The University of Alberta Print Study Centre is an interactive facility for teaching, research and community outreach as well as an open access storage facility for the University of Alberta Art Collection’s prints and drawings.
The University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services recently put on a two-part exhibition titled A Little Bit of Infinity which included approximately 400 prints, many of which were from this storage location, which needed to be returned at the end of each part of the show. For this reason, it was decided that this location would be a good place to start the physical barcoding of locations and objects. This would help facilitate the return of exhibited prints and reduce the time spent by staff in the Art Collection on updating locations.
First, the team had to decide the best way to attach the barcodes to each location. As this is a space that often sees visitors, it was decided that any barcoding should be subtle, clean, and uniform.
There were six storage scenarios that would need to be addressed:
- Metal drawers containing matted and unmatted prints
- Wooden drawers containing matted and unmatted prints
- A rack unit with hanging framed works
- A glass-topped table with recessed spaces to display works
- Framed works hanging on walls around the centre
- Boxes shelved in wooden cabinets containing matted and unmatted prints
The first three scenarios were addressed similarly—2”x1” polypropylene labels were generated with a location name (e.g. Print Study Centre: Cabinet X, Drawer Y) and a corresponding scannable barcode. The labels for the metal drawers were attached to magnetic strips, which then could be placed alongside the original label without leaving a mark and remaining adjustable. To avoid leaving a sticky residue on the front of the drawers, barcode labels for the wooden drawers were adhered inside the drawers in an easily accessible and visible spot. The rack units, with their similarly wooden fronts, had the barcode labels attached on the inside of the unit where they are visible and accessible for staff, but not visitors.
For the glass-topped table and the room’s walls, a standard sheet of paper was printed with barcodes for each corresponding location and put in a plastic sheet protector. This way, the barcodes can be stored in a discreet location for staff.
The final storage scenario, the boxes stored in custom wooden cabinets, posed a problem. The lips of the shelves were not wide enough to accommodate a barcode, and attaching location barcodes to the boxes housing the prints would not be a good solution as a box being moved would take the shelf’s barcode with it.
We decided that the boxes would be converted to containers in the database (a process we previously addressed in Post #7), which would allow us to virtually ‘move’ the groups of prints more easily. A report (generated, like our labels, through Crystal Reports) was created which would allow locations and associated barcodes to be printed out, then stored centrally for staff to access when objects were being moved in and out of the cabinets.
These barcodes were put in place in time for the Art Collection’s staff members to begin returning the prints from the first portion of the A Little Bit of Infinity to storage, when the first art objects had their barcodes applied. We will discuss this process in the next blog post.
The Meteorite Collection staff members were initially interested in the location tracking project we are implementing because of how often their specimens are moved—through accessions, loans, and for research. Combined with the relatively small size of the collection (less than 1500 specimens), this made for an excellent pilot collection for our purposes. Not only will this project reduce the time spent manually entering new location data into the database, but it assists the staff in analyzing how often things are moved and for what purpose.
The data work necessary to begin barcoding this collection was minimal. The only work that had to be done within the Mimsy XG database was to bring the locations up to the standard necessary to generate location barcodes.
The majority of the Meteorite Collection is permanently stored in a set of metal cabinets. The specimens are double-bagged and nested in small boxes within the drawers inside each cabinet. Associated with each specimen is a label, generated through Crystal Reports, with some basic information about each one.
After the staff received basic training for the Axiell Move app, the collection was equipped with everything the team would need to sustain and grow the barcoding initiative in their collection: two barcode scanning devices with chargers, barcoded cabinet labels, and a report that can be generated on demand through Crystal Reports to create object barcodes.
In conjunction with the staff, we decided that the most practical way of adding barcodes to objects was to incorporate a barcode into the existing Crystal Reports object label report, which is printed on cardstock for each specimen, and reprint the label for existing specimens requiring barcodes. This way, the labels will be uniform and older labels currently housed with specimens will benefit from being updated. For location barcodes, we designed paper labels in Microsoft Word to be slipped into the label holders on each drawer that contained a human-readable location name and associated barcode. The cabinet drawers were not previously labelled, so we were able to improve this second, physical aspect of their location tracking system as well.
The Meteorite Collection should now be able to continue growing its fully-functional barcoding system with minimal intervention from the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services team.
Producing barcode labels requires a numbers of different hardware and software components. There are many different combinations of these which may work for different setups, but here is what is working for us.
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First, we had to consider how we would be generating the labels. We already use Crystal Reports to connect to our database and produce reports, and luckily Crystal Reports is able to generate dynamic barcodes both out-of-the-box and with purchased add-ons. While it is possible to invest in other barcoding software to do the trick (such as a standalone barcode label program like BarTender), it made more sense (and cost less money) to try and incorporate barcodes into our already-existing system of Crystal Reports labels and printouts.
