We recently received an inquiry about the use of "smart" labels in automated circulation control systems. The standard, non-smart label is the common barcoded label used to identify individual patrons and library materials in automated library systems. In addition to an appropriate barcode, such labels routinely carry an eye-readable representation of the number encoded on the label. Non-smart labels do, in fact, contain a number of intelligent elements. These include digits which identify the holding library, and others that indicate whether the label represents a patron or an item. Most label formats also include a check digit to ensure the validity of the number encoded on the label. There are a number of situations in which such labels might be considered "smart."
In most applications, labels are assigned sequentially--the next label is assigned to the next patron or item; there is no significance in the order of assignment. Labels affixed to library materials do not obtain meaning until the coded number is linked to the item record representing that piece. In most cases, this will be a specific copy record--copy "x" of bibliographic item "y." However, sometimes the label will indicate a generic class of material, a "paperback" for instance, rather than a specific item.
Under other approaches, labels acquire meaning prior to being affixed to library materials or a patron's card. In effect, the labels become "smart" because their numbers have been pre-assigned to specific records. In the simplest circumstances, this happens when a library selects a group of numbers to apply to a class of materials--paperbacks, MacNaughton plan books, or single issues of a periodical--that will not be identified at the item level in the automated system. In more complex applications, specific label numbers are assigned to individual materials during the preprocessing of a library's file of machine- readable records. For instance, preprocessing of bibliographic utility tapes may include not only the elimination of duplicate records and the consolidation of changes to a single record; it may also encompass the generation of individual item records for multiple copies when these have been entered on the source tapes. A specific number can then be assigned to each item record as part of the preprocessing. In addition to producing files of bibliographic and item records for loading into the automated system, this process also generates a label tape of the assigned numbers and brief bibliographic data to identify the item to which the number has been allocated. This identifying information may be printed as part of the label or output on stationery adjacent to the label. The information is essential to permit library staff to affix each label to the specific item to which it applies. This process is assisted by having the labels generated in the order in which materials are filed on the shelf.
Although we are not aware of any wide-scale applications, it is not difficult to envisage further extensions of this principle. A library might, for instance, seek to simplify automatic shelf checking by assigning label numbers in a sequence which reflects the shelving order of materials. [It should be noted that this is a hypothetical case, turnkey automated systems which provide this capability do not require such an approach to labeling. Nor is it recommended.]
A library's decision to use the "smart" label approach will depend upon a number of factors, including the following: the availability of information on multiple copies in the source tapes (in instances where a collection includes few multiple copies, such data need not be explicitly stated); the library's assessment of the reliability of its source records (a relatively "clean" file may not require the verification of bibliographic-item record linkages provided by a labeling approach based on assigning labels at a terminal with item-in-hand); the ease with which materials can be brought to a terminal for labeling; and the comparative costs for staff and materials for each procedure.
The generation of smart labels does entail extra costs for record processing and label production. Label tape production adds to the costs of preprocessing--tape processing vendors generally charge at least $.015 per record for this service. And companies which produce barcoded labels generally charge an additional 50 percent, raising the average price per thousand labels purchased direct from the normal $16.00 to $24.00.