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Decoding Art

Posted by Brian Kelly on 10th January 2011

About this Guest Post

Martin Grimes is the Web Manager for Manchester City Galleries. He can be contacted at

Decoding Art: Delivering interpretation about public artworks to mobiles

What’s that weird blocky thing?

A little over two years ago independent consultant Julian Tomlin worked with Manchester Art Gallery to trial the use of QR codes to deliver interpretive content about six objects in the gallery’s Revealing Histories: Remembering Slavery trail.

Image of QR label

QR label

Large QR code labels were placed beside the object labels and each of these linked to a specially created web page which had further text information and in some cases an audio clip about the object. A guide leaflet was produced and Visitor Service staff were briefed about the pilot – mainly so they could answer the frequent question, ‘What’s that weird blocky thing?

There’s little doubt that this pilot was ahead of the curve in terms of public recognition of QR codes in the UK and it’s difficult to say for sure how many of the visits to the web pages were made by gallery visitors and how many were made via links on the technology sites that reviewed the pilot.

Fast-forward two years and the landscape has changed significantly, QR codes are becoming almost mainstream in the UK. With this awareness in mind, at the beginning of this year we re-visited the use of QR codes as a means of delivering interpretive content to mobile phones, but this time out in the public spaces of the city. Building on the work done by gallery placement student Marek Pilny, which used Google Maps to mark the geographical location of most of the public artworks in Manchester Art Gallery’s care ( we again worked with Julian Tomlin to investigate how we might use QR codes or other location based technologies to deliver interpretative material to people’s mobile phones as they came across artworks in the city.

Decoding Art

We embarked on a pilot that aimed to discover:

  • Whether QR codes are a viable method to do this
  • What the practical and technical issues might be
  • How existing online content might need to be adapted or developed
  • Whether new forms of content – audio for instance – are feasible
  • What the take-up will be – are QR codes recognised by a wider public, what content types are most effective?
  • How we can enable users to feedback or contribute to the content
Image of smartphone and QR label

Using a smart phone to get information about an item

Julian conducted research that looked at QR code origination methods, symbol versions, optimum label size, performance of the labels at different locations on the works and in different light levels and label fabrication options. We also did some limited testing with a number of mobile phones with different screen sizes and different operating systems.

Testing also included looking closely at two methods of mounting the labels, adhesion and physical fixing. Each work in the pilot had a unique base and had different types of inscription or information panels, so finding an approach that would work across all has been perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of the project, involving extensive testing by a conservator and significant consultation with city planning officers.

In some situations it has not been possible to find a suitable mounting point on the work itself so other nearby surfaces have been used. Though we don’t have enough data yet, it seems very likely that people will not immediately see the connection between work and label and this may impact on visits.

Research into suitable materials from which to fabricate the QR labels had to consider that this project was a pilot, so along with aesthetic and effectiveness considerations, cost and permanence were key issues. After considering many options including laser-cut or etched and coloured stainless steel we settled on Traffolyte, a multi layered phenolic plastic which is used to make name badges, signs and labels. The QR code, gallery logo and project title have been laser-etched into the top layer and as objects in themselves they are quite beautiful.

Image of QR label and art object

QR label for Queen Victoria statue

Whilst the research and testing was under way, Beth Courtney, a conservator at the gallery, took the rather dry documentation content that we already had and re-scripted it to suit a mobile-using audience. Instead of listing basic facts and details about the work, Beth divided the content into a series of slightly offbeat and quirky questions or facts and presented just a sentence or two of further detail beneath:

Why does she look so grumpy?

I think the sculptor was probably aiming for stately, but she does look a bit grumpy. For much of her reign Victoria was rather a sad figure because she never recovered from the sudden death of Prince Albert when she was in her early forties. She wore black for the rest of her long life as a sign of mourning for him.

Manchester historian, writer, broadcaster and Blue Badge Guide Jonathan Schofield also recorded two minute reflections on 12 of the works. His approach was similarly quirky, informed but thoroughly engaging and not a little opinionated.

Following further research and costed options from developers, we decided to build and host a website to host the content ourselves using WordPress. We used the Manifest 1.01 theme as it was unfussy, clean and streamlined and the WordPress Mobile Pack plugin ( to help us deliver readable content to the widest range of mobile phones.

