You know, sometimes life is like a big fan and occasionally the caca hits it.

Take last Friday for example. My branch closes at 5:00 PM and things are going well for a Friday afternoon. We’re not too busy, but we’ve got enough activity to keep us active. Then, at approximately 4:30 PM, the power went out. So no lights, no computers, no internet, and no ILS. We’ve still got half an hour to go and there are quite a few people in the library who want to check stuff out.

Of course, when the power goes out and the Internet goes away, most people just up and leave anyway. So by 4:35ish, the only people left in the library were people who really wanted something to take home over the weekend. And you know, I just can’t deny them that. The thing is, after almost 17 years working in public libraries and circulation, this wasn’t my first power outage. I have a backup plan and I’d like to share it with you.

Step 1: Secure yourself a laptop computer. People think I’m a bit of a geek and part of that is because I carry an Eee PC with me wherever I go. It so happened that my Eee was in my satchel, fully charged, and ready to go. So I snagged it and took it to the front desk.

Step 2: Get a handheld barcode scanner that’s got a USB connector. All of the scanners in my branch are like this. They’re all fairly standard laser guns with USB connections on them. You usually don’t need drivers to run a barcode scanner as they’re just a keyboard wedge. So I didn’t care that I’d never before hooked a barcode scanner to my Eee PC, I knew it’d work.

Step 3: Connect the scanner to your laptop and fire it up. Once you’re in the operating system, open up a text editor. You could try using a spreadsheet, but sometimes that can backfire depending on how your barcodes are set up. In my system, all the item barcodes start with four zeroes, like this 0000133789523. Most spreadsheets will omit the first zeroes, which won’t work too well later on. A text editor, however, won’t care about the zeroes or anything else.


Step 4: You’re ready to start scanning. Just scan the cards and then scan the items. The barcode scanner will put a carriage return (the equivalent of pressing Enter). Press the Enter key a couple of times between patrons and that’ll separate them out nicely. Obviously, you’ll want to save your file every so often and, in this case, there’s no such thing as saving it too often. I try to save the thing in between patrons. After all, a save is just a Ctrl+S away.

Step 5: When you’re finally done, whether the power comes back or you close, you’ll have a couple of options as to what to do with that data. The first thing you can do is simply print it out and type it in by hand. That works, but it seems like it takes forever to get all of it done. Thankfully there’s a better option. Open up your file and then open up a spreadsheet programme. I’ll use Excel, but the commands seem to be similar in OpenOffice too, so either one works.

Step 6: You’re going to need yourself a special font, one that renders information into barcodes. Thankfully, such things can be had for free and my favourite is the ID Automation font. It uses the Code 39 barcode format which probably means nothing to you, but that’s okay. Download that font and install it.

Step 7: Now let’s take a quick stock. You’ve got your scanned check out data. You’ve got yourself a barcode font. Finally, you’ve got a spreadsheet programme. I think you can see where this is going. But, to keep things tidy (and easy) you’ll want to format the cells of your spreadsheet to accept the numerical data no matter what it looks like. Also you’ll need to set them up to do one little trick to make the barcodes work.

Step 8: Select your range of cells in the spreadsheet. Select far more than you’ll need because, hey, they’re free and you’ll know that you’ll have enough to paste your data into. Now, right click on the selected cells and select Format Cells from the pop up menu.

Step 9: For the Category (remember, this is in Excel) select Custom. In the box below Type: enter this “*”@”*” What this does is set your cells to take anything you give them and it puts a little asterisk on either side of the number. This is a very important thing as the Code 39 barcode is set to use the asterisk as its start and stop bit. In other words, your barcodes won’t scan without the those asterisks. Click Ok, and you’re ready for the cool part.


Step 10: Copy and paste your scanned information into those newly formatted cells. You should see all your scanned data with the asterisks on either side of them. Select those cells again and then change the font to your barcode font. You should now see a column of barcodes. Print them out, and then scan them into the ILS as you would cards and items.


I’ve used this method to collect and process data after being down for two days. After 48 hours of downtime, when we came back online, it took me just over half an hour to catch everything up with the barcodes and the laser gun. It sure beats typing things in by hand!