Next, we needed to be able to encode the relevant information into a barcode that the scanner would read—for us, that means we will need to encode the accession number for each object barcode and a number randomly assigned to each location record by our database (the key field) for every location barcode.
We chose to use a 1D barcode style; these are the standard linear barcodes you might see on a box of cereal at the grocery store. There are also 2D barcodes—these are the small, square-shaped barcodes that have become more popular in recent years to encode large amounts of information, typically seen in advertising. As 2D barcodes tend to be more difficult for a barcode scanner to read, and the information needing to be encoded is reasonably simple, we decided to stick with the 1D barcode option.
There are a great number of 1D barcode symbologies (think of them as different barcode alphabets), but we initially settled on Code 39 as it is commonly used and generally easy for barcode scanners to read because it only encodes the Roman alphabet (no distinction between upper and lowercase letters), numbers, and a handful of special characters. Unfortunately, we quickly realized during our testing phase that a Code 39 symbology was unable to properly encode even our relatively simple accession number system, and that even when it did work, the barcodes were sometimes exceptionally long. We then decided to try Code 128 barcodes, which allow for much greater range of special characters to be encoded into the barcode. We have been using it so far and it seems to work just fine for us.
We researched two ways to create dynamic barcodes in Crystal Reports: one is to use a barcode font in conjunction with a formula within the program, and the other is to use only a formula that produces barcode images within the report. We learned that the out-of-the-box barcode font that comes with Crystal Reports was not complex enough to encode our accession numbers. We then downloaded the demo version of the BarcodeWiz barcode font software that gives you a number of Code 39 and Code 128 barcode styles to choose from as well as the formulas necessary to produce them in Crystal Reports. For comparison, the demo version of the IDAutomation Native Linear Barcode Generator for Crystal Reports was also downloaded for testing, which is the style of software that generates an image of a barcode with a formula.
Both have their advantages and drawbacks. The BarcodeWiz barcode fonts have good readability with the scanner, but we discovered that there is a problem with the Crystal Reports Viewer that will not allow these barcodes to display when generated on remote computers—so, the computers in museum collections around campus would not necessarily be able to generate them. The barcode images made with the IDAutomation software will generate successfully on remote computers, but there are some reported issues with their readability when printed with thermal printing technology.
In the end, we have resolved to purchase both and use either method where appropriate. It should not make any difference in how the scanner reads each barcode, and will allow us to overcome the disadvantages of either method.
Part of what makes the Axiell Move app so useful for the museum collections here on campus is its integration with Containers Authority in the Mimsy database—that is, its ability to recognize different containers and use them to update the location for multiple objects at once.
Containers (for example, crates used for shipping or solander boxes) will be given their own ID number and corresponding barcode, and any objects scanned into the container with the Axiell Move app and barcode scanner will inherit its location. The container can then be moved to a new location and all the objects both physically and virtually within it will inherit these location changes within the database. This has time-saving implications for shipping, loans, and moving objects for an exhibition.
While this functionality has existed within the database for some time, it has not yet been implemented in any of the collections. By assigning numbers to our existing boxes, crates, and other containers as part of this location tracking project, we will be able to process large moves in the database quickly and efficiently. Work is already underway to create these container records in the Art database.
As previously mentioned on this blog, this is a pilot project that we hope to extend to other collections on campus upon its completion. To complement the data work that has been carried out so far, an assessment of all the collections currently in the Mimsy XG database was undertaken to determine the work that would need to be done before they were ready for the Axiell Move app. We reviewed and compiled information on:
- Record linking—were objects with multiple parts/records correctly designated as such and linked to each other?
- Location records—were they correct and up to date?
- Accession numbers—would any pose challenges when being encoded in a barcode (e.g. length, special characters)?
- Containers Authority—was it set up for the specific collection?
- What kinds of moves were currently being tracked within the database (e.g. loans)?
This review is crucial for the long-term success of our barcoding as it will allow us to present a setup and implementation plan to future adopters of this system, and take out any of the guesswork for collections staff.
One of our main concerns over the first few months of the project was finding and purchasing the ‘right’ equipment and supplies. As we discovered through our discussions with collections staff in other institutions and our own research, the possible combinations of equipment and supplies for a project such as this are boundless. Through careful consideration of our own museum collections here on campus and their distinctive setups, we eventually settled on the following hardware and supplies for our location tracking project:
- Apple iPod Touch devices
- The Axiell Move application runs on multiple kinds of iOS devices; however, we didn’t require the full capabilities that come with an iPhone and the bulk of an iPad would have interfered with scanning the barcodes. The iPod also happened to be the least expensive option.
- Infinite Peripherals Linea Pro 5 scanning sleeve
- While Apple products with cameras can recognize barcodes with their stock cameras, the speed and accuracy of this scanning method is not ideal. The Linea Pro 5 sleeves fit over the iPods similar to a standard case but have a barcode scanning laser and automatically integrate with the Axiell Move application. We also purchased a protective case, charging dock, and holster with each sleeve.
