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University of Alabama Tags Historical Garments Collection

Staff, students and volunteers are tagging thousands of items so they can be identified through a closed box, without being handled, by means of handheld RFID readers.
By Claire Swedberg
May 11, 2012Employees and volunteers at the University of Alabama's Carolyn Thomas Stewart Costume and Textile Collection are installing radio frequency identification technology to locate and track many of the collection's 9,000 items, thereby providing better location data and ensuring that they do not need to repeatedly handle the often-delicate artifacts while performing inventory counts. The solution, provided by Silent Partner Technologies (SPT), located in Tarpon Springs, Fla., includes passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags sewn into the garments or items, as well as an RFID reader and encoder, a handheld interrogator for locating items within boxes and on shelves, and Silent Partner software for managing data about each object, linked to the ID number encoded to that item's tag.

The collection's curator, Virginia Wimberley—an assistant professor of clothing and textiles at UA—has installed the system thanks to funding from the Costume Society of America, a nonprofit organization that seeks to stimulate scholarship and encourage study in the field of historical clothing, as well as through private donations to the university.

An Alien Technology passive RFID tag is placed inside a muslin pouch, which is then sewn to a garment, such as this 1870s day dress that once belonged to the postmistress of the University of Alabama, Amelia Gayle Gorgas.

The collection includes garments from the 19th century and later, as well as dolls and textiles that, in some cases, date back to the 15th century. Most are stored within boxes, in order to protect them from light, temperature changes and handling. These boxes are placed on shelves within a shared university storage area that is approximately the size of a football field. Other departments that utilize the site include paleontology and history, so among the items stored there are various types of butterflies, bones and historical artifacts. Periodically, staff members or volunteers must access objects from the Carolyn Thomas Stewart Costume and Textile Collection, either to be inventoried to ensure that they are still at the location where they are supposed to be, examined for research purposes, or put on display at the Alabama Museum of Natural History, located on the university's campus. Those accessing the collection must open the boxes, locate a cotton twill label sewn onto each item and read that label's printed number, indicating that object's year of donation, donor and serial number. This requires manually handling the objects, some of which are very delicate. The printed serial number must then be interpreted and matched against a printed list of the items in the collection.

With RFID, Wimberley says, staff members or volunteers can identify a particular piece without having to open a box. An Alien Technology ALN-9627 H Wet Inlay RFID tag is being placed inside a muslin pouch, Wimberley explains, after which workers either sew the pouch into a garment's hem or sleeve, attach it inside a hat, or affix it to any miscellaneous item in such a way that it will not damage the material of the item itself.

SPT provided an Ensyc Block RFID reader. Staff members place each tagged item onto the Block reader's integrated antenna, and enter details about the object, such as its storage location, manufacturer, date obtained, value, make and model, as well as a photograph. All of this information is forwarded to the standalone Silent Partner Asset-Lite software, says Mark Noble, SPT's sales manager, and is simultaneously linked to an ID number encoded to the tag. The garment or other item is then placed within its appropriate storage location.

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