Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Barcodes: A Primer for Document Management

Randy Davis, Vice President Sales and Marketing Operations

Although they are not a solve-all, barcodes can add efficiency and accuracy to your document management efforts, and should be given serious consideration as part of your best practices. From effectively and automatically passing information for indexing, to triggering a query into an external database, barcodes can help make your document management efforts easier.

Barcodes are simple, universal and inexpensive. They utilize a proven, not experimental, technology. In fact barcodes date back to 1948. The technology has been refined and perfected over the years, and it shows no signs of going away. If you are not using barcodes in your document management practice, perhaps it's time to start.

Years and Years Ago...
A little history. In 1961 barcodes saw their first commercial use by automatically identifying train cars using blue and yellow reflective stripes that represented a six-digit company ID and a four-digit car number. By 1973, the IBM UPC barcode was selected by the National Association of Food Chains as their standard, and the first check-out line scan was made on a pack of Juicy Fruit gum on June 26, 1974.

Now barcodes are ubiquitous, and smart companies continue to make good use of this simple, effective and inexpensive technology.

Wide Application
Barcodes have been developed for many specific applications, such as retail product identification, parts inventory, book publishing, coupons, mail, healthcare, document identification, etc. You need to make sure that you carefully choose the right barcode for your application.

Here are some common barcodes often used with paper products:

  • Bar Code 25 (aka Interleaved 2 of 5): digits only; used in libraries.
  • Bar Code 39 (aka 3 of 9): digits, letters and a sub-set of other characters. This was the first alpha-numeric barcode developed, and the most widely used. It includes A-Z, 0-9, space, and -.$/+%. Code 39 is the standard for the U.S. government and material handling industry.
  • Bar Code 39x: This is an extended version of Code 39, and includes the entire ASCII character set (including lowercase letters and symbols commonly found on a computer keyboard).
  • Bar Code 93: full ASCII character set; various uses.
  • Bar Code 128: full ASCII character set (uses "continuous" symbology; mainly used for human identification on things like driver's licenses)
  • Telepen: full ASCII character set; used in libraries.

Linear barcodes (characterized by a series of lines of varying widths, such as the ones listed above) are optimized for laser scanners, and are optimal for document management applications.

2-D matrix codes, on the other hand (which feature squares or dots arranged in a grid pattern as illustrated on the right), cannot be read by a laser scanner, and instead must be read by scanners utilizing digital camera sensor technology.

Barcode scanners are relatively inexpensive and extremely accurate compared to key-entry. It is not uncommon for key entry operators to make 1 error per 300 characters entered. On the other hand, barcode scanners can achieve an error rate as miniscule as 1 error in 2 million characters!

My point is this: good document management practices may mean incorporating barcodes in order to facilitate document identification, separation, indexing and integration with other database systems. Documents can easily be pre-printed with one or more barcode identifiers that contain information such as document type and account number.

In fact, a number of free barcode fonts are available for download, and can be inserted directly into Word documents, or used to print sheets of barcode labels on Avery sheets such as Product Number 6504.

Which One Is For Me?
The two most commonly used barcodes for document management are Code 128 and Code 39 because they are very accurate, and there are plenty of font generators and software applications that use them. For most document management applications, Code 39 (or 39x) may be your best choice because of its wide use.

The Top Five Uses of Barcodes for Document Management
  1. Document identifiers can be used to automatically separate one document from another and indexed appropriately. A bar code on the first page of a multi-page document within a batch of documents can tell a document management system something along the lines of "This marks the first page of this document. It is of document type 'X.' The following pages all belong to this document. Treat these pages as part of this document until you see another barcode for another document."
  2. Key information (such as account number) can be used to interact with another system's database in order to extract information that can be used to automatically index documents. If, for example, a document needs to associated with account information that already exists in another database (name, address, status, phone, fax, email, department, etc.), the account number barcode can automatically trigger the document management system to request all pertinent information from the account information system database and then use that information to meaningfully and predictably index the document.
  3. By using intelligent capture technology bar codes can be used to accurately collect information, and reduce or eliminate manual key entry and the errors that such a process introduces. Errors in data entry may prevent documents from being retrieved and used for reporting, audit compliance, customer service, etc.
  4. Bar codes can reduce or eliminate the manual cost of separating and indexing electronic documents. If you are capturing documents in batch, and do not have a way to automatically separate one document from another, you will need to sparate them manually or be stuck with individual pages for each document, and perhaps, with no way to easily stitch them together.
  5. Bar codes can also be used to aid a document audit function. For example, if a loan packet is only considered complete when it contains 10 specific documents, a barcode on each document can be used by the document management system to audit the packet, and identify packets that are "complete" or "incomplete."
Here are a couple of resources you may find helpful in using barcodes. These are suggested resources only. I make no endorsements here.

