Sometimes, Bad Things Happen

This morning I walked into my branch and right into a big mess. Our ILS barfed on something overnight and, lo and behold, wasn’t working when we opened this morning.

Look, things happen. I can’t get pissy about the ILS doing what it did. The ILS is a complex piece of software running on a complex server networked to a complex, county wide WAN. The fact that it does as well as it does should be hailed as a modern miracle of computer technology.

A couple days ago, one of the town’s facilities guys was back in our HVAC room tweaking our air conditioner because it’s summer in Arizona and he wanted to make sure it was running properly. Unfortunately, he accidentally tripped a breaker and all the power went off. No computers, no network, nothing. It wasn’t his fault, it just goes back to the whole “bad things happen to good people” philosophy.

On both occasions, both of which happened this week, I was able to keep our customers happy because I was still able to check out things even though we’d lost power and even though I had no connection to our ILS.

Here’s how.

Emergency Offline OMFG Check Out Mode

Are you a Circulation Supervisor? Do you have a laptop computer at your branch? Do you take your own laptop computer to work?

If the answer to the first question is yes, then you really should be able to say yes to the other two questions as well.

You should have two things ready to go at a moment’s notice for when the caca hits the ventilador.  The first is a fully charged and operational laptop computer. The second is a handheld USB barcode scanner. Using those two things, and some variation of a text entry programme like Word or Notepad or whatever, you can keep things going on the check out side.

Still, there’s a better way to do it, and that’s what I’m here for.

Have scanner, will travel.

In addition to your fully charged laptop and USB scanner, you’re going to want two other things that are pretty easy to get your hands on – in this case an Excel spreadsheet and a free font that’s going to make your life much easier when the power comes back.

See, when the power comes back, and you’ve been scanning things into Notepad or Word or whatever, you’re going to have to print all those pages out and type them into your ILS. That’s time consuming, boring, and open the door to errors and general badness. Using my patented* Emergency Offline OMFG Check Out Method, you too can keep stuff circulating even if you’re doing it by flashlight.

First up, you’ll need to either download my custom Excel spreadsheet or learn how to make your own. Making your own is easy, so here’s how I set it up.

  1. Open Excel and get yourself a new spreadsheet going if necessary.
  2. Highlight a bunch of cells in Column A. I typically highlight rows 1 – 300 to make sure I have plenty of room to work.
  3. Right click on your highlighted cells and select Format Cells from the pop up menu.
  4. For the Category, select Custom.
  5. In the box labeled Type, it will say General. Delete that.
  6. Type in the following with the quotes, exactly as you see it here “*”@”*”
  7. Click OK.

Now, when you scan a card and items into the spreadsheet you’ll see that it puts a * before and after the numbers. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT AND IS NOT AN ERROR. Let your desk staff know that this isn’t an error and just to simply ignore the little *’s. Start scanning and checking out. I typically scan the card, then scan the items right after that and then put a couple of spaces between sets. That way I know where one customer’s stuff starts and where another ends.

Save your sheet every so often.

This is not a power station. It is, however, THE Power Station.

When the Power Comes Back

When things return to whatever you call normal at your branch, you’ll want to quickly get the information you scanned into the spreadsheet updated to your ILS. That’s where the Free 3 of 9 (Code 39) barcode font comes in. The Code 39 font is just like any other font but instead of making your letters and numbers look like cursive or old English, it turns them into barcodes. Get that font installed on your computer and open up your spreadsheet.

Select all of your numbers and make sure they have the * in the front and back. Then change their font to Code 39. You’ll notice you no longer have a spreadsheet full of numbers and instead have a spreadsheet full of barcodes. See, the Code 39 barcode uses those * as a start and stop bit. In other words, the * tells the barcode scanner where the barcode begins and ends. The great thing about Code 39 is that damn near any barcode scanner can read Code 39. Indeed, if your barcode scanner doesn’t read Code 39, then I’d consider your scanner to be broken.

Okay, you’ve got your spreadsheet full of barcodes. Now, go print it out and start scanning those barcodes into your ILS’s check out form. I’ve used this method before to capture hours worth of check out information which I can get updated into the ILS in less than ten minutes.

I don’t care how fast you type, you don’t type faster than your barcode scanner and your barcode scanner will make fewer mistakes both when you’re collecting the information and when you’re updating your ILS.


Even if you’re not a geek like me, I think every branch library needs to have a laptop computer constantly plugged in so you can use it when there’s a power cut. Even if you have to shuffle people out of  your branch, you can at least let them leave with the things they want.

Me, I rarely go to work without my laptop, and it’s saved my ass on more than one occasion.

*Not actually patented.