QR codes at Senate House Library: a case study

Written by Andrew Preater, Information Systems Manager

Published February 24, 2012

Our situation

Staff at our Enquiries desk have noticed our readers making use of smartphones to record shelfmarks of items of interest versus pen and paper. Partly phones are used as a straight replacement for paper, simply to note shelfmarks. However, we’ve also noticed readers come to the desk to show us a record on a phone browser with a query about it.

We were not sure how readers are making the leap from the catalogue terminal to the phone though, and the members of staff that had pointed this out were not confident about questioning readers about this use of technology.

Aaron Tay makes the same observation in a blog post:

“These days, it’s very common for users to show me library catalogue records (call numbers, titles) on their hand phones when I’m at the desk. This seems to be quickly replacing scribbled notes on paper. I’m never worked out the courage to ask them though, how they got the information onto the handphones” – http://musingsaboutlibrarianship.blogspot.com/2010/02/qr-codes-for-libraries-some-thoughts.html

I found this intriguing; we could see the results but not the process. I wanted to make it easier to make the leap between catalogue and phone and knew it could be done easily.

Implementing QR codes

I was aware of the possibility of embedding a QR code into the record display as I had seen this done at other academic libraries, for example University of Bath where they encode a little metadata about catalogue records in a QR code: http://www.bath.ac.uk/library/services/qrcode.html

To smooth the process from catalogue to mobile catalogue we thought it would be simplest to encode a URL as this could be made to point to the mobile version of our catalogue (this is http://m.ulrls.lon.ac.uk – but soon to be replaced, see below). It was hoped further this would promote use of the mobile catalogue as the regular catalogue does not redirect phone browsers automatically.

Our thinking at the time was a QR code was something that unambiguously implied “this is a feature for your phone”, so decided to use this rather than just inserting a link on the catalogue record pointing to the mobile version of the same. This also proved useful for embedding analytics tracking code in our QR codes.

How we did this

Our library system is Millennium by Innovative Interfaces, Inc. and we have both their traditional library catalogue (called WebPAC) and their next-generation Encore catalogue for discovery. These are currently running in parallel.

At the time of implementation it was not possible to implement QR codes in Encore, so we enabled it in the WebPAC catalogue only (see future developments below). This was very easy and required minimal staff time to develop.

To generate the QR code image I used the Google Chart API. This is straightforward; you provide your URL as a parameter to the service and get back a QR code. To make it work on our catalogue bibliographic record display, I include this Javascript in the page head:

<script language="JavaScript" type="text/javascript" src="/screens/qrcode.js"></script>

qrcode.js looks like this:

function linkto_catalog_qr() {
        var qrairpacstub = "http://m.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/record=";
        var qrrecordlink =
document.getElementById("recordnum").getAttribute("href");
        var str = qrrecordlink.indexOf("=");
        var qrrecordid = qrrecordlink.substr(str+1);
document.write('<img src="http://chart.apis.google.com/chart?cht=qr&chs=135x135&chld=L|2&chl='+qrairpacstub+qrrecordid+'?utm_source=webpac%26utm_medium=qr%26utm_campaign=mobile" alt="QR code for this record" title="QR code for this record" />');
       document.write('<br/><a href="http://www.senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/library/helpandsupport/qrcodes.shtml">What's this?</a>');
}

Note in the above the element with id “recordnum” contains a system number of the bibliographic record. This is generated by the catalogue itself and is not displayed.

In the template file for our bibliographic record display I include this script where I want the R code to appear:

<script type="text/javascript">
<!--
linkto_catalog_qr();
-->
</script>

This is how the QR code appears on a record:

With Borges / Alberto Manguel http://catalogue.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/record=b2941947~S24

Measuring success

We quickly modified our original implementation as we wanted to measure the usage of this service (the Javascript above includes these changes already). As we already use Google Analytics for our catalogues I thought it would be simplest to include tracking there if possible.

I realised I could do this by adding parameters to the QR code URLs that would be picked up by Google Analytics. This is explained here: http://support.google.com/googleanalytics/bin/answer.py?hl=en-GB&answer=55518

I altered the URL encoded by the QR code to insert the parameters utm_source, utm_medium, and utm_campaign:

  • Campaign Source (utm_source): webpac
  • Campaign Medium (utm_medium): qr
  • Campaign Name (utm_campaign): mobile

The values can be anything whatever you want; I just tried to keep them short but meaningful. You can then track visitors under Traffic Sources – Sources – Campaigns in Google Analytics.

So this has encoded tracking information in URL and also the QR code. The downside to this is including more information in the QR code increases the complexity of the code and makes it more “dense” at the same size.

You go from this:

To this:

This added complexity could cause problems for older phones with lower-resolution cameras. My quick solution was just to increase the size a bit as this makes the QR code easier for the phone to read, though this makes the catalogue record less attractive.

Usage

Usage of these QR codes in our catalogue has been very small, only around 200 hits since implementing tracked QR codes in late November 2011 to present (mid February 2012). It is difficult to assess this purely based on analytics information as it says nothing of the quality of experience – scanning one or two QR codes might be quite useful for that reader.

Interestingly, we noted visits from QR code scanning account for about 21% of total visits to the mobile catalogue. Although both numbers are low, visits just from QR code usage is a fair percentage of the total.

A major barrier to uptake has been that we could only implement it on our old catalogue which is not offered as the default. This means the default catalogue we try to push readers towards doesn’t include QR codes, but there is no apparent reason for this from the reader’s point of view.

This is a relatively new service so we acknowledge we need to find out more directly from readers what they think of it, so we will investigate use of QR codes as part of a broader assessment of usability of Encore and how readers make use of it in our library.

Future developments

The next release of our Encore catalogue will include QR codes. Our beta test version of this shows what this will look like:

With Borges / Alberto Manguel. https://encore.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/iii/encore/record/C__Rb2941947

To work around the problem of overly-complex QR codes we made use of the bit.ly URL shortener service to reduce the size of the URL being encoded. This makes a big difference to the complexity of the QR code image from this:

To this:

This now directs readers to a new mobile version of the Encore catalogue, also in beta test, which will replace our current mobile catalogue.

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