Monday, October 11, 2010

QR Codes: an Overview

Since QR codes seem to be one of the hot new technologies in the library and museum world, I decided to do a little research on them (I am a librarian after all!) Here's a brief introduction into the world of 2D code technology:

QR (quick response) codes are two-dimensional images used to represent data, similar to a barcode. They were originally developed by Japanese auto parts manufacturer Denso-Wave in 1994, for tracking parts. Denso-Wave still owns the patent on the technology (which has its own published ISO standard) but allows for their license-free use.

QR codes are an improvement over barcodes mostly because of the amount of data they can encode. While barcodes can only hold 20 digits worth of data, QR codes can hold up to 7000 digits and 4300 alpha-numeric characters and can be as small as 2 centimeters square (although the more data encoded, the larger the resulting image will be).

Originally QR codes required dedicated scanners to read them, but the advent of smart phones with built-in cameras have recently brought the technology into much greater usage. Currently, they are commonly used to link print and broadcast media to online content (usually by encoding a URL), but can also be used to share simple text data such as a phone number or text-only message, or more complex information like a command that can play a song automatically if you have it on your computer, or bring you to a site that prompts you to purchase the song if you do not already own it.

Similar technologies to QR codes include open source Data Matrix codes, used by the U.S. Department of Defense, and the proprietary Microsoft Tag (which features color codes that can store more than the other, black-and-white ones.)

Although non-Asian countries have been slow in adopting QR code technology (Pepsi launched what is now acknowledged as the first large-scale QR code marketing campaign in 2008), it has recently gone mainstream, with companies such as HBO and Fox launching QR campaigns. The museum and library world have also found use for the technology, linking their physical collections with their expanding online offerings.

Also helping to launch the tech into the mainstream was Google’s recent launch of a URL shortening service which also provides users a simple way to create QR codes from any URL.

“UKOLN | Briefing Documents | An Introduction to QR Codes.” (

ISO - International Organization for Standardization, and ISO. "ISO/IEC 18004:2006." 01 Sept. 2006. (

Lardinois, Frederic. “Microsoft Tag: The CueCat Returns on Your Mobile Phone.” ReadWriteWeb 8 Jan. 2009. (

Milliot, Jim. "QR Codes Tie Print, Online Marketing." Publishers Weekly 256.38 (2009): 4. (

Nguyen, Maria. "What you need to know about QR codes." Sydney Morning Herald, The 05 July 2008: 2. (

Perez, Sarah. “The Scannable World, Part 3: Barcode Scanning In The Real World.” ReadWriteWeb 26 Sept. 2008. (

Perez, Sarah. “iCandy: Make QR Codes That Play Music.” ReadWriteWeb 16 Jan. 2009. (

Siegler, MG. “’s Awesome Easter Egg To Instantly Turn Any Link Into A QR Code.” TechCrunch 30 Sept. 2010. (

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bridging the gap from Wikipedia to scholarly sources: a simple library bookmarklet

So I know I have been alluding to a fancy-shmancy "project" for awhile now, and it's finally at a point that I can show it off! Barbara Arnett and I (mostly Barbara, but I set the project in motion, so that counts for something I guess) have created a javascript bookmarklet that can be used in any browser to execute a search in Ebsco Discovery Service from any web page.

The impetus for this project was a tendency for novice researchers to rely on internet sources that may not be up to the standards required by their professors for college-level research (read: Google & Wikipedia). Unfortunately, those users were not only beginning, but ending their search with those websites, without ever trying the library’s subscription databases, or even making it to the library’s website.

Stevens is currently undergoing a trial of Ebsco Discovery Service (EDS), a federated search tool which includes the library catalog data. To make it easier for students to search the library resources, we decided to create a bookmarket that eliminates the step of having to go to the library website first before searching library resources.

