Maintaining databases

Doug Yanega dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU
Thu Nov 30 18:45:35 CST 1995

>In the discussion of database maintenance, Gary Rosenberg and Doug
>Yanega have commented on protocols for speeding up the process of
>identifying or re-identifying specimens in a database, assuming that
>records already exist in the database for those specimens.
>Here's how we deal with this problem for the Arthropods of La Selva
>(ALAS) inventory in Costa Rica. [snip]
>(1) Specimens are individually barcoded (pins, slides, vials) as they
>are prepared.  [snip]
>(2) Once each specimen has a barcode and a record in the database
>(linked to a collecting-event record), specimens from all collecting
>events pooled (or the specimens from 200 years of collecting in a
>museum) can then be sorted ...

I've noted in the past that the protocol in step 1 above is not the same as
the protocol for that version of step 2 you give regarding insect specimens
in a museum. A pinned ALAS insect specimen apparently has a barcode label
there on top where one can read it or scan it easily. A museum specimen
will not, unless one has gone to the trouble of removing the 2-5 labels
already there, putting the bar code label on top, and then replacing the
original labels (running risks of both losing or damaging some of the
original labels as well as damaging the specimen). Has anyone on this
newsgroup actually taken already-identified pinned museum specimens and
added barcodes to them? If so, what was the final placement and orientation
of the barcodes? If the barcodes end up pinned upside-down beneath the
other labels, they cannot be scanned/read without removing the specimen
from the unit (and once again risking damage). An upside-down code label is
a problem even if NOT bar-coded, for this same reason, and also because if
one then gets a request for, say, "specimen 00003478" there is no good way
to make a quick visual search. I would suspect then that, ultimately, code
labels added to old pinned material will *inevitably* be placed slightly
offset at the bottom of the stack of labels - where it might indeed be
easier to read them by eye than scan them (because scanning would, if I'm
not mistaken, still require that they be pulled out of the unit).

>(3) [snip] How long does
>it take? With practice, 3-6 seconds per specimen (slides are faster
>than vials or pinned material). So, 5-10 minutes per hundred
>specimens, with zero specimen code entry errors.

This is, in fact, no better than what an untrained typist can accomplish
looking at legible label numbers on a series of pinned specimens in a unit
tray (zero handling); even a hunt-n-peck can average 4 seconds per or
faster. The tradeoff is that for the added expense and the additional
handling required, one gets a zero error rate. This is great and NOT
trivial, no argument there, but there is no *time* saving. That's my only
point of contention; I've never argued that barcoding did not have
advantages over plain numerical codes, simply that "saving time" (a
frequently cited advantage) was not one of them - at least with regards to
pinned insect specimens. Certainly, I expect that there *are* time savings
on herbarium sheets, microscope slides, vertebrate tags and other such
cases where the label is flat, exposed, and easily oriented...but assuming
that the system must work equally well for entomological museums is

[other logical procedures snipped]
>The argument that
>barcodes are clumsy to read is simply not borne out by our experience.
>Beginners have a rough time--but only for an hour or so. Like any
>repetitive manual task requiring dexterity and coordinaton, barcode
>entry is easier some people than others, and virtuosos do exist, but
>anyone can learn.

Again, I haven't stated that I feel it to be an innately clumsy system -
only that for one major potential set of users, entomology museums (whose
needs differ from your experience with ALAS), the actual benefits and
drawbacks are not immediately obvious, and still leave room for
improvement, such as may be offered by supertag technology in the near

Doug Yanega       Illinois Natural History Survey, 607 E. Peabody Dr.
Champaign, IL 61820 USA      phone (217) 244-6817, fax (217) 333-4949
 affiliate, Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Dept. of Entomology
  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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