Since my last blog post I have changed gears from archaeology to entomology. Over the past two weeks I have been working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum. What this means is that I have been working with bugs, spiders in particular! The E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum is one of the oldest museums at the University of Alberta, being founded in the mid-1920s in what was then the Department of Entomology. The Department of Entomology was merged with five other departments in the 1990s to create the Department of Biological Sciences.
While in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, I had the chance to work with assistant curator, Danny Shpeley. What Danny has been getting me to work on is a very large donation of spiders that was donated to the Museum in 2017. This is a donation of about 26,000 spider specimens, from all over the world. Most of these spiders were collected in Canada, but there are also a great number from the United States, Mexico, Israel, and even more exotic places like Tanzania and Australia. I am taking a spider world tour from the comfort of my office chair! I have been slowly, but surely, making a dent in the donations, having completed work on around 400 specimens at the moment.
My job has been to refresh the alcohol, add an accession number into the vial, and database the information that is included on labels which are within the vials. These specimens are in vials that are filled with alcohol in order to preserve the spiders. Alcohol is used over pinning because spiders are soft-bodied, if they were pinned the spiders would shrivel up! So even though most of these spiders were collected in the 1960s, they look the same as the day that they were collected! The databasing is perhaps the most important part of my job. This is done on an Excel spreadsheet which will be uploaded to Mimsy, the University of Alberta Museums database. What makes these specimens valuable to the Museum is not necessarily the specimen itself, but the data. The data is what gives each specimen scientific importance. Information like where it was collected, the elevation, the habitat, and when it was collected can give researchers important knowledge of the species that they are looking at.
The reason for databasing is, much like my previous experiences in Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, to upload this data into an online database. This allows the public and researchers alike to learn more about a species and all that is involved with it. The most interesting part of the Virtual Museum for me was that you are able to see the distribution range of a species. Location is a crucial part of the databasing that I am doing, and the final product of thousands of data entries is a map where you can see the range of a species.
This data entry might not be the most glamourous work that I will be doing this summer, but it is perhaps some of the most important and valuable. Talking with the curator of the collection, Felix Sperling, he said something which has stuck with me, “On one hand this work is incredibly boring, but on the other it is incredibly important.” Databasing is a huge part of museum work, and this saying is probably the most accurate representation of it!
My time here at the E.H. Strickland is drawing to a close today, and I must say that I loved my time here! I have a newfound respect for bugs, and everything creepy crawly!
Since posting my last blog post I have had to opportunity to come work for two weeks in the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. This is a teaching collection which has a large variety of archaeological material. For example, lithic material such as stone tools, pottery shards, and faunal remains. I have been helping to digitize some of the vast collection. This is the process of adding collections into digital databases so they are easily accessible. This allows researchers, museum staff, and the public to find certain items and browse collections. Digitization allows museums to make their collections accessible worldwide. At this point they have actually completed around 90% of the digitization project. I am helping to take photographs of some of the final items that are remaining. This involves taking pictures of items in a photo studio and then touching them up in Photoshop.
Photoshop, a popular computer program for editing photographs, has been the biggest learning curve for me these last few weeks. The difficult thing is that a camera lens does not see the world the same as a human eye. This means that for every image, I have to alter it to make sure that what you see on the screen looks like what you would find if you were looking for the artifact in the collection. What I have been able to do with Photoshop in just two weeks has astounded me! You are able to change anything and everything just by playing with the image. In the current digital climate, having a skill such as Photoshop will he very useful to me. Many museums worldwide are currently in the process of digitizing their collections. A working knowledge of Photoshop is a marketable skill for any future museum work I may be interest in!
Primarily I have been working with Shirley Harpham, the archaeological technologist for the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, which contains the Ami Collection. This is a large collection that was donated to the University of Alberta by Dr. Henri-Marc Ami. Dr. Ami did an excavation in France in 1925, mainly the site at Combe-Capelle, where he was able to excavate a total of around 300,000 artifacts, 100,000 of which he saved, from the Lower Paleolithic to Neolithic periods. This is a time frame of around 3.3 million years ago up to about 4000 years ago. I am primarily working with specimens from the Upper Paleolithic, which is about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Ami Collection was scattered to different Canadian universities with the University of Alberta being one of the recipients. The U of A has 1,876 specimens from Dr. Ami’s collection.
What I am mostly engaged with is a lot of lithic material, or stone tools, such as hand axes, scrapers, projectile points and hammer stones. It blew me away that after 50,000 years all of these flakes and tools as still sharp! You need to be careful, I have nearly cut myself a few times!
The highlight of these last two weeks for me has been being able to see more of the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. As an anthropology student I have had some time in the collection through class work, but to actually be able to see it and look around with Shirley and on my own has been fascinating! Looking at artifacts from a woolly mammoth’s tooth, to Acheulean handaxes originating from some of the original dig sites around Saint-Acheul, France has been this anthropology student’s dream come true!
The University of Alberta Art Collection (UAAC) contains over 10,000 objects, more than 50 different categories of objects, and 300 different types of materials—as such, the task of barcoding 10% of its holdings presented many challenges and learning opportunities for the University of Alberta Museums team.
