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TL v61n1: David Ratledge
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 61 Number 1  


It's My Opinion! 



David Ratledge


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QR Codes: Linking the Physical World with the Virtual


A QR code is a two-dimensional matrix code (think specialized kind of barcode) that can be printed on just about anything in just about any size. Some examples range from a business card to a sign to the entire side of a large building. 

What makes a QR code special is that it reaches beyond the physical world into the virtual and serves to link the two. For example, imagine taking a book off a shelf and opening the front cover to find a QR code printed there. QR codes are interpreted by smart camera phones (such as an iPhone or similar) so you will need to pull out your phone, launch the QR code-reading app, and image the code with your phone’s camera. Once the information in the QR code is read, the Web browser on your phone is automatically launched and you are taken to say, the Web site of the author of the book. It could just as easily take you to other Web sites such as one where other readers post reviews of the book, to where you can access or download an electronic version of the book, or to an online store such as Amazon where you could purchase your own copy.

There are many very interesting ways that QR codes can be used. Just for fun here are a couple of non-library possibilities. You could print a QR code on a shirt and wear it. Whenever someone reads your code it could take him or her to your personal Web site or Facebook profile. I have also read of people playing a paintball-style game. A group goes to a public place at a predetermined time with each person wearing a unique QR code on their shirt. The idea is to take out your opponents just like in paintball.  You are successful when you are able to read the QR code of an opponent. The code identifies that individual and triggers an automatic text message to them informing them they are dead.

Getting back to how QR codes could be applied in the library environment, a code could be part of the sign by the main entrance. When visitors read the code they could be taken to the library Web site. Inside a library, QR codes could be posted in highly visible locations to provide visitors an electronic map of the floor on their phones so they can more easily navigate to the call number section they need. QR codes would also be a great way to manage self-directed library tours. Visitors could read codes placed at key points around a library that would launch online textual, audio, or video content designed to tell about the specific part of the library the person is currently standing in. And as I have already mentioned, QR codes can associate books and journals to online information/social networking sites in a variety of ways.

By the way, QR codes are not just limited to linking the physical world to the virtual. They can also link the virtual to the virtual as they work just as well when read off of a computer screen.

Excited yet? Want to try all this out for yourself? The good news is that it is easy to generate your own QR codes. I suggest you start with the list of code generators at There are others as well and they are easy to find with a simple Google search so experiment and see what works best for you.

As for QR code readers for your phone, the list at should give you what you need. If you have an iPhone or similar you can also find QR code readers where you normally get apps for your device.

QR codes are not currently for everyone because of the simple fact that not everyone has a phone with the ability to read them. Also, even if a phone can read QR codes, that does not guarantee it will be able to effectively display the content provided by the link.

Knowledge of or use of QR codes is not currently as widespread in the US as it is in other parts of the world. This is especially true of Japan where QR codes were invented. It is my belief, however, that QR codes will become much more commonplace in the US as time goes on so now is your chance to get in at the beginning and be one of the first!

To see what QR codes look like and for further reading on the topic, including additional examples of how they are or could be used, see the following:


David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head, Library Technology Services at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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