or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk




Scanning Library Cards on Smartphones

   February 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Scanning library card barcode from smartphoneSomething I really like about smartphones are apps like CardStar and Key Ring - they let you input the numbers from all the club and rewards cards from your keychain and display the barcode on your phone.

Patrons also use these apps for their library card numbers, and some libraries aren't sure how to handle the library-card-on-smartphone situation. It hasn't really come up in my library, but I know our traditional scanners won't read barcodes off a smartphone screen. So, I thought I'd do some research to find out what it would take to accommodate these patrons.

The reason it doesn't work is because traditional barcode scanners are designed to read laser light reflected off a solid surface. Smartphone screens are emitting light, so an entirely different technology is needed.

The scanners that can read barcodes on smartphones are called CCD scanners (what that stands for is less important than a short description or a compare/contrast between CCD and traditional laser scanners).

After learning this, I started looking around at the different models and costs of CCD scanners. I stumbled across a Quora post mentioning a company called FaceCash* which sells scanners for $30. That's cheap enough for experimentation, so I contacted Aaron Greenspan (FaceCash founder) and bought one.

And it worked. I plugged it into a computer's USB port, held it up to an iPhone with a library card displayed on it, and Beep, the scanner read it just like it should. I'm always shocked when tech things work right out of the box. And happily, the scanner also reads** regular barcodes too.

So now, for just $30, my library can accommodate those patrons who make their lives easier*** through mobile technology.

Recent studies show this is fast becoming the standard in the business world - especially airlines. So the only question is whether or not libraries are willing to honor "virtual" library cards.

I don't see why not. It doesn't seem like fraud would be any more of an issue with this than with regular library cards. When we sign up a patron for a new library card, we give them a wallet card and a keychain card - so already there is more than one copy of the card in existence, which means more than one person could be using it. Since we don't make people show a picture ID when they present their library card, people could already be using someone else's card and we'd never know. Besides, if it's good enough for the TSA and airline security, I think we can manage.

But best of all, accepting these means that it's easier for patrons to bring their library card with them to the library. This is both better customer service and will save staff time in not having to look patrons up. Now that I have this scanner, I just have to wait for a patron to come in who needs it - what a strange feeling to be ahead of the curve.

 


FaceCash - Pay with Your Face*FaceCash is a new way to pay for things - you add money to your FaceCash account, and install the FaceCash app on your phone. Then when you're in a store or restaurant that accepts FaceCash, the app displays your account barcode for the business to scan, and also a picture of your face, so the clerk can verify that you are actually you. With more and more personal data being stored in phones, the visual verification is a great idea. If my library charged fines, I'd want to sign up us to accept FaceCash.

**One limitation of CCD scanners is their short range - just a couple inches, compared to 8-10" range of traditional scanners. Plus, the scanner I bought is trigger-operated, rather than motion-operated like our existing scanners. So, even though it can read both physical and digital barcodes, I don't think we'll swap out what we've got for it, but instead just plug it in and use it when a smartphone patron comes to the desk.

***I like just about anything that reduces waste and clutter. These apps let you store useful information easily, instead of lugging around a whole deck of various cards, and that makes life better. Read a few more tips to simplify your wallet, so you don't end up like George:
George Costanza and his wallet



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Detecting and Redirecting Mobile Devices

   December 16th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Mobile website mockup in testiphone.comRemember a few months ago, when I was inspired by Steve Butzel's presentation at NELA2010 and created a mobile version of my library's website? I bet you have that date marked on your calendar.

Anyway, one lingering problem I had was some mechanism to automatically detect mobile devices when they visited our website, and reroute them to the mobile version instead of the full web version. I finally had some time this week and was able to accomplish that - aided by the fact that it was easier than I expected.

The ultimate goal is to redesign our entire site along the lines Brett suggested, by creating a stylesheet specifically for mobile devices. Brad pointed out that the Canton Public Library employs this, awesomely: visit their site and slowly make your browser window smaller, and watch the website flip from "full web" mode to "mobile" mode.

That was more than I could handle this week, so I opted for the detect-and-redirect approach. I had found online instructions using both javascript and php, and I went with the php method because

  • I think php is more reliable than javascript, because javascript depends on the browser whereas php runs on our server
  • Php is more fun, and I know our server runs php

The website offering the php method is http://detectmobilebrowsers.mobi, and very happily they make it available free for non-profits. Here's what I did:

  1. Read and reread their website
  2. Downloaded the main bit of code, and uploaded it to our web server
  3. Used their Function Generator to create the snippet of code to paste into the top of our homepage. I chose to treat all of their options as a mobile browser, and redirect them to http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/mobile - the resulting code looked like this:
    require_once('mobile_device_detect.php');
    mobile_device_detect(true,true,true,true,true,true,true,
    'http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/mobile',false);
    

    (this should be two lines of code, but it wraps because of the width of my blog - if you use this code, make sure the second and third lines above are actually one long line)

  4. I copy/pasted that code into our index.html homepage. However, because this is php code, it had to go between php tags, (<?php and ?>), so the complete code I actually added to the top of our page was:
    <?php 
    require_once('mobile_device_detect.php');
    mobile_device_detect(true,true,true,true,true,true,true,
    'http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/mobile',false);
    ?>
    

    (again, see note above about line wrapping)

  5. Note that the path in the "require_once" line must match where on your web server you actually saved the mobile_device_detect.php file (downloaded in Step 2)
  6. Now, the last step was a little tricky, because it involves editing the .htaccess on the server. It's easy though, and one of their faq answers explains it.

