Cyberpunk Librarian: Making Android Work For You

The talented and prescient Posey Galore posted a great comic about barcode scanning apps for the library (and how long it takes to get an app made in a committee run environment). I figured it might be a good idea to talk about how I make my Android phone work for me as a librarian and how your patrons can make it work for themselves. Granted a little hackery is involved here, but we’re talking low level stuff that the phone does anyway, you just have to know that it does.

Most Android phones come with an app called Barcode Scanner by ZXing (which stands for Zebra Crossing). If yours doesn’t, go get it from the Market, it’s worth it. That app has the ability to transform your phone into a one shot scanning access to your OPAC and any functionality it offers. The trick is knowing how this works with your OPAC.

My library system uses Polaris, and when you do a search in Polaris, it puts the information you searched for in the URL. Now then, there are two things you can scan on a library item, the ISBN or the item’s library barcode. Polaris handles both, and I’m sure others do too. Here’s how I make it work in Polaris.

Scanning the ISBN

Say I do a search in the Polaris OPAC for the ISBN for Visual Basic 2008 for Dummies. That ISBN is 9780470182383. Here’s the URL of my result:*&query=&page=0

See that bold part? That’s the important bit because you can replace that ISBN with any other ISBN and it’ll work just fine. We’ll get to that in a second.

Scanning the Item’s Barcode

It’s not too well known, but you can look up barcodes in the Polaris OPAC, but you have to know how. See, it doesn’t do it automatically and it doesn’t even do it via the advanced search. However, it will do it through a method utilizing Common Command Language or CCL. Using CCL, you can narrow a search down to a single item on the shelf at a single branch, but that’s an article for a different day. In this case if you go to the Boolean Search, you open up a new world of possibilities in searching.

For this, type BC= and then the item’s barcode into your search box. This tells the OPAC that you’re searching for a barcode. So for our Visual Basic book, the item barcode is 0000131480921 and thus we type:


And our search returns with this URL:

See that? The barcode we searched for is right there in the URL!

Making it Work

1. Open up Barcode Scanner and hit the settings button on your Android phone.

2. Select the Settings button for Barcode Scanner. This gives you a list of options for Barcode Scanner itself.

3. One of those options is “Custom Search URL” and here’s where things will get a little interesting.

Into this area you can put a URL that takes the information gleaned from a barcode scan and have it hit the web (or your OPAC in this case) using that data. Copy and paste the URL you want to use into that box but, and here’s the trick, replace the search term with %s. That %s acts like a placeholder for the barcode you scanned. So if you want to search by ISBN, your URL would look like:*&query=&page=0

Or if you’re going with the item barcode route:

Now, when you scan a barcode, you’ll get a button on-screen that says “Custom Search.” Hit that and away you go to your OPAC with the information already entered and the search already complete!


    1. One easy way to do it? Just provide the edited URLs on a website for them to copy/paste into the Barcode Scanner app. Maybe a YouTube video or something. If most of the work is already done, then it’ll make it that much easier. 🙂

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