Sticky backed plastic

Ongoing issues around the fixing of the QR labels to the works – especially to those with listed building status – eventually lead to a decision to proceed with temporary vinyl labels. The labels were trailed in June and July and we informally launched the pilot at the beginning of August. As well as the QR code, the labels included short code URLs for those users who didn’t have a QR reader installed.

The project had received some advance publicity from Visit Manchester and at the point of launch was promoted through twitter, facebook, our email newsletters and a Manchester City Council email newsletter. As expected, following each promotion, the visit figures increased a little, often though, this was to the desk-top version of the site. A mobile analytics package from Percent Mobile enables us to differentiate between desktop and in-the-street mobile use.

Have we learned anything yet?

We’ve learned that more people than we imagined do know what QR codes are and how to use them. The maximum visits in one day so far were 32 with the daily average being 4.3. We’ve learned that visits go up at weekends and that they go down when people peel off the labels. Currently we have to re-label works in some high traffic areas every two weeks.

Works that are clearly labelled at a reasonable height off the ground and which face high traffic walkways also get more visits. The Christmas Markets which surround 6 works in the pilot have also blocked access to the codes and this has impacted upon visit numbers.

In terms of devices, the iPhone heads the pack followed by the Blackberry 8520, HTC Desire and HTC Nexus One. In detail, we’ve seen:

  • 39 Devices
  • 98.7% WiFi Capable
  • 77.5% Touchscreen
  • 23.5% Full keyboard
  • It’s all about the content

We’ve had some very positive feedback about the interpretive content via twitter, and other equally positive anecdotal feedback. Each work description has a comment option but we’ve not had any responses through these yet. Formal online and offline evaluation will take place early in the new year with the aim of reviewing the technologies and the content. From the feedback so far we think we’ve judged the content well, but we do need qualitative evaluation to confirm this. We are also aware that, despite it’s unfussy and quirky tone, it is still the museum offering interpretation, one or two voices, uni-directional, still didactic. Nancy Proctor , in issue 5 of Museum Identity [1], discusses the idea of the distributed network as a “[...] metaphor to describe new ways of authoring and supporting museum experiences that are:

  • conversational rather than unilateral
  • engaging rather than simply didactic
  • generative of content and open-ended rather than finite and closed

Decoding Art does, we think, engage with the first two of these points, but it is the third that we’d like to explore further and there are already ideas in place about how we might do this.

The desktop version of Decoding Art can be found here:

If you’re in the city with your mobile phone, see if you can spot any of the works included in the pilot and let us know what you think.


  1. Nancy Proctor, 2010, The Museum As Distributed Network, p48, Museum Identity, Issue 5.

Posted in Evaluation, Museums, QR-codes, Technical, Web 2.0 | 2 Comments »

If a Tree Falls in the Forest (pt.2)

Posted by guestblogger on 5th August 2010

If a Tree Falls in the Forest – and other thoughts on Web 2.0 Evaluation (pt. 2)

Linda Berube continues her guest post. (Read Part 1)

Back to the Tree

Given such focused objectives as listed for a virtual book discussion group, there still may be no discernible response from the online public to Facebook book discussion announcements, to library blog posts etc. But a librarian should not necessarily give up hope if met with deafening silence. In my book, DO You Web 2.0?, I discuss the different communication paradigms for Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. For the former, the communication is usually one way; in the case of libraries, the corporate web page is all about communication from library to community (one to many). Sometimes, there is two-way communication, but it is usually one-to-one and asynchronous (email, and email-based such as web forms). With Web 2.0, communication is many to many and in real-time. For libraries, this would mean not only users contributing to the library web page, through comments, tagging, and even content, but also using the library virtual space to communicate to other users.

However, quite a few libraries are using Web 2.0 tools in a Web 1.0 manner: blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc are used to announce events, new books, etc—essentially for one-to-many communication. There is not anything necessarily wrong with this, unless the objective was to change the communication paradigm with users. In other words, if the intention was to create a blog so as to encourage user response, and posts only ever come from librarians, then something has gone wrong in the planning.

Still, if users do not post on a library blog, does this mean the blog has not fulfilled its purpose? About a year ago, I would have answered an unqualified yes. While it is true that a blog is an online diary of sorts and therefore might be considered a satisfying enough solitary experience, broadcasting opinions and activities over the network rather begs an audience and some degree of feedback from that audience. However, in the process of writing the book, reviewing how blogs are used by libraries, intentionally or unintentionally, and talking with a number of librarians, I see it a bit differently. For example, according to Eli Neiburger at Ann Arbor District Library in the US “items featured in blog posts immediately see 100%-400% increases in the number of requests. So we know people are reading the blogs, and we find that almost a third of our event attendees find out about events online in our blogs or listings”. [Footnote] If a library has the statistical software and the staff time and knowledge that can uncover this kind of causal link across services, the resulting analysis may reveal not only public interest, but an impact on other library services based on that interest.

