Specifications for printing equipment, scanners, and labelling materials can sometimes be minimal online, so we decided to contact the resellers and manufacturers of certain products. This was important for ensuring they meet our needs and will be compatible with our collections objects and storage scenarios.
After sending out emails, we were finally able to get in contact with a few people who had successfully implemented barcoding systems in museum collections. It was nice to get some input from other individuals in the field who had opinions on things like label material and printer brands. We arranged a meeting with a colleague at the Royal Alberta Museum here in Edmonton who is also implementing a barcoding system during their upcoming renewal project and relocation. It was especially gratifying to have someone hash through all the things we’d been pursuing and researching for the past month. Having so recently made many of the decisions themselves that we were in the midst of, the timing was fortuitous.
A second museum collection for the project was also tentatively identified and confirmed. When deciding which collections to barcode for this pilot project, we looked for collections with some variety in their object materials, staff with the capacity to continue implementing the barcodes after our project funding ended, and objects that moved frequently (such as for loans, research, teaching, or exhibitions); this criteria ensures that the selected collections will make for good case studies. While the university’s Art collection had been a confirmed choice since the beginning of the project, the second museum collection was a question mark for a while into the project.
Once the final collection could be established, and staff members for both collections had been consulted, final decisions about purchasing could be made. When barcoding museum collections it is important that the individual collection material and storage circumstances are carefully considered before the printer, label materials and sizes, ribbons, and other equipment are bought.
The first two weeks of the project were spent almost exclusively at a computer, combing the internet for information on barcoding. Research for the project that was done while it was still in its proposal stage was a great base to start on, but it became clear on the first day how very long the list of decisions to be made was for things like hardware choices and software brands and label sizes and so forth; all were issues that need to be resolved before any actual barcoding or location tracking could take place.
We started by contacting people at other institutions who had implemented similar projects, preferably also using the Mimsy XG database, who would then be able to point us in the direction of appropriate equipment and supplies for the tasks. As there is such a vast spread of ways to implement barcoding in a collection, as well as so many considerations for each institution’s unique environment, we felt it was important to speak to other people about their own barcoding experiences.
We then turned to doing research on our own. What originally seemed a straightforward task was complicated by the fact that museums-specific barcoding information is sparse; most of the accessible information related to hardware and supplies was for an industrial or retail setting. Research ended up being a general overview of barcoding equipment, which then needed to have our own museum considerations applied to it. Our considerations for choosing museum-friendly printing hardware and supplies are as follows:
- Familiarize yourself with how barcode printing actually works. We overwhelmed ourselves with the available options before actually sitting down and reading about the technology, and which options were actually appropriate for the project.
- Talk to salespeople. They know their products better than anyone, and while they may be less informed about a museum-specific setting and its needs, they may also ask you questions that you hadn’t previously considered (USB or Ethernet connectivity? How many labels do you really need to print per day?) and those will ultimately narrow down your choices.
- Learn about which materials are okay to be in contact with museum objects and which aren’t. Labels, inks, and adhesives should ideally be acid-free and inert. Do some reading on the subject or talk to a conservator (preferably both) as this will guide your choices.
About the Project
In the spring of 2016, University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services (MACS) received a Collections Management Grant from the Museum Assistance Program (MAP) run by the federal government’s Department of Canadian Heritage to help fund a location tracking project. The project was conceived to reduce the time and effort required to manually enter all location changes in the central database, thus increasing efficiency and collections security. This project will see the creation and implementation of a barcoding system, and the integration of Axiell Move, an iOS application meant to facilitate barcode scanning and location tracking, with the Mimsy XG database. Mimsy XG, also an Axiell product, is the museum collections database that has been used by the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services (MACS) for nearly two decades.
Barcodes have traditionally had a wide range of applications, from industrial to retail. For museums, barcodes are primarily used to remove the human error from the location updates in a collections management system and reduce the time spent making them. Objects that are shelved, reshelved, relocated, loaned out, exhibited, or otherwise moved require their exact location to be updated in the database as soon and as accurately as possible to reduce losses and errors. By having a system of barcoding in place, as well as the appropriate hardware and software to manage it, less time will be spent updating and managing locations, thus freeing up valuable time for staff.
What Will This Project Accomplish?
The pilot project, which is slated to wrap up at the end of April 2017, will see roughly 10% of the objects and 100% of the locations in two museum collections here on the University of Alberta campus barcoded. Two collections, the University of Alberta Art Collection (UAAC) and the Meteorite Collection, were chosen to best represent the array of object materials and environments that can be found at the U of A Museums. University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services (MACS) staff will collaborate closely with the staff in each collection to ensure the new system fits their needs and to establish best practices. In conjunction with researching and implementing the barcoding in these collections, workflows and how-to guides will be created to ensure the continuation and completion of barcoding in the initial two collections as well as to assist in the adoption of this initiative in the remaining University of Alberta museum collections over time.
This project blog will serve both as documentation of the process of developing a barcoding system in a museum collection and as a resource for other museum professionals considering implementing barcoding in their own institutions. Our initial research phase of this project exposed a lack of resources for museum-specific barcoding projects, and we hope to help fill that gap in accessible knowledge.