    Basically, .html files don't normally run php code - .php files do that. So if our homepage was index.php instead of index.html, I could have skipped this step. Instead, in order to make .html pages execute php, I had to add a few lines to our server's .htaccess file - which was no trouble at all - and then everything worked splendidly

That is, at least, so far. I've done some testing with mobile devices and (as suggested) with the User Agent Switcher Firefox add-on, and all of that has worked. But please, if you have a mobile device, visit our homepage (http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org) and let me know if you don't get redirected to our mobile site.

A couple other notes:

  • I also added a link to the mobile site in the upper-left corner of the homepage, in case the redirect doesn't work
  • I only added this auto-detect to the homepage. I thought about adding it to every page, but our full site has a lot of information our mobile site doesn't - especially descriptions of our events. If I added the redirect to every single page, people with mobile devices basically wouldn't have access to any of that. So, my thinking is to provide mobile users with the (robust) basics, but if they want more than that they'll have to endure our not-great coding until we're able to redesign the entire site to be mobile-friendly

This was easier than I was expecting, which makes me think I missed something.

Update: someone pointed out a gap in my logic. On the mobile site, there is a link to "Visit our main site" which linked back to our full homepage. However, since the homepage redirected people to the mobile site, anyone clicking that link from the mobile site just got looped right back to the mobile site. So, I changed that link to go to our About page. Again, this is a good reason to just have mobile-friendly stylesheets like Brett and Brad suggest above.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/28/10

   December 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Pay PhoneThis reference question has actually been in the works for a couple weeks, and isn't officially closed. But I don't expect to get any better answer than what has already been found, so I thought I'd share it.

Before I got into work one day, a patron asked if she could use the phone. Since our pay phone was removed from the lobby, we've been more permissive about letting patrons use our desk phones. However, when the patron said she was going to call India, staff told her she'd need to use a pay phone. So of course she asked,

Where is the nearest pay phone?

They were pretty sure there was one across the street, but just to be sure they also searched online to see if there were any pay phone listings or directories. They found three, but each seemed incomplete or out-of-date:

When I got in, I also searched and found the same thing. I thought the best way to get a listing of pay phones in town was to contact the Verizon rep who handled our old pay phone - if anyone had a current list, it'd be them, right? So I called our Town Hall and spoke to the woman who handles the pay phone contracts for Town buildings. She said all of the Town-run phones had been removed to save money, and that dealing with our Verizon rep was a pain. She didn't have his phone number handy, but said she'd look and call me back (I still haven't heard from her, which is why this question isn't officially "closed").

In the meantime, I thought I'd just call Verizon and see how far I could get. I found a list of Verizon contact phone numbers, and called the Massachusetts support line.

After going through their menu options and waiting on hold for a few minutes, I finally got a nice guy in the billing department. I explained that I was looking for a list of pay phones in my town, and he laughed and said he didn't even know if they even still had a pay phone division. Eventually he found a "coin phone department" on his department list, and transferred me there. But he also gave me the number: 800-782-8355.

After waiting on hold for a long while, I spoke to a woman who didn't seem to like the idea of me asking for this list. First she said I had to go through Town Hall, so I explained that the Town pulled out their phones, which is why I was looking for a list of the rest of the phones in town. Then she put me on hold to confer with someone, and when she came back she said,

I can't give you that list, because a list of where all our phones are is proprietary information.

Yes, "proprietary information." She suggested I just walk around town and look for Verizon signs, because, "they're all well marked."

The good news is that there is indeed a pay phone across the street from the library, so we can just refer people there when necessary. And the woman was correct, it is well-marked.



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Creating a Mobile Library Website

   October 28th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Mobile website mockup in testiphone.comYou're probably sick of hearing about things I picked up at NELA2010, but I'm not done yet.

In the very last session of the conference, Steve Butzel from the Portsmouth (NH) Public Library demonstrated the Online Newsstand he created to boost their online magazine usage. That was neat in itself, but what I really took away from his talk was that I needed to - and easily could - create a version of our website specifically designed for mobile phones.

He showed theirs (in beta), which is simple and awesome. It inspired me to give it a try.

I started on http://chelmsfordlibrary.org/mobile/ yesterday, and am still working on it yet (in fact, I haven't even told anyone at my library yet that I'm doing it - surprise!).

I don't have a cell phone and so haven't tested this on a smartphone yet. I have been using testiphone.com (an online tool Steve highlighted - there are other tools, too), so please give it a try and let me know how it works.

