, Alison; Sinkinson, Caroline | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Situated Questions and Answers: Responding to Library Users with QR Codes


Hicks, Alison, Sinkinson, Caroline, Reference & User Services Quarterly


This study employs the case study approach to examine a QR code pilot implemented at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CUB) Libraries in Fall 2010 using Microsoft Tag. Through observations and experiences gathered during the pilot, the study seeks to identify effective implementation strategies while also revealing benefits and challenges to be considered when managing similar QR code projects in academic library settings. The findings support continued investigation of QR codes to respond to the growing mobile device trends among college students and as a means to bridge virtual and physical library services, resources, and tools. Through the CUB pilot description, interested librarians will gain perspectives on implementation, benefits, and challenges, which will prove useful in pursuing similar projects.

From June 2000 to June 2010, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry reported that cell phone ownership in US households grew 59 percent.1 As ownership has expanded so too have the ways in which individuals use these devices in their daily lives. The Pew Internet Trust Mobile Access Report, 2010, found that 40 percent of adults with cell phones use them for non-voice related tasks, such as taking pictures, text messaging, Internet access, e-mailing, video creation, and instant messaging. (2) The Nielsen Company's 2010 Mobile Youth around the World report found that "young people around the world are more immersed in mobile technology than any previous generation." (3) Of United States mobile device owners age 15-24, 83 percent use advanced data features, such as Internet access. (4)

Given these findings, it seems likely that accessing the Internet via a mobile device rather than a traditional computer will only become more widespread. Yet mobile devices are not miniature PCs. (5) The specific characteristics of mobile devices, such as small screens and keyboards, data plans, seamless connectivity and mobility mean that users are creating new reasons and ways to seek information. It is thus vitally important that libraries, as information providers, can meet the new expectations to adapt to and engage with the new information retrieval practices of library users.

One way that libraries can respond is to capitalize on the ubiquity and instant connectivity of mobile devices to link the virtual and the physical library. As library users have become increasingly dependent on electronic access, librarians have worked to enhance their virtual presence with services such as instant messaging, with learning tools such as online research guides, and with research resources such as electronic databases. While these services are indeed valuable, the physical library remains an essential factor in supporting the research and learning needs of users. Librarians exhibit commitment to the physical space through the renewed emphasis on the library as place in the development of learning commons. (6) However, rather than approaching the virtual and physical library as distinct efforts, greater service enhancement might be achieved by building a bridge between the virtual and physical library for users. QR codes present one method of doing so by leveraging near extensive mobile device ownership.

QR Codes, or quick response codes, are two-dimensional barcodes, which can be read by a scanner found on Internet enabled mobile devices. Previously, one dimensional line barcodes enabled quick and efficient connection between physical objects and identifying details, as evidenced by library circulation systems, store and industry inventory, and mailing or shipping systems. QR codes, developed by Denso Wave in 1994, build on the functionality of these original barcodes but far extend the possibilities and application. (7) Not only is the amount of information stored within a QR code much greater, but the type of information has also expanded to include text, URLs, phone numbers and other data. …

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