- Zebra G-Series GX430t label printer (GX43-102412-000 model)
- We needed a desktop label printer with at least 300 dpi, high internal memory (to allow for the printing of Chinese or Japanese characters if necessary), and the ability to connect to a computer through a USB port. We decided we didn’t require the large volume printing capabilities an industrial printer would provide, nor would we require the printer to be able to connect to a computer through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The Zebra G-Series GX430t range of printers is compatible with an array of label and thermal transfer ribbon materials, and the specific model we chose met all our predetermined requirements. It also has the capability to print on paper tags as well as adhesive labels.
- Zebra PolyPro 3000T adhesive labels (3”x1” and 1”x0.5” sizes)
- We chose polypropylene labels for their inert, acid-free qualities and overall durability. Any barcodes printed on these labels should be resistant to water damage and fading in a way that paper labels would not be. We decided against the (more expensive) polyester version of these labels because the collections they will reside in will not have extreme heat or cold, and will not put them at risk of chemical damage. Two different sizes were chosen as these will be for both location and object barcodes.
- Zebra 3200 Wax/Resin ribbons
- These ribbons were recommended for our choice of polypropylene labels, and are significantly less expensive than the ribbons made entirely of resin without greatly compromising longevity or readability.
- Neenah 65-lb. Bright White Premium Cardstock Paper
- This archival-quality cardstock can be used to make hanging tags or print off inventory lists with barcodes that can safely be stored with museum objects.
While the printing supplies are currently untested as we are not yet at that phase of the project, we have begun using the Linea Pro 5 scanner sleeves in conjunction with the iPods and have found them to be easy to use and accurate for scanning barcodes.
We were able to walk through the main storage spaces for both the Art and Meteorite collections over the past two weeks. The two storage situations are markedly different—Meteorites, on one hand, are primarily kept in a single “clean” room, designed and filtered to remove as many particulates and impurities from the space as possible. To enter, one must don protective gear to ensure one doesn’t contaminate either the space or the specimens, which are contained in five small cabinets and amount to just slightly more than a hundred location records in the Mimsy database. Art, however, has more than ten times that amount of location records in the database. These storage locations are spread over many different buildings here at the University of Alberta, and this doesn’t include any of the public art, or art that has been placed in offices or other spaces around campus.
Beyond the storage locations themselves, the two collections also differ in how the items themselves are stored. Meteorites, again, are contained consistently—while the specimens themselves may be contained in a vial or a box, each one is bagged, and then bagged again along with a label, which is nested in a smaller box with a secondary label. Art, though, varies significantly: paintings and prints may be matted or unmatted, framed or unframed, hung on racks, kept in drawers, or rested on shelves. Sculptures may be shelved in larger spaces, or they may be contained and resting on the floor. Smaller art pieces and artifacts might be shelved, in boxes alone or in multiples, or displayed in their own custom case. Textiles and scrolls may be stored flat or rolled.
Due to this varying nature of the storage situations here at the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services (MACS), as well as the individualized needs of collections staff and conservation considerations, we have had to come up with a number of possible ways to attach or associate the barcode with each object. Where possible, we hope to incorporate the barcodes into existing labels or inventory sheets, but otherwise will have to affix barcode with hanging tags, or attach them directly onto frames, mats, or storage boxes (where appropriate). These approaches will ensure that barcodes are not directly attached to the object in a way that may compromise or permanently alter it. The final method of attachment for each storage scenario will depend on what we discover during the testing phase of the physical barcoding of the objects, and what collections staff determine is most useful for their own workflows.
After meeting with the curator of the Meteorite Collection, it was agreed that this would be the second collection we would barcode. While the objects in the collection are all fairly uniform, they are of varying sizes and have been stored in different kinds of containers, and thus will pose different challenges. The collection is small but well-documented, and objects move with some frequency. It seems like it will make for a really great pilot collection.
On another note, one of the things that never occurred to us at the onset of this project was the amount of fine-tuning the database would require to facilitate the addition of the Axiell Move application. We ended up spending a few days refining object records by separating out records with multiple parts that had previously been grouped into a single record, making sure every object or part of an object that could potentially be moved had a specific location within the database, and so forth. A look at the Meteorite Collection’s database location records revealed that it would also require some updating before it was ready for this project. The database tweaking can be an immense task, but it means the location tracking project has the positive secondary effect of improving some aspects of the database as it’s realized.
There was also a lot of work done to get this blog up and active. This is first blog to be created by this department, so it required careful thought to come up with a suitable layout, text, tone, and plan for launching the blog to the wider community.
Storage walkthroughs of both the selected museum collections are set to occur shortly, at which point the final decisions regarding labels and barcode styles can be made, locations can be confirmed and updated where necessary, and the first wave of supplies can be ordered.
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.