By the end of the project term, 4043 objects were given a unique barcode label. Of these 4043 items, 1141 had a barcode label directly attached to the object using a tag. The remaining 2902 objects have associated barcodes printed on inventory reports, which are stored with the objects in question. These barcodes were created and associated with their objects over a period of several weeks. For a recap of our first object barcoding attempt, see the previous post on object barcodes in the Print Study Centre.
For many objects, the easiest method of attaching a barcode label was with a tag. An adhesive label with basic information about the object and an associated barcode was adhered to a conservation-approved acid-free paper tag, which was in turn attached to a robust part of the object where it could be seen without being intrusive.
Examples of tags created for textiles.
A tag is attached to a robust buttonhole on a Chinese robe.
Tags are looped carefully around some bone hide scrapers.
There were some occasions where it made more sense to attach a tag adjacent to an object instead of directly to it, such as when a framed work was hanging on a rack, or where a textile had no buttonholes or ties to attach a tag to.
Tags are attached to the left of framed works hung on large metal racks.
A tag is attached to the twill tape wrapped around a framed textile.
Particularly small or delicate objects had the tag stored with them in their individual boxes and trays wherever possible.
This stone charm is too small to have a tag attached, so it has been tucked into the object’s tray.
The tag for this delicate child’s moccasin is stored adjacent to the object in its tray so as to avoid compromising the object’s stability.
Of course, it is not always possible to attach a barcode label or tag directly or adjacent to an object—such is the case, for example, with large albums where individual pages are given their own accession numbers, or for large pieces of public art. For these scenarios, a barcode inventory sheet can be generated through Crystal Reports, which can be printed as needed by collection staff, kept centrally for use, or stored with the object.
Collection staff must use their training and judgement to determine the best method of barcoding for each object; however, with these approaches it is possible to barcode all of the categories of objects and materials represented in the University of Alberta Art Collection.
After the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services staff members applied barcode labels to the locations in the Print Study Centre, the rest of the Art Collection’s storage spaces had to be addressed. There are two major levels of storage spaces that require barcodes:
- Shelf/drawer-level barcodes, for smaller objects that reside on a shelf, in a drawer, or on a surface that is part of a larger storage unit. For example, a large rack unit may have 10 smaller racks on which framed artworks may be hung.
- Wall and room-level barcodes for objects too large to fit on a shelf or in a drawer, or that are hung on a wall. This might include a large sculpture or an object with its own case. These objects would be assigned a location at the wall or room level.
The same label template used for location barcodes in the Print Study Centre was used for the remaining Art Collection storage locations. Shelves and drawers in the storage spaces were primarily metal, so labels were attached to magnets and placed on the corresponding drawer or shelf as they had been in the Print Study Centre. Wooden shelves and drawers, of which there were very few, had the adhesive barcodes attached directly to the front surface.
For room and wall-level barcodes, a sheet with barcodes for each wall and for the room overall was created. In each storage room, the corresponding sheet is now kept in a central location for use by staff members.
Some locations associated with the Art Collection did not receive a physical barcode. These locations are for public art on campus, as well as both on-campus and off-campus loans. As these locations are not under the authority of University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services, a number of dynamic reports were created with Crystal Reports and linked to the database. This way, staff members who require barcodes for these locations can print them on demand and use them without leaving a barcode label in a public location where it is at risk of being accidentally removed. A central binder will also contain these reports, which will be updated regularly, for staff use.
When the first batch of prints from the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services’ A Little Bit of Infinity exhibition arrived at the Print Study Centre to be returned to their permanent storage locations, collections staff incorporated the application of barcodes to the matted and framed prints into their usual procedure for putting away objects.
The same 2”x1” polypropylene labels used for locations were also used to create object labels. Each label has the accession number, title, artist, and date of each artwork on it alongside a barcode.
The labels were carefully applied to the mat or permanent frame of each print in a place that would be readable but not directly contact the artwork.
For artworks with space on the mat, a barcode label was applied in the bottom right corner, away from the artwork itself.
For larger artwork without space on the mat, the label was applied to the mounting/framing corner at the bottom right. Again, care was taken to ensure it was not in contact with the work.
Here the label is applied to the frame of the artwork (in this case, a fan) where it can be easily found by staff but does not contact the piece itself.
For unmatted prints, a report with each artwork in the exhibition and a corresponding barcode was generated using Crystal Reports so that they could be scanned with Axiell Move. The “Home Location” (permanent storage location) was also added to this report so that staff would know where the object was to be returned to without having to search for each individual piece on the database. Pre-existing inventory sheets (also created with Crystal Reports) that are stored with the prints in each box at the Print Study Centre have had a barcode added to them. This way, any unmatted prints will still have a barcode physically associated with them.
With these location and object barcodes in place, the team was able to begin scanning with the Axiell Move application to update the locations of the exhibited artworks. They agreed that it significantly reduced the amount of time they spent updating the locations for each piece, streamlining the return process.
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.