23 Things for Archivists

Thing 44: QR Codes

By Lori A. Birrell 

QR Codes, or Quick Response Codes, are becoming increasingly popular in the non-profit sector. Originally designed for the auto industry, QR codes are a way to offer users lots of information through one small black and white square.  While similar to bar codes in functionality, QR codes hold 100-times more information. 

QR codes are now an almost ubiquitous part of the advertising world. From books, to magazines, to cereal boxes and movies, the use of QR codes has exploded in recent years. For archivists, QR codes offer an opportunity to direct users to our department website, to connect exhibit descriptions with additional on-line content, or point users to on-line surveys, or tutorials.

How Do QR Codes Work? 

Most smart phones and tablets are able to scan QR codes, much like you would scan a bar code at the library circulation desk. There are many free scanning apps that you can download to see how others use QR codes in promotional materials. iPad has a “Scan” app, but there are applications for Android and other mobile providers as well. ScanLife is an easy-to-use QR reader that works with all major operating systems.

Just search Google or your device’s app store for “scanning app” and you’ll find a host of results that will get you on your way. Download the app to your personal device or a device you borrowed from your library or institution to play with before you start making QR Codes yourself. You’ll better understand how your user will interact with your content if you have explored the technology first.


  1. Conduct a Google search for a free scanning app. Download the app onto your device. Experiment with scanning QR codes from advertisers and other institutions. Possible sources of QR codes include those on professional literature, coupons for heritage sites, or conference details.
  2. Determine how and why implementing QR codes may be a viable outreach tool. Would you use them to enrich exhibit content? Would you add a QR code to an informational brochure that directs patrons to your website? Would you add a QR code on your newsletter to provide patrons with additional articles, or direct them to previous publications?
  3. Once you’ve determined how and why you’d implement a QR code, try designing one. Google the phrase “free QR code design” and select one of the top results from QR Stuff or Qurify. Follow the site’s directions to create your own QR code. Print out the QR code and test if it works by scanning it. Then ask your colleagues to test it before printing the materials en masse.
  4. Execute a pilot project using your new QR code. If possible, gather statistics to determine whether your patrons are using this tool by sending the user to specific URL that you are able to track.

Blog Prompts

  • When you experimented with QR codes by scanning industry related materials, what are some examples of how institutions most effectively implemented this technology?
  • Reflect on your pilot project.  What led you to choose the newsletter, exhibit text, informational brochure, etc. to test the effectiveness of QR codes?
  • Would you continue to use QR codes as an outreach tool?  Would you recommend other archivists implement QR codes?


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