The Results of Twittering Trees Falling

Eli observed that ‘circulation-styled metrics’ upon which libraries have traditionally relied may not be sufficient in the new communication paradigm introduced by Web 2.0. I would agree and disagree. On the one hand, the straightforward counting of repeated activities — circulating books, reserves, inter-library loans — does not accommodate the kind of mining of data required to identify the subtle but real impact or value to communities, the causal links, as demonstrated in the Ann Arbor experience. However, these metrics still have a place, as they do with any service, public or commercial. In an age when the public library penchant for questioning its value in the face of declining numbers all around has reached an even more obsessive pitch than usual, we cannot escape that we are fighting to maintain, if not increase, our numbers, whether they represent physical or virtual activities or visits. The fight for relevance may boil down to a fight for numbers, and while we want to ensure that we are delivering and can measure value, it really won’t matter if it is delivered to a vanishing community.


From email correspondence with author, 29 April 2010. Ann Arbor is an acknowledged leader in the use of Web 2.0 technology in public libraries, with blogs and RSS feeds integrated onto the pages of the corporate library website, a ‘social catalogue’ where users can tag and write reviews, as well as create a personal card catalogue. See

Posted in Evaluation, Guest-blog, Web 2.0 | 2 Comments »

If a Tree Falls in the Forest (pt.1)

Posted by guestblogger on 2nd August 2010

About this Guest Post

Linda Berube is no stranger to using web services to transform public libraries. As a regional manager for e-services and e-procurement, she not only oversaw the distributed interoperability of library management systems, but also created and managed the implementation of a co-operative national virtual reference service, the People’s Network Enquire. She currently coordinates and advises on policy, research, and project work for the Legal Deposit Advisory Panel, a non-departmental government body charged by the UK Secretary of State to make recommendations on regulations for the legal deposit of digital resources. She can be contacted at:

If a Tree Falls in the Forest – and other thoughts on Web 2.0 Evaluation (pt.1)

A few things caught my eye on the way to writing this guest blog for UKOLN:

• The announcement that the Library of Congress will archive Tweets
“Professor of War,” a Vanity Fair article reviewing the career of General David Petraeus, Commander of US Central Command. Of particular relevance was his father’s exhortation, “results, boy, results.”
• A discussion with a US librarian regarding how blogs can be evaluated absent any response posts from members of the public. (Hence, the title of this blog—if someone writes a blog and there is no response to posts, is it being read? Er, or something like that…)

What has any of this to do with evaluating the impact of Web 2.0 in libraries? In a way, they point to the key questions – what, why, and how – of any service development, Web 2.0-based or otherwise, the answers to which should provide the objectives for evaluation, not as a separate activity, but one that is integral to the service from the beginning.

As one who started some years ago to encourage public librarians to look at Web 2.0 services, (for example see my bit of technology forecasting for the Laser Foundation in 2005, On the Road Again), the process of writing a book on the subject (Do You Web 2.0?) afforded me the opportunity to talk with a number of librarians from the UK, US, and Canada, not only about the services themselves, but also their thoughts on impact and how it is evaluated. While I found many excellent examples of Web 2.0 services, I also encountered something called ‘the evaluation by-pass’. I like to refer to this as simply ‘the evaluation pass,’ as in “Evaluation? We took a pass on that for now. It’s early days, after all.” (for more on the evaluation by pass, see Booth, A (2007). “Blogs, wikis, and podcasts: the ‘evaluation by pass’ in action?” Health Information Information and Libraries Journal 24, pp298-302.)

I have had long, heartfelt email exchanges with librarians about how they know they should be evaluating, how they would if they could, how just doing it (Web 2.0) has been satisfactory enough etcetcetc. Reasons often cited as mitigating factors for not evaluating include staff capacity; lack of motivation and/or support on the part of front-line staff or senior management; and simply not knowing what or how to evaluate Web 2.0-based services.

