Friday, February 3, 2012

A Modest Defense of QR Codes in the Library

Last summer, the library where I work began to use QR codes to link our print serials to their electronic counterparts. In short, we created a code for each title, and scanning that code will take one to a site, usually in a database, where one can search issues we don't have in print. I wouldn't say it's tremendously successful, but a large part of that is because few people use our print serials, and our budget reflects that. Since I've been here, our print serials budget has contracted by fifty percent, and that's no accident. I'd rather spend money elsewhere. But we do what we can to promote our resources, and QR codes are a part of that.

In addition, we're linking the stacks, in which books are shelved by subject area, to online resource guides, also using QR codes, and we're going to do something similar for individual books, at least the more popular ones, based on how often they circulate. For these and reserve books, we're going to link to online resource guides and our federated search, via QR code stickers in the books. All of this is trackable, so we'll see how it goes. Just as important, all of this is free. All it costs is time. And so when I see QR codes under attack, I'm a bit confused; healthy skepticism is always a good lens to view technology, but nobody is forcing anyone to use them. Here are some of the (increasingly) popular critiques.

I'll expand on these below, and add two others.
  1. The first two tweets, which come to us via the Handheld Librarian conference and American Library Association Mid-Winter Meeting, Tech Trends, respectively, state that QR codes are a fad.
  2. The third, also from ALA Mid-Winter, refers to QR codes as a prime example of the "garbage can" model of decision-making. 
  3. QR codes are hideously ugly.
  4. The neo-Marxist and/or (post)structuralist critique.
I will tackle these arguments in order.

Calling QR codes a fad is a bit like calling VHS tapes or compact discs a fad. These codes have been employed in Japan for over 15 years. Yes, they probably won't last, but what technology does? Fifteen years is quite a bit of time for a "transitional technology." Moreover, by any metric one chooses, QR code scans are increasing, not decreasing. If this is a fad, it's still on the upswing. 
The second critique is paradoxically both more powerful and less so. Is it the former because I can't disagree with it. It is the latter, because, well, who cares? Yes, QR codes may be a solution in search of a problem, but if one's aims, one's goals, are limited, they are a powerful and elegant solution to a problem. There is a proverb that goes something like, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." And yet, we, as librarians, have many tools in our tool belts. QR codes are one of them. They are not a panacea, nor should they be. Have modest goals and expectations in mind, and they may serve you well. 
The third misses the point completely. If one thinks QR codes are ugly, then make them more attractive. All one needs to do to manipulate a code, turning it into something approximating art, is have a computer, an internet connection, and an imagination. Furthermore, the author of this article, also referenced above at number 3, fails to understand that QR codes differ from writing down a URL (and why not do both, if this is the concern?) because scanning a code is participatory and interactive in ways that writing something down are not. And that brings us to the fourth critique.

QR codes, according to neo-Marxists and/or (post)structuralists, offer the illusion of participation, of interactivity, but nothing more. It is no accident, according to this criticism, that QR codes began as advertisements, and that the barcode itself was popularized to sell Wrigley's gum is another piece of evidence cited in this school(s) of thought. Libraries should be spaces free of the trappings of late 20th- and early-21st century capitalism, a refuse from ads, from otherwise-omnipresent corporate activities. In this critique, scanning a code is not a form of play, it is something more insidious because the codes themselves are inextricably linked to their origins. Thus, the codes function as advertisements, but are cloaked in play, in interactivity. QR codes, to paraphrase Joseph Schumpeter, prepare souls for capitalism.

I admit that this final critique appeals to the academic in me, and as always, discussion is welcomed. I do think it is possible to divorce QR codes from their origins, to make them emancipatory. Again, they are a tool, no more evil than a hammer or a screwdriver. What QR codes serve, what role they play, determine their worth. A counter-argument that takes the neo-Marxists and/or (post)structuralists head on would state that QR codes are a symbol of modernity, a sign and signifier of technological prowess, that the library "gets it," whatever it is, though such an argument would still be structured within a capitalist hegemony.

SOPA Poster QR Code At my place of work, QR codes work. We have limited goals for them, and they suffice. And we're not alone. There's a wiki page devoted to using QR codes in library settings, mentioning what works, and what does. Our most popular library blog post achieved that distinction almost solely because I papered the campus with these flyers on January 17th, 2012. There were 80 views via the QR coded embedded on the flyer, far more than the results for the traditional way of viewing the blog, via a browser and mouse click. All that in 48 hours, on a campus with a full-time enrollment of 2400 students. In part, this is a function of our user population. Many, if not most, do not own a computer, or have internet access, but many, if not most, own a smartphone. In sum, we know our audience and we have limited aims for how we use QR codes. They do what we want them to, no more, and no less. Below is my presentation at the Catholic University of America's School of Library Science Bridging the Spectrum 2012 Symposium (quite a name, yes?), in which I say just this, with funny pictures (image credits in the presentation), some of which are above. Qr Codes Cua-slis

1 comment:

  1. I'm still skeptical, but maybe I won't write them completely off. It's still all about why I do things. I took my time before creating Twitter and Facebook accounts for my library, even though I've been in charge of marketing and outreach for years. I finally did it because I found a reason why.

    I hope you keep your readers up-to-date about how the projects in your library go.