Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Automating with Barcodes

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Automating with Barcodes

Article excerpt

Things to consider before installing a barcode system

To be fully dependent on a machine will save time and energy - until it breaks... - Roger E. Whaley'

An accurate count of the hours barcodes have saved library staff and borrowers is impossible. Yet, today, many libraries still have not adopted them.

Walton and Bridge counted 1,489 automated installations in American libraries for the 1990 edition of their annual Library Journal "Automated System Marketplace" report. They are a thin sliver of the 34,479 public and academic libraries the R. R. Bowker 1988-89 American Library Directory lists and many fewer than the aggregate of total sales claimed by system vendors.

Barcodes 101

Barcodes are, of course, the small vertically striped labels found on 60 percent of grocery products sold in the United States. Barcodes present numbers as binary digits, ones and zeroes, which the width of bars and white spaces encode. About forty different coding schemes exist. The most common ones libraries use are CODABAR and Code 39.

A light-sensitive wand, pen, or desk-mounted scanner reads the labels, perceiving the absence or presence of light the barcodes reflect. Start and stop characters enable the computer to sense the direction in which the light pen passes across the label. An algorithm calculates what the correct check digit should be, and compares that with the check digit on the barcode label. Normnally the check digit is right 100,000 times before it is wrong. When it is wrong, the system-reports a misread.

Data Composition, Inc.'s vice president Hal Bailey and Bruce Wray of Compu-type assert in the May 1989 issue of Automatic I.D. News that barcode data collection averages 1,700 words per minute as contrasted with an average (and error prone) key entry speed of 45 wpm.

In the check-out/check-in process, barcodes offer a quick and accurate way to identify loans and borrowers. They also can speed inventories.


David J. Collins invented barcodes in 1960 when he was a twenry-four-year-old M.I.T. graduate working for Sylvania, where he was looking for a method to scan serial numbers on passing railway freight cars. In the early years it took 1foot square targets and fierce searchlights to obtain the resolution needed for scanning. By 1969 lasers permitted a tight beam to focus on small labels or tags with a lot less power.

The Plessey Company, Ltd. of the United Kingdom was the first to apply barcodes to libraries using its own light pen and reader. Plessey sold perhaps two dozen such systems in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia but lacked an efficient way to print the codes, modifying an IBM typewriter with bars soldered on its typefaces.

Then Interface Mechanisms of Lynnwood, Washington, (since renamed Intermec Corp.) consulted with. other firms to explore ways for improving the technology. Using Plessey development money, Interface Mechanisms delivered barcode printers in 1972.

Two developments fixed barcodes permanently in American commerce. First, the 60,000-member Uniform Code Council of grocery Manufacturers and retailers adopted its Universal Product Code as an industry standard in 1973, and, second, the Department of Defense began to require them on all supplies delivered to post exchanges and military installations in 1981.

Smart and Dumb Labels for Libraries

The most exhaustively detailed advice we have seen on the issue of smart vs. dumb labels may be found in the Texas State Library Development DiviSion's Data Conversion Workbook by Frank R. Bridge and C. Rebecca Garcia. Their distinguishing definition follows:

Intelligent labels - item labels produced in shelf list order and already included on the bibliographic record tape when it is loaded into the system. The staff must affix these intelligent labels directly to the specific items for which they were produced. …

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