The bookmarket provides an important bridge between common search behaviors (especially among undergraduates), and the "deep web" content located in library-funded, proprietary databases, thus easing their transition into scholarly research. You just drag-and-drop it into any browser, after which a search can then be initiated from any webpage the user visits. When the bookmarklet is clicked, the search terms default to the title of the page (so it works especially well with Wikipedia articles), and a prompt is displayed that allows the user to edit the terms, if so desired. When they press the OK button, the search is automatically executed in the Discovery tool and the results are displayed in a new browser window.

The bookmarklet is written in simple Javascript code, which resides on the library’s server, so it can be edited or updated without the user having to reinstall it. It works on all major browsers, and can also be edited to work with various search tools, such as specific databases, library catalogs or competing federated search tools (such as Serial Solutions’ Summon.)

A short demo:

Barbara and I will be participating in a webinar for the Metro New York Library Council in December, demonstrating various tech tools for libraries. See here for details:

11/19/10 - NOTE:

Ken Varnum at the University of Michigan has used our code to create an ArticlesPlus bookmarklet for their users. To make it easier for other developers to adapt our code for their projects, here it is, in its entirety. You'll have to edit it to use whatever search tool you want it to run, and change it to link to your own Google Analytics account (or just take that part out if you're not using GA), and we ask that you keep the attribution statement in there.



Monday, September 13, 2010

Google Instant: an early review (with references!)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I had to write a journal entry for my Engineering of Enterprise Software Systems class, and I figured, hey, I wrote the damn thing, why not post it as a blog entry, since it's about search(-ing), and thus relevant to libraries? And yes, leave it to a librarian to have 8 reference for a page-and-a-half long paper.


This week, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) announced “Google Instant”, featuring predictive, real-time search results, meaning you can see your search results update according to each character you type in the search box, as you type it. The company claims this speeds up searches by an average of 2 to 5 seconds per query.

Based on what I understand about databases and search technology, this would require a database call for each character typed, which, given the millions of people using Google’s search at any given moment (they recently reached 1 billion users a week, according to USA Today), would place a huge load on their servers/system.

Google’s new real-time search functionality uses AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). This technology (or really, groups of technologies, including JavaScript, XML or JSON, XHTML, among others) allows web applications to run independently of a web page, so data can be retrieved from the server while the rest of the page loads (asynchronously). In other words, it allows different portions of a page to load/update separately, or asynchronously.

Apparently, the underlying technology is so simple, users have begun creating imitation real-time search applications for popular sites such as YouTube and Twitter (15-year-old web developer Stephen Ou built “iTunes Instant” in just three hours.)

Although it’s still pretty new, users have begun weighing in on Google Instant. Reactions range from love to hate, as is usual with any new technology. In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Charlie Brooker laments:

I'm starting to feel like an unwitting test subject in a global experiment conducted by Google, in which it attempts to discover how much raw information it can inject directly into my hippocampus before I crumple to the floor and start fitting uncontrollably.

In general though, people seem to like the speed, but are unsure if a faster search was really necessary, especially at the cost of some well-liked features that Google has dropped with this launch, including the search box that used to be located at the bottom of any page of search results, and the retention and auto-suggest feature for recently-completed searches.

Although some people may be underwhelmed by this new search feature, they are voicing concerns about some aspects of it.