My impression regarding these reasons, and especially this last, is that quite a few librarians have embarked on experimenting with Web 2.0 without a service mindset. So, before we consider how impact might be evaluated, some observations on ‘why’ are in order.

The Twitter Factor

Because the technology is low-to-no cost, quite a few librarians have given into the temptation ‘to experiment’ with Web 2.0, thus setting themselves up for a common enough trap: high expectation meets low return. Librarians might say they don’t have high expectations when they start using these tools, but when blog posts are met with deafening silence, or when no one wants to be a ‘Friend’ or ‘Follower’ or ‘Fan’ of the library’s on a social networking site, such as Twitter or Facebook, it’s hard not to feel rejected and to turn this bitterness against the technology. (“It works for some libraries, just not for ours.”)

I think a great deal of expectation has been cranked up about these tools in general, and librarians have certainly felt the peer pressure. The amount of publicity a service like Twitter gets, especially with regard to the value of its data whether it be commercial or scholarly, compels librarians to think about trying it. And, Twitter seemed to have caught on overnight, growing exponentially, making the quick win of instant attention derived just by signing up within everyone’s grasp. Essentially, all a librarian has to do is set up a Twitter account, put out a few Tweets and the public response will be instantaneous.

Results, Boy, Results

I understand the pressure exerted to try this new technology, and think that a little experimentation is a good thing. But expectations are no substitute for even the most minimal planning that focuses on objectives and outcomes, regardless of whether a library is just experimenting, testing proof of concept, or launching a live service. In various publications about the evaluation process, a common first step is to answer the question “why?”— in other words, knowing the purpose of evaluation will often identify the necessary method for collecting data.

However, “why” should be asked at the very inception of a service, way before it is implemented—why are we doing this? Answers to this question should provide the basis for the service: its objectives, how it will be delivered (technology), and how success will be measured. For evaluation should not start after the service has been up and running for a while, and it should not be reactive (to stave off threats of budget cuts, or awkward questions from senior management etc). The gathering of the required data should start from the first day of implementation and should be ongoing, as a matter of course.

This is just plain good service sense, whether that service is a homework help club, a book group, an online catalogue, or a Facebook page. It is no different for any service using Web 2.0 tools. So many librarians start out in an experimental mode, but I think the secret hope is to stumble upon a crowd-pleaser with little effort. Essentially, they believe that the technology is the point. But, Web 2.0 is no more the point than any other technology—it’s about the service and what that service means to the community served.

And, service development should start with critical success factors against which impact on the community can be measured. With Web 2.0 tools, the confusion of what and how to evaluate arises from the original objectives of the tools, including how users measure success. For social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook, users measure success by counting the 3Fs: ‘followers’ ‘fans’ ‘friends’. In addition, there are activities such as posts, tagging, ‘likes’, ‘retweets’, online games, and any one of a number of ways users indicate that they are reading, are interested, and want to share.

Librarians also evaluate success in terms of numbers: hits or visits on the webpage, registered users, reserves, etc. However, when they come to services like Facebook or Twitter, it is often difficult to translate the social activities and membership into anything of significance to library service (except for those pages that include local or WorldCat search capability, where searches and access can be counted). I have looked at a number of these pages, and frequently the numbers do not equate to anything meaningful, unless it is accepted that small numbers signify lack of a significant network or interest.

So, if numbers are required as a marker of success, which is often the case for public libraries, then the use of blogs, wikis, and especially social networking services must be very focused: not just to encourage participation but to ensure relevance and success. If we accept that it is the service and its support of users going about their business that should be the focus, and not the gratuitous use of technology because it is new, then what we need to identify is the service, the purpose of the service, and what success looks like.

For instance, the library wants to start a reading group for the housebound: a virtual book group sounds like a good idea, and a number of Web 2.0 tools can support this activity. In this case, critical success factors could include:

• everybody in the book club to be signed on as a friend to a Facebook page;
• a calendar of events to be created and sign up to an RSS feed of events to be encouraged;
• one book discussion meeting a month to be held on Facebook;
• an agreed level of participation that is considered successful (maybe based on how many “show up” for book discussions), etc.

Evaluation is this simple, and it is eminently measurable – a thriving book discussion group on Facebook, which opens this library activity up to the housebound and physically challenged. This is what success looks like for our book discussion club, and it can be measured, whether the days are early or late.

Continued in Part 2

Posted in Evaluation, Guest-blog, Web 2.0 | 2 Comments »