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The Comeback Code

October 26, 2021

Picture it. Western PA, 2012 or 2013. A group sits at a restaurant booth, looking at a ketchup bottle label with a square space and pixel pattern. It’s a QR (Quick Response) code, and I’m explaining how it works. The group is not impressed. We pick up our menus and choose our breakfasts. 

Fast forward into a global pandemic. Contact with people and surfaces is a bigger deal when it comes to menus, keypads, keyboards…the list goes on. From this dismal situation, the QR code re-emerged as a touch-free way to scan a code to access forms, menus, and other online information on your own phone or tablet. 

Image: xat-ch, pixabay

With this resurgence, QR codes are also being used for marketing and outreach in higher education. Here are a few examples on social media from libraries or other institutions around Pennsylvania: 

At our library, QR codes have been used to provide quick access to LibGuides and other online tools, like our study room booking system. We often see students successfully using them. In part, this may be because many mobile phones now have QR code readers already installed.  

The QR code can be convenient for the person scanning them, but there’s still a need to be smart about privacy and other concerns. Just like any website URL, codes send the user to websites that may be tracking activity and collecting data. For example, a company might record a customer landing on a product page via a QR code, and then promote that product to them on their next visit.  

Codes could also lead to malicious websites, just like a spam or phishing email link. Experts suggest avoiding a code in an email from an unknown sender, or a code printed on a label or flyer by itself. This Washington Post article from earlier this month explains. Creators should provide some context with QR codes, so the audience knows the purpose. 

Of course, QR codes may not always be the right — or most accessible — tool for the job. Patrons may not have smartphones and data plans, or would prefer not to use them. We often include a short URL with our codes for that reason.

Like any initiative, deciding to create QR codes requires some thoughtful consideration of audience, purpose, and timing. This time, it seems like QR codes will be around for a while.

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