The company is apparently filtering search results, and not returning items from queries that are deemed “offensive”. This not only brings up censoring issues, but can have unintended consequences, like in the case of Irina Slutsky, a reporter for Advertising Age, who complained that results related to her were being blocked because of the first four letters of her last name.
There is also concern over how Google is choosing results, and the affect that this, along with quickly appearing (and disappearing) will have on sponsored search results and ads. IBM’s Todd Watson was quoted as saying:
Let me explain: go to and just type in the letter "A." What comes up first in the listing? "Amazon." Followed by "AOL." Followed by "ATT." I skipped on over to "I," thinking that IBM might come up first. But no, it was "IKEA." ... what in the world is IKEA doing coming up when I search for the letter "I"??
  1. Brooker, Charlie. 2010. “Google Instant is trying to kill me”. The Guardian. September 13. (accessed September 13, 2010).
  2. Hachman, Mark. 2010 “Google Launches Google Instant: Predictive, Real-Time Search.”,2817,2368861,00.asp. (accessed September 13, 2010).
  3. Holdener, Anthony T. 2008. "Ajax: the definitive guide." STEVENS INST OF TECHNOLOGY's Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed September 13, 2010).
  4. Jefferson, Graham. 2010. "Google starts searching before you finish typing; New Instant tool could change business strategy." USA TODAY (Arlington, VA), September 08. NewsBank, EBSCOhost (accessed September 13, 2010).
  5. Jeffries, Adrianne. 2010. “Google Instant Search Inspires Mashups Across the Web.” ReadWriteWeb. September 12. (accessed September 13, 2010).
  6. Jennings, Richi. 2010. “Google Instant results: reaction roundup.” Computerworld. September 10. (accessed September 13, 2010).
  7. Metz, Cade. 2010. “Google Instant 'invented by Yahoo! in 2005'”. The Register. September 10. (accessed September 13, 2010).
  8. Paul, Ian. 2010. “Google Instant: Criticisms and Controversies”. PCWorld. September 10. (accessed September 13, 2010).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This is an important post.

art by Know Hope
A girl that I graduated high school with killed herself this weekend. She was not a friend, just a distant acquaintance, but the event resonated very deeply in me. It's no secret to people who are close to me that I've gone through some very dark times in my past. I have a history of depression, and it runs pretty deep in my family (my uncle committed suicide when I was about 9, and I have a whole slew of close relatives with various addictions, probably at least partially due to depression.)

Currently, I am doing great. I have learned that depression is an illness, and not to be ashamed of it. I've learned that by being open about it helps me cope, and whenever I feel the symptoms descend on me, I seek treatment. This means that about ever two years or so, I need to go on antidepressants, for about 8-12 months, until the symptoms run their course. Currently I take Lexapro, but I've been on Anafranil, Effexor, Paxil, Prozac & Wellbutrin in the past.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I know, from experience, that depression is a lonely disease. Everyone's symptoms are a little different, and when you go through them, you think no one quite understands. If you or someone you know is dealing with depression, I'm putting myself out there. Get in touch with me. I will freely share my phone number, and I will gladly talk about it with you or them (even if you just want to ask about side affects of meds.)

More importantly though, I want to share a story. When I was in the trenches of the worst of my dark days, I had a friend (he knows who he is) who made a deal with me. He said, if I ever was thinking of doing anything stupid, or drastic, to call him - anytime, day or night. He told me he wouldn't judge (and this is important: he really didn't judge. Not even a little bit;) and he wouldn't try to talk me out of anything. We didn't even have to talk about what was bothering me. He just made me promise to call. Afterwards, when I got off the phone with him, I was free to do whatever I wanted. He wouldn't yell, or call me names, or get angry.

I'm sure I'm not exaggerating when I say that that deal saved my life. Not on any specific, dramatic occasion (that I can remember anyway). But self-injury is a moment. Just one, sad, stupid, desperate, hopeless moment, and any one of them that I experienced could have led to something drastic. Sometimes (most of the time, I think) if you can just get a person past that moment(s), just distract them through it, you can save their life.

I'm urging you: please, if you know someone that you've worried about in the past, for any reason, make this deal with them. Make it absolutely clear that you won't judge them. Make it clear that you won't try to talk them out of it. That it's their life, and they are free to do what they want with it. Just ask them to give you one minute; one phone call before they hurt themselves in any way (for me it was cutting, just like an after-school special starring Tori Spelling or Kurt Cameron.) Make them promise.

*A caveat: suicide is a decision made by one person. It's not anyone else's fault, and you cannot take on the weight of saving another person. You can maybe talk them through a bad situation or two, but you can't be there 24/7; you can't be inside their head. I don't want anyone to ever think they are to blame for not saving someone's life if they decide to commit suicide. That's their decision in the end and you can only do your best for them.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Viewing e-books on an iPad

This month, my library purchased an iPad for the staff to try out. We were contemplating initiating an iPad lending program for students, and wanted to play around with one ourselves before committing to such a large purchase. A large part of the discussion about whether or not to invest in the program was if the device would work well as an e-reader for the electronic books in our collection.