Steve's point was that it could be very simple - hours, directions, events, a contact link, and a purchase suggestion link for patrons who are in a bookstore (great for people with apps like RedLaser). Here's the logic of what to include:

  • Hours
  • Directions (right now it just links to Google Maps, but I need to also include a link for our branch library)
  • Ask a Librarian (haven't created this yet, but it will be a simple email form)
  • Purchase Suggestion (also not done, but will be a simple form)
  • Upcoming Events (our calendar was not at all mobile-friendly, so I just grabbed the rss feed and ran it through feed2js.org to create just a list of our upcoming events. There could be separate feeds for adult events, childrens events, etc., but that might be overkill)
  • Link to the catalog (I also embedded a catalog search, but that might be too much. And I found the catalog isn't entirely mobile-friendly either - we'll be moving to the Evergreen ILS soon, so I'll wait and see on this, otherwise I'd investigate LibAnywhere from LibraryThing, which Steve also mentioned)
  • Link back to the main library website for everything else

The next trick will be getting our regular homepage to automatically detect mobile devices and reroute them to the mobile website. I haven't even attempted this yet, but have done a little research.

Apparently, cell phones and smartphones aren't just a fad after all, so having a website that works well on these devices is just as important as a browser-based website - and this will only become more important as a way to serve our patrons on their terms. I was happy with how easy it was. Now I need to find out what my coworkers think.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/26/10

   October 2nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Can-and-string telephoneEarlier this year we got rid of the pay phone in our lobby (too expensive), so we've become more permissive with letting people (especially kids) use the desk phones to make calls.

I always ask people beforehand if it's a local call, because historically, local calls are no problem, but long distance calls are limited.

This isn't really a reference question, but I get asked this all the time and I'm honestly curious about it - here's a typical exchange (keep in mind I work at the library in Chelmsford, MA, which is in area code 978):

Patron: Can I use the phone?
Me: Sure, is it a local call?
Patron: Uh, I just need to call my mom.
Me: Okay, what's the number? [I always dial for them, to make sure they get an outside line and don't dial 911 accidentally, which does happen with our phone system]
Patron: It's 603-423...

As I get older (and as kids get younger), I've been noticing that fewer and fewer kids have any idea what you're talking about when you say "local call."

When they say "603" (New Hampshire) or "617" (Boston), I will sometimes say something to the effect of, "hey, a different area code is not a local call," and the response from kids is invariably, "we live in Chelmsford, it's my mom's cell phone."

I don't have a cell phone, so I don't know if there is such a thing as local and long distance calls on them, or if everything is charged the same (or just depends on time of day). But wow, the whole local/long distance thing was a big part of my childhood, so it's kind of stunning to think of kids growing up with no concept of that. Depending on how often people move around, a kid's friends could all have cell phones with different area code numbers, and have no idea why*.

But then again, I guess people don't really dial numbers any more anyway - it's just scrolling through the contacts list and clicking a name. Which means the reasoning behind area codes is destined to become historical trivia like the interstate numbering system, or an anachronistic relic like the phrase, "don't touch that dial."

 


*Tangentially, an old rant of mine is how the FCC dropped the ball when they started issuing phone numbers for cell phones. Instead of issuing cell phone numbers with area code where the phone was registered, and thus running out of numbers and having to slice up area codes and develop new codes (giving rise to situations where the "area" codes make no geographic logic, like 440 in Ohio), they should have created new area codes just for mobile phones. Which would have also helped out with making sure cell phones were always on the Do Not Call List, as they could just forbid those area codes from being called.



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Mobile App for Searching Libraries

   February 2nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

redlaser logoNot having a cell phone, I can be a bit behind when it comes mobile apps - but this is still cool even to tech-no's like me.

My former co-worker Chris pointed out the iPhone app RedLaser, that turns the iPhone's camera into a barcode scanner. The app was designed to do instant price checks while you're in a store, to see if you could buy something cheaper online.

He also found that the database it scans can be customized - which means it could be modded to search a library catalog (among other things).

So a patron with an iPhone (or an Android) could be shopping in a bookstore, see a book they'd like to read, and instantly scan it to see if it's available at their local library. Great stuff.

But wait, there's more...
Another colleague, Scott Kehoe of NMRLS, posted about making customized versions that can search the MVLC (my library consortium), MassCat and the NOBLE consortium catalog. His post shows how he did it, links to Delicious for the customized databases, and explains how you can customize it yourself.

I think this is a great thing to promote to patrons, but they need to be careful about walking around bookstores scanning barcodes. I've heard many stores will throw people out if they appear to be doing "research" (recording a store's prices or looking for country of origin). Also, about this app, one bookstore owner was quoted as saying:

If I see any lecherous internet bottomfeeders using my store as a display case for a discount website, I will politely ask them to leave.

As the world of mobile devices becomes more compatible with the world of ebooks, the next step will be to create customs searches of places like Overdrive and Project Gutenberg, so that patrons can not just locate but also download the desired book immediately. I tend to think instant gratification is not a good thing, but in this day and age, it is certainly easy to support.

For a few more library-related apps, check out Aaron's post on Walking Paper.



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