CardStar – Embrace or Fear?

There was a lot of chatter on Twitter last week with the discovery that an application for the iPhone is offering a new way for borrowers to use their local library serviceCardStar offers users a way of carrying all their barcoded loyalty and reward cards with them without having a pocket full of plastic.  By inputting the barcode details, the application generates the appropriate barcode which can then be scanned in store……straight off your iPhone.  However, it is not only store cards that are catered for by this service, it is also possible to input a library card number and then, theoretically, present your iPhone at the library desk to take out books.

The application already lists Surrey libraries as one of the ‘merchants’, apparently in reaction to a borrower request.  Interestingly, Surrey libraries were unaware that they are listed on the application, this is because CardStar does not inform the relevant organisation that a request has been made.  This is not particularly helpful as library authorities could be listed without their consent or knowledge.  Furthermore, according to the blogger who kickstarted the flurry of Tweets, not many other libraries are aware of the service.  Of course, this presents its own problems for libraries unaware that users have requested that their library card be included on the application.  Should someone visit their local library and present their iPhone to a member of staff who is unaware of the application, there is likely to be an uncomfortable confrontation regarding the validity of the barcode.  In fact, it would appear that there have been some problems already.

@aarontay at Musings about Librarianship has already tracked down a couple of embarrasing incidents involving the application in some libraries in the US:

“Look you, next time you want to take out books bring in the actual card.  I don’t know if this is a real card.  Do you understand me?  I want the card, not the barcode.  Jesus.  begin muttering under breath and shaking head [then back to] I don’t know if this is a real card.”

and…

Do you have your library card?

Oh, yea. Sure. Here it is.

She looked at my outstretched hand with the iPod Touch and appeared unsure of what to do with the scanner in her hand. Taking a deep breath and saying a small prayer, I casually took the scanner from her hand and revealed my agenda to her.

See? I just place this scanner above the barcode displayed on the screen and….

Ummmm you can’t do that here…

No, it works! Trust me! I got it. Let me try one more time….

Excuse me, young man. People are waiting in line.

That’s not the kind of customer service that will win awards, that’s for certain.

The problem is, you can kinda understand the reactions of the staff members in these libraries.  After all, if you were presented with some new tech like this that you were previously unaware of, you would quite possibly refuse to even entertain the idea that these are valid library cards.  Besides, even if you were aware of the tech, there would still be reservations regarding security.  How can anyone know if the barcode number presented before them is genuinely the card number for the customer they are serving?  After all, it is just a case of jotting a card number down on the iPhone.  It’s no more valid than scrawling a barcode on a piece of paper and handing it over to a member of staff.  Clearly there are security concerns that have to be resolved and policies to be developed in relation to this application.  That’s not to say it is a thing that libraries (or frontline library staff) should fear.  Anything that makes the customer’s experience easier should be considered an advantage to the service.

Having said that, there is no guarantee that the application will work in all libraries anyway.  Judging by the tweets flying around on Friday last week, it was a bit hit and miss with some scanners.  It certainly seemed that those who tested the application on old scanners had more luck than those with new ones.  I tried to find out the reason for this from CardStar on Twitter, but it was more complicated than a 140 character tweet (obviously, should have worked that out myself!).  I have consequently emailed their support desk to ask for further info, so should find out why this is the case in due course¹.

Personally, I think @aarontay is spot-on with his conclusion.  It is important for libraries to be prepared for the use of this technology as any iPhone owner could stroll in with their iPhone and expect to take out their books using the CardStar application.  The most important thing is to ensure that the examples above are not repeated – that would be a disaster.

Update

1. I received a reply from CardStar explaining the situation with the hit and miss nature of scanning the iPhone.  They said:

The first thing to note is that handheld scanners (where you can direct the laser towards the phone) tend to work much better.  Because a lot of the laser light is lost when scanning from an LCD screen, the best laser scanners are the more high-powered ones (which typically correlate with “more expensive”).  We have found the most success with handheld scanners from Symbol.

They also requested that I send them the make and model of any scanners that are incompatible so they can test them in their lab.  Finally, they added:

We are actively trying to improve scanning rates in CardStar, and as we make advancements we will push them into newer versions of the software.

Looks like CardStar are aiming to be around for a while and to develop their product. Could be interesting times ahead.