With this in mind, the Web Services Librarian, Barbara Arnett, and I decided to make a little video demonstrating how various e-books in our collection display on the iPad. (This was also inspired by conversations with iPad owners on Twitter and Facebook, who did not seem to quite believe me that PDF files did not always display well within a browser.)

The following is the video we made. It's not fancy, and by no means comprehensive, but was just the best way we could find to truly convey an actual user experience with the device. Neither of us had ever used an iPad before this one, however Barbara had taken it home for the weekend, so she had a (very) little experience with it, and I have had an iPhone for over a year now, so I am familiar with Apple's touchscreen techniques.

Our findings: For most of the e-book databases, the books displayed fairly well, but the PDFs lost most, if not all, of their functionality. As far as we could tell, you could not search within them, jump to different sections or download them. For the Knovel and ProQuest databases, the PDFs did not work at all (they just opened the first page of the document, and you not view the rest of it...)

We found that you could get around this problem by going onto a regular computer or laptop, accessing the PDF through the database there, then downloading it and adding it to the Bookman app in iTunes. You then need to sync your iPad to iTunes on the computer, and you can access the full PDF through the iPad's Bookman app. This is a somewhat cumbersome process, especially since most of our e-book databases break the book into sections, so you would have to download multiple PDFs for each book (up to 20 or 30 for an entire book.)

The iPad's native e-reader app, iBooks, has a very nice display, but I'm not sure how practical it would be to build an academic e-book collection in a propriety, device-locked format...

So there you have it. I know that there's no love lost between Apple and Adobe, but it would seem to me that if you work at an academic library that licenses most of its electronic content through databases, where that content is available mainly as PDF files, Apple is going to have to work on a better browser-based PDF reader, or it pretty much kills it's usefulness for us. (Or, on the other hand, perhaps publishers will need to change how the make e-content available...)

Either way, we will not be making any large iPad purchases at this time...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A rant on institutional Facebook pages...

Something just set me off. It's not that rare that that happens, but it is rare that it annoys me enough to post here (not that I've abandoned this blog, I just use it mainly as a place to occasionally weigh in on topics of interest to me, not a regular publication.)

There is a hullabaloo going on at MPOW. The school has hired a firm to redesign our school logo, and put up a Facebook poll to allow students, faculty and staff to vote on the designs. I'm not going to put the pics up here, because this post is not about the redesign, the vote, or the wisdom of paying for a design firm to come in and do something you could have had your students do for next to nothing while simultaneously freezing/cutting the budget of almost every other department on campus. ::ahem:: Nope, not about that.

What it's about is this comment from the institution, posted on their Facebook wall, in response to the widely negative comments and criticism from users:

"We’re pleased to receive so much feedback – that’s why we’ve engaged you in this process. But this is a serious process, and an important institutional initiative. Please engage in your feedback in a constructive and professional manner."

This entire logo campaign is being run on Facebook. The poll is only available there (it's also flash-based and requires you to authorize an app to vote, but let's leave that alone for now...) I feel like we, as an institution, are coming into a place originally built for students, asking for their attention, asking for their patronage, asking to be allowed into their online space, and then telling them how they should interact with us there. That's not fair, imho.

If we, as institutions and companies, want to go out and "be where the users are", we have to accept that we can't always define the rules of interaction there. One of the first things I learned about online communities is that they all have their own (though often unspoken) codes of conduct. You don't get to communicate with people in what is generally an informal space, and then ask them to be formal. If you want to reach them there, you have to accept that there may be unfortunate consequences. People may be immature and unproductive. (Seriously, if you post a video on YouTube, people will say stupid and immature things about it eventually. Get over it. If you don't want to deal with that, don't use these platforms.)

Ok, I'm done ranting. For now.