Free Barcode Font
Avery Wizard
Tips and Techniques
To Load a Barcode Font in Word
  1. Download the new barcode font from your preferred source. Assuming it's in a .zip file, unzip it, and go to the folder containing the new fonts.
  2. Start Windows Control Panel
  3. Look for the Fonts icon and click on it to open the fonts folder.
  4. Copy the new barcode font from the folder it's in and paste it into the Windows fonts folder.
How to Add a Barcode to a Document / Form in Word
  1. A good way to use the new barcode font in Word is to create a barcode within a text box that you can position anywhere you want within the document or form.
  2. Use the Insert function in Word to select "Text Box." You'll want to insert a "Simple Text Box."
  3. Once the box is inserted, type in the text you want barcoded, highlight the text, and then choose the barcode font. Make sure that you start and end each entry of the barcode text with an asterisk (*) The asterisk tells the scanning software where the barcode begins and ends.
  4. For example, to create a barcode for "application," you would type it as: *APPLICATION* and it would end up looking like this in barcode form:
  6. Right Click on the text box, choose Format Shape, and remove the lines around the box by choosing No line.
  7. Finally, test the bar code to make sure that it can be read before standardizing it in your documents.

How to Create a Full Barcode Sheet
  1. You can also use Avery Wizard (which installs a new Avery tab in Word). Avery Wizard, when launched from Word, helps you select the label sheet on which you want to print several copies of the same barcode.
  2. Click on the Avery tab, then click on Avery Wizard. Once the wizard launches, click on Next.
  3. Then choose the label sheet product number (you may want to try 6504). Click Next.
  4. Choose the blank design. Click Next.
  5. Choose "Create a sheet of identical layouts." Click Next.
  6. Type in your text. Don't forget the asterisks. Example: *EMPLOYEEAPP*
  7. Highlight the text and change the font to whatever barcode font you loaded into Word. Change the font size to fill up as much of the label as possible. Click Next.
  8. Click Finish. Presto! You have an entire sheet of barcode labels!
  9. Before committing one or more label sheets to the new bar code, test the bar code image to make sure that it can be read properly.
If you found this blog post helpful, please send it along to one of your colleagues via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Email. Don't forget to follow us @egistics

P.S. We are saddened to learn of the passing of Mr. Alan Haberman, known as "The man who ushered in the bar code." He was a man who helped improve the world.


  1. Thanks for this, it's really helpful and it gives ideas how to present such solutions to our clients.

  2. Good post Randy! I got a few quotes from as I own a painting company with a ton filing of past, present, and future contracts not to mention insurance papers. I'm not sure exactly what I need, but I do know I want to streamline the filing process. Do you have any advice or preference to certain products?

  3. Dylan, I don't have your contact information, but would enjoy discussing this with you. We help businesses simplify document management, and perhaps we can assist you in thinking through your needs. You can contact me at

    And thanks for your kind remarks!

  4. Hello All,

    I work in the field of professional scuba diving and help manage an occupational scuba program. Every year we are required to service and overhaul all of our life support gear (regulators, BCDs, tanks, etc.). We are also required to keep a service record with all the information for every piece of equipment (what services were performed, date performed, by whom, etc). Currently, we use paper copies for each piece of equipment in service.

    I want to use electronic software and barcodes to help streamline our record keeping. I was wondering if there is a way to attach a specific barcode to each piece of equipment. When the barcode is scanned (using a tablet/ipad), it brings up the service record document electronically for that piece of equipment. From there I want to be able to edit the document on the tablet, updating all of the service information, and save all service documents to a master database which houses all of our service records.

    I would appreciate any feedback that you all can provide. Thank you!


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