It should (hopefully) come as no surprise that the majority of the catalog records that already exist for these pamphlets are old. Very old. Most of them predate anything like modern cataloging standards. This means that, while ostensibly we may be taking older records from other institutions, proofreading them, and then adding any local notes as necessary, the actual day-to-day work is more like completely tearing down old records and rebuilding them from scratch.
In addition to the obsolete standards being used, there is another, technology-driven problem with the extant records. Most of these pre-AACR2 records were created as part of retrospective conversion projects or converted from the UNIMARC or UKMARC formats, meaning that, frequently, information is garbled, incomplete, or missing. This problem is similar to the metadata issues associated with other large-scale projects, and helps to demonstrate the value of human-driven cataloging and metadata creation over automated metadata harvesting. Retrospective conversion projects face technical limitations that can result in confusing records, but cataloging librarians rarely have the time (or funding) to go back and fix these records. Awards like those provided by CLIR represent one of the primary ways in which libraries can go back and improve on these records.
Generally, because of the technical limitations of retrospective conversion projects, records are generated without any subject headings. For those rare few pamphlets that do have subject headings, the batch-addition of these records frequently results in garbled, combined, or just plain bizarre subject headings. This results in records for pamphlets about, say, trial by jury with subject headings for the animal rights movement, or records where all of the subject headings end up being combined into one field.
All of these issues end up greatly increasing the amount of time required to catalog these pamphlets. Of course, the extra work we do in cleaning up and modernizing these records ends up creating added value for everybody. Hopefully, the work we do here will end up saving everybody’s time – from researchers, who will now be able to find the correct pamphlets, to future catalogers, who will not have to spend (as much) time completely reconstructing poor quality records.