Betting on Bar Codes

By Phillips, John T., Jr. | Records Management Quarterly, October 1997 | Go to article overview
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Betting on Bar Codes

Phillips, John T., Jr., Records Management Quarterly

Bar code technology innovations continue to drive the creation of more sophisticated automation systems and also promote more capable solutions to information management challenges. Records managers are familiar with this technology in their experiences with bar codes printed on the adhesive labels used to inventory and track documents. They have seen bar code labels on file folders, storage boxes, retail merchandise, purchase requisitions, shipping containers, and mail envelopes. These small repositories of information are commonly used to identify records that will be more completely indexed in a database management system. By using bar code labels as miniature data storage media, automation systems can expand both the quantity and quality of the data input and the information processed. "To many people, automated data collection is nearly synonymous with bar code. There are other methods of keyless data entry, but the sheer ubiquitousness of bar code is testimony to its success."[1]

Without bar code technology many automated records management systems would be far less capable of providing cost effective aids to managing documents. A common component of the justification of most automation systems is the assumption that many more records will be processed. Even a casual observer of such systems will realize that such assumptions occur due to the considerable data entry labor savings realized by scanning bar codes for the entry of data. Employee badge numbers, document numbers, and other alphanumeric data scanned into a database with bar code technology are processed more quickly and accurately than when data must be entered by "keyboarding." A good example of bar code technology is the PostNet bar code used by the U.S. Postal Service for delivering mail.

However, there are innovative and enterprising ways to use this information management medium that can enable improving organizational business processes. New bar code symbologies and recording methods allow increasingly larger amounts of more accurate data to be stored in what are called "portable data files." High resolution laser printers and more complex two- and three-dimensional data recording methodologies are making it possible to store an entire page of information in bar code format. Such bar codes can be faxed or transmitted electronically between locations as primitive electronic data interchange (EDI). As new means of using bar code technologies are incorporated into the workplace, records managers will want to assure they can contribute to any new professional challenges that may arise.

This discussion of bar code technology will cover symbologies, standards, reader technology, printer technology, and label media. It will also provide some references to available software and vendors. By having a good general understanding of this technology, records managers will be better positioned to participate in the design and implementation of information systems using this technology.


So what exactly is a bar code? A standard "bar code can be thought of as a printed version of the Morse code, with narrow bars representing dots, and wide bars representing dashes. To read the information contained in a bar code symbol, a scanning device such as a light pen is moved across the symbol, from one side to the other..."[2] This reading technique will vary depending on the particular nature and configuration of the bar code symbology. However, the basic idea is always the same - the alternating dark and light areas of the bar code represent data that can be quickly converted to digital format in a bar code reader or wand.

Other data entry technologies related in functionality to bar codes are optical character recognition, magnetic ink, magnetic strips, voice recognition, radio frequency tags, and smart cards. All these technologies have their own particular advantages; however, few are as inexpensive to implement in a reliable and flexible manner as is bar code technology.

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Betting on Bar Codes


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