QR codes and NFC technology for libraries

QR codes, NFC and mobile tagging for libraries - a big flop?

Filed under: Research Productivity

Making the physical library more digitally interactive

The last few years have seen phenomenal growth in the prevalence of smartphone technology, and with it, user expectations have started to change. In an increasingly mobile world, people now expect to be able to access information and carry out other tasks via their smartphones and tablets. One way in which some libraries have begun to move into the digital age and improve smartphone usability is by implementing mobile tagging technology to facilitate access to more of their collection and to simplify other processes. In this post, we look at what technology is available to this end, discussing how it can be utilized and assessing its success and adoption thus far.

Introducing QR codes and NFC

QR code uses for librariesA ‘Quick Response’ or QR code is a type of barcode that can be scanned using a machine (such as a smartphone) for immediate access to information about the object to which the code is attached. Near Field Communication (or NFC) is a similar kind of technology, though rather more sophisticated; it grew out of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and allows devices to communicate wirelessly when at close range, both sending and receiving data.

How can this technology be applied in a library context?

There are a number of potential uses for such technology in a library context, and they’re all meant to help transform user experience. We look at some of these possibilities below.

Easier searching, locating and renting of books

Mobile tagging technology allows you to add embedded information for scanning to each book, containing bibliographic information, links to similar resources and even due dates on a checked-out book. Mobile tagging could also be utilized to give users access to information on library layouts, allowing them to locate the book or journal they’re after quickly and easily.

This library in Hanno, Japan has implemented NFC, giving users easy access to information about each book, such as the author, as well as giving them a simple way to reserve and review books. Another example, this time using QR codes, comes from Bath University, which uses QR codes in its catalogue to allow users to save the title, author and classmark of the book and locate it on the shelves. It also uses QR codes to link its floorplans with an MP3 audio tour on each of its subject floors.

Over at San Diego State University, QR codes give access to bibliographic information on each book, as well as allowing readers to send the content via email or SMS, save it to a list of favorites and copy the content to a clipboard ready to paste into a document. Theoretically, this alleviates the need for writing bibliographic details down by hand, which could be useful when writing a bibliography.

Rapid access to ebooks

Mobile tagging technology can give users instant access to an ebook version of a publication. NFC offers a much faster connection than WiFi and Bluetooth, and stores more data than a QR code, so it may be a more effective way of accessing large files such as ebooks. QR codes can still be used to this end, though, as this city in Austria showed when it turned the entire city into a library, allowing users to download free literary classics simply by scanning QR codes left on stickers dotted about the city.

Replacing traditional keys and library cards

NFC allows quick communication and easy paymentsNFC technology can be used in place of a traditional key or library card, potentially allowing users to swipe in using their phones. Similarly, this technology could be used to allow users to access library computers, printers and photocopiers.

Cut down admin

With this technology, you have the potential to give your users the ability to check out books themselves, as well as paying library fines. This frees up time for librarians as well as cutting costs. Bibliotecha already offers self-checkout technology that works using NFC.

If it’s so great, why aren’t all libraries utilizing mobile tagging technology?

These ideas are all very well, but they haven’t exactly been universally adopted, either within libraries or in consumer marketing as a whole. So why has response to this technology been so lukewarm?


Mobile tagging technology relies on users having a compatible mobile device, with a scanner app. It would be impossible to replace traditional library processes completely with new ones relying on mobile tagging, because doing so would alienate some users - some of whom may have old mobile phone models or even none at all.

Do QR codes make things easier for libraries?Lack of standards

At present, there are no standards or accepted methodologies for adopting mobile tagging in libraries, or could we find any guidelines explaining how it should be done - apart from this tongue-in-cheek guide to implementing QR codes in libraries, which speaks volumes about attitudes. What’s more, there are concerns surrounding privacy and the susceptibility of such technology to hacking, which may be putting some libraries off.

Reinventing the wheel?

It’s difficult to prove, but could it be that libraries view all this new-fangled technology as simply reinventing the wheel? Does implementing mobile tagging really make users’ lives easier? Does it really make processes more streamline? After all, traditional methods of searching for and locating books have proven perfectly effective over thousands of years. Mobile tagging could easily be construed as overkill in the move to bring libraries into the 21st century; do users really want QR code access to an MP3 audio tour of their library?

And that’s why mobile tagging technology is unlikely to become mainstream - at least not any time soon. The use of QR codes and NFC technology in libraries was a good idea that in reality has been a flop. Such technology fits within a vision of the future that hasn’t arrived yet; in a world that increasingly relies on machines, there are still lots of us who cling to the old ways of doing things.

We suspect that forcing unnecessary new technology on library users may have the opposite to the desired effect, but we’re happy to be proved wrong. If you think otherwise, let us know in the comments below.