Librarians have known for years that giving items individual unique identifiers makes it much easier to manage them. Accessions stamps have been used for centuries, automatically rolling on to give each item a number of its very own. Making those identifiers machine-readable took things to a new level.
We’re talking barcodes! Barcodes allowed libraries to automate issue and return processes and to track book locations with certainty. I’ve worked in libraries using paper-based systems and, believe me, barcodes were a wonderful innovation (if you’ve ever dropped a Browne issue tray on the floor, you’ll know what I mean).
Archives have been slower to adopt such identifiers. The drivers for barcoding are less obvious as materials are consulted in the search room rather than taken away by users. However archivists increasingly realise that precise tracking of archive materials can improve services. Like digitisation, the central act (allocating and attaching a barcode) is quick and simple: what matters is storing that barcode and its metadata so that you can make use of them.
We in Special Collections at Bradford are lucky: we already have barcodes and systems in place as part of a University library and use barcodes to identify Special Collections printed books. Even better, our system should be available via Mobile later this year so we can do all the beeping in situ.
Usually in archives we barcode boxes or containers, the units which are handled e.g. brought to the searchroom for readers to use. Barcoding even at box level is a monster job: we have about 5000 boxes; larger services have hundreds of thousands. All archive barcoding projects I’ve encountered have therefore been driven by building projects, which justify the investment of time and effort in barcoding. Being able to track locations of boxes at the beep of a scanner between outstores, old buildings, new buildings, lorries, trolleys etc makes the building project go more smoothly and provides a better service for users.
Some larger archives, such as The Keep, are doing even more whizzy things with barcodes, using them at file or even item level. Don’t worry, readers, archivists would never stick a barcode on an actual archive item! The sticky bit goes on the box, folder, or other container or slip. We at Bradford don’t currently have the resources or the need to barcode to this level, though maybe we will one day.
I’m still developing the procedures we will use to barcode our archive boxes Thanks to helpful people on listservs who shared their methods with me. I’ll be happy to share our processes with anyone who might find them helpful later on.
Essential reading if you’re thinking about barcoding: “The Barcode Revolution” by Alan Akeroyd in the Journal of the Society of Archivists (volume 31, issue 1, 2010, pages 51-62, DOI 10.1080/00379811003658492). This article clearly explains the benefits of barcoding archives and the practical issues to be considered. It is available in full text here if you or your organisation have the appropriate subscription.
PS Other technologies are available. RFID has been the next big thing for ages, but it hasn’t taken off in libraries as one might have imagined a few years ago. I’ve decided to follow the practice of our parent library and stick with barcodes. We can always migrate to other identifiers later, a task which will be much easier when we already have barcodes in place.
Flickr credits: 80s hand and barcodes Daniel Rehn CC BY 2.0; Barcode forest Robin Jaffray CC BY NC ND 2.0; Barcode carpet Karen Blakeman CC BY NC 2.0.