All posts by Sheila Perry

The really geeky stuff – how we did it

If it moves, barcode it! Part 2

By Sheila Perry

Note: This is part 2 of the article “If it moves barcode it”, read part 1 here.

We had 3 sets of barcode labels made, with separate ranges of numbers for drawings, prints and photographs, starting from DR00001, PR00001 and PH00001 respectively. These numbers were meaningless and the only important thing was that we knew which objects were in which box. I created a big spreadsheet which showed the correlation between all the different box numbering systems, and we then used this to create an upload to our collections database which changed the box numbers there. This was slightly nerve-racking as there was a risk of the cells in the spreadsheet going out of sync when they were being manipulated. However, undoubtedly the worst part of the whole operation was attaching the labels to the boxes. The labels were provided individually on backing material and had to be peeled off, and (as with double-sided sticky tape) it was only too easy to scrunch them up while you were detaching them! The best part about having the barcodes on the boxes was that we didn’t need to print or write out any lists to record new locations when we started to move them back into the building. We just scanned them with a mobile barcode reader (a Datalogic Skorpio mobile computer) and used that to record the moves, downloading an Excel file from it at the end of each day and then feeding a ‘box upload’ to our database.

powerpick screenshot barcode

The software [PowerPick – see screenshot] that controls the three Kardex machines holds a small, simple database with a list of box numbers, two description fields which we use for the previous names for each box, and the location of the boxes within the storage system. The box number is used to enable people to cross-refer to our collections database to find the list of items in the box. So in order to retrieve a specific object, the user searches for it on the collections database, finds the box number and feeds it into the PowerPick database, which finds the location (machine number, tray number and position on the tray) and tells the appropriate machine to deliver the tray. The boxes have a ‘home location’ in the units and are usually returned to the same position after being taken out, although this can be changed in the database if necessary. On return, the barcode on the box may be scanned to enable the software to find the right location and deliver the correct tray, but in practice the box number is often typed or pasted into the search field.

No stopping us now!

Soon after this we carried out a few smaller barcoding projects to help us to track individual items. In these cases we attached sticky labels of various types to the boxes or packaging of the items. We printed the labels ourselves, which had the advantage that we could include as much extra information on them as we wanted. For the portrait miniatures collection we used conservation standard labels and included an image, the artist name, title and the accession number converted into a barcode. For some reason we always had trouble keeping track of the collection before doing this. The individual miniatures were hard to identify and it was difficult to label them effectively until they were stored in boxes. From the audit point of view it is much quicker to check through them now that they have barcodes. However one issue with ‘do-it-yourself’ labels is that the barcode occasionally turns out to be unreadable. I would say this happens in about 5-10% of cases, whereas for the pre-printed barcodes the failure rate is much less than this. As a follow-up to the portrait miniatures project we added labels with barcodes to the packaging for a collection of portrait medallions, stored in envelopes. These were also hard to track/audit until we did this.

portrait miniatures with barcodes

Some of my colleagues are now at the start of an audit project for the Scottish National Gallery print room, and as part of this they have begun to attach pre-printed barcoded labels to the boxes there too. Any move that takes place will not happen for a while, so for once we have learned from experience and left ourselves enough time to get organised. The latest instalment in our efforts to drag the organisation into the 20th century [no, I don’t mean the 21st!] is under way.

What have we learned (if anything)?

  • We have up to now focussed on barcoding relatively small and insignificant artworks, or more accurately their containers, and not the large valuable ones. This is not because we value the small and insignificant ones more than the others, but because the smaller ones are generally harder to keep track of and easier to mix up with one other. It might be that for the more important/larger items we should be investing in RFID instead of barcode labelling, as this could combine added security with location tracking and/or with condition monitoring. But this is a battle still to be fought.
  • ‘Home-made’ barcodes don’t scan quite as reliably as the pre-printed ones – but you can convert anything you like into a barcode if you print the labels in-house, and it also provides more flexibility, allowing other information to be incorporated as required, and the ability to print off extra labels from time to time.
  • Although barcoding is a good method for providing unambiguous labelling and to facilitate quick audits, there are other methods which would also work if applied with consistency and accuracy.

If it moves, barcode it!

[Better still, barcode it before it moves…]

By Sheila Perry

Our barcoding efforts have been geared towards immediate practical needs rather than the wholesale adoption of technology by the organisation. We might have proceeded somewhat differently if we had acted strategically and attempted to barcode everything in all the National Galleries of Scotland collections. On the other hand, if we had waited to get a consensus on that we might not have done anything at all!

It begins

PNIN - Kardex tray with boxes

Our initial barcoding project was prompted by the installation of automated storage machines (Kardex) at the refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2011, but it was also the final outcome of a drive to audit every item in the prints, drawings and photographs collections. These had previously been stored, mostly in modern solander boxes, in various locations around the Portrait Gallery, a Victorian gothic structure with spiral stone staircases leading to turret and attic store rooms. We never fully understood what was kept in these areas until we had to empty out the building in 2009.
In the case of the prints and drawings the main issue at this point was the box numbering system that was then in use, although there was also doubt about whether the contents of each box were correctly recorded on our collections database, while in the case of the photography collection the main factor was that large chunks of the collection were not recorded in any way.

The boxes in which the drawings were stored were labelled with a range of numbers corresponding to an obsolete object numbering system. In some cases the labels, which were pieces of cardboard slotted into metal label holders on the front of each box, had fallen out of the label holders and got lost. Similarly, each box of prints was labelled with a range of numbers corresponding to the accession numbers of the prints that were allegedly kept in the box.

box labelling example

As the prints were not numbered sequentially but according to a complex system designed to record whether the print was Scottish, English or ‘Foreign’, the century in which the print was made and in some cases the coded identity of the sitter, this meant that a box might be numbered something like ‘SP IV 58.1 –150.6’. Some of the print containers had these numbers stencilled on them, often in gold, while others had cardboard labels in label holders as with the drawings boxes.

Once we moved all the boxes out of the Portrait Gallery, having added our own temporary box labels to help us place them on their new shelves in a sensible order and to record the locations on our database, the prints and drawings were stored in one temporary store and the photographs in another. Two projects got under way, one to audit the contents of the prints and drawings boxes and one to catalogue the remaining photographs.

It was mainly because we didn’t want all this tidying up to be wasted that we pressed for all the boxes to be barcoded before their return to the Portrait Gallery. The fact that they were going to be stored in an automated retrieval system which could work with a barcode reader as its input device gave us a pretext to move forward with this. There was a short debate with curators and others about whether each item should be barcoded individually or not, and an even shorter debate about barcoding versus RFID tagging, the latter turning out to be one step too far.

Read the real geeky stuff in part 2 – how they did it!

Sheila Perry is Collections Information Systems Manager at the National Galleries of Scotland, based in the Registrars Department, with responsibility for maintaining and developing the NGS collections database and associated systems. Earlier in her career she was a programmer and database designer, and she writes mystery novels under a pen-name.