Henriette Davidson Avram didn’t set out to revolutionize libraries, but that’s what she did.
Born in Manhattan in 1919, Avram had visions of a career in medicine and began premedical studies at Hunter College in the 1930s. She switched gears to study mathematics at George Washington University after her family relocated to the the Washington, DC area in 1951.
In 1952, Avram began working at the National Security Agency, where her husband Herbert Mois Avram also worked. There, she learned computer programming as part of an early computer research program, which she later described as a “bootstrap operation.”
After a stint as a systems analyst at Datatrol Corporation, Avram joined the Library of Congress’ Office of the Information Systems Specialist in 1965. She was asked to lead a team tasked with analyzing cataloging data to determine if it could be computerized.
The team developed the MARC format, Machine Readable Cataloging, an automated cataloging system. Since the mid-1800s, library bibliographic and holdings information was typewritten on cards, some annotated by hand. When Avram’s team set out to modernized it, the catalog included millions of books, maps, films, and recordings. She developed a way to capture the card data electronically, designing a mathematical code, using numbers, letters, and symbols for different fields of information.
MARC incorporated the Dewey decimal system and other classification methods into a central system, and the Library of Congress information was stored on magnetic tape. MARC became the national standard for electronic cataloging in 1971, and Avram led seminars at libraries across the country to introduce it.
Henriette Avram presented a magnetic tape containing 9,300 records to the British National Bibliography’s Richard Coward in 1967. Source: American Libraries
The format led to an international data standard, which automated library functions and enabled sharing of information electronically between libraries. It enabled the interlibrary loans and searchable holdings features we use today. The system to encode and organize data was a precursor to the Internet.
Avram wrote the book, “MARC, its history and implications,” which was published by the Library of Congress in 1975.
Versions of the MARC system are used around the world, in over a dozen languages; the most predominant is MARC 21, created in 1999.
Avram also worked on the RECON Pilot Project, which studied the retrospective conversion of records, and led to the creation of a process for format recognition. This technique allowed computers “to assign tags, indicators, subfield codes, and fixed-field codes to machine-readable records” (Reference 1). It was an early example of a “thinking” system that was used to process MARC records.
Called “a pioneer of the information age” by former Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, Avram is credited with changing librarianship into information science. She received several top honors for librarians, including the Margaret Mann Citation in Cataloging and Classification from the American Library Association in 1971.
Avram retired in 1992, and received the Distinguished Service Award from the Library of Congress. She died of cancer on April 22, 2006.
Today you can search the Library of Congress catalog and catalogs around the world thanks in part to Avram’s work.
- “Mother Avram’s Remarkable Contribution”: Henriette D. Avram, American Libraries, 1989
- Henriette D. Avram, Modernizer of Libraries, Dies at 86, The New York Times
- Henriette D. Avram; Transformed Libraries, The Washington Post
- The evolving catalog, American Libraries, 2016
Also on this day in tech history:
On October 7, 1806, Ralph Wedgwood received the first patent for carbon paper, which he invented as part of a device to help the blind to write.
For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.