Henriette Davidson Avram (October 7, 1919 - April 22, 2006) was a computer programmer and systems analyst who developed the MARC format (Machine Readable Cataloging), which is the national and international data standard for bibliographic and holdings information in libraries. Avram's development of the MARC format in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the Library of Congress had a revolutionizing effect on the practice of librarianship, making possible the automation of many library functions and making it possible to share information electronically between libraries using pre-existing cataloging standards. MARC data elements make up the foundation of almost all library catalogs used in the world today.
Avram did not start her career as a librarian. She studied mathematics and worked as a computer programmer and data analyst, both of them were still at pioneering stage, for an early part of her career. In 1965, she joined the Library of Congress to develop an electronic cataloging format. Avram completed the pilot MARC project in 1968, continued to lead the development, and established it as the international standards. She is one of the pioneers of information science as she integrated computer science into librarianship to lay the foundation for today's computer-based information science.
Avram also established MARC as the international standard. Without her commitment to public service, vision, and technical excellence today's computerized library and information science would not have achieved its current status. Avram noted: “I’d like to be remembered as a good manager, as having done something that was significant in this world, of service to others.”
Henriette Regina Davidson was born in Manhattan on October 7, 1919, to a father who was a watch material distributor and a mother who was a Philadelphia Ledger reporter. Although she never intended to become a librarian, Henriette Davidson did spend many Saturdays of her childhood reading in neighborhood stores, which, at that time, housed mini public libraries. As Henriette Davidson dreamed of finding a cure for cancer, which was prevalent in her family, she majored in pre-medicine at Hunter College. In 1941, Henriette Davidson married Herbert Mois Avram, who was enlisted in the U. S. Navy. By the end of World War II Herbert Avram was a decorated Lieutenant Commander who had been assigned to both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. He was also a member of Mensa and a master chess player who earned minor fame for himself by defeating Bobby Fischer in a chess match. The Avrams had three children: Marcie, Lloyd, and Jay, and maintained residence in New York until 1951, when Herbert Avram took a job with the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C. Herbert Avram would also work for the CIA, eventually becoming a pioneer in the digital court reporting industry, which developed closed captions for television.
The couple moved first to Arlington, Virginia, and later to Silver Spring, Maryland. Once settled in Virginia, Henriette Avram left her “peaceful” life of homemaking behind. She began studying mathematics at George Washington University, and joined the NSA herself in 1952. Working with the IBM 701, she soon became one of the first computer programmers. Reminiscing about her time with the NSA, Avram said, “Learning programming in those days was… a bootstrap operation. You were on your own with far less than perfect tools to learn from… and the numbers of people that made it through to become programmers were few indeed. It was an exciting time.”
In the early 1960s she moved to the private sector, working first with the American Research Bureau and later for a software company, Datatrol Corporation. Both jobs consisted of systems analysis and programming, but it was at Datatrol that Avram had her first professional experience with libraries. Asked to design a computer science library, she quickly read several library science textbooks in order to learn the appropriate jargon. She also hired a librarian to assist her in the design process. It was through this project that Avram was introduced to the Library of Congress Card Division Service. She also did consulting work with Frederick Kilgour, father of the Online Computer Library Center, on OCLC’s first attempt at computerizing bibliographic information, a task which Avram called, “the vision of bibliographic utility.” In March 1965, Avram heard of an opening at the Library of Congress (LC), and was hired as a systems analyst in the Office of the Information Systems Specialist. The rest, as Avram herself put it, is history.
Avram, considered a “librarian by achievement” by the American Library Association (ALA), owed much to the Library of Congress, about which she said, “…when I speak of and refer to it as ‘the Great Library,’ I do so with sincerity and appreciation for everything that I learned within those walls.” Avram is often noted for her petite stature, New York accent, and indefatigable drive. According to two of her co-workers, “No matter how hectic things got in those pioneering days, she was writing, publishing, speaking, taking work home, advising people, and performing myriad other tasks…." She was also an adept leader. “She was able to foster a cooperative spirit among the computer specialists and librarians on her staff. In her typical fashion, she stepped into the world of libraries and learned libraries’ problems, adopting them as her own,” her co-workers explained.
Her first assignment at LC was to analyze cataloging data for computer processing. In keeping with her training at NSA, where she learned “the prime necessity of thoroughly understanding the subject before tackling the computer solution,” Avram, along with two librarians, began this process by examining the information contained in a catalog record. “We went from right to left and up and down that card many times answering all my questions, and I had many,” Avram said of this experience. Her task was not an easy one: a separate mathematical algorithm would be needed for each piece of information, and there were millions of items in the catalog, in hundreds of different languages. She also studied ALA rules and LC filing rules to learn all that she could about bibliographic control. When Avram had thoroughly examined every aspect of the bibliographic record, “she translated what she learned into a set of fields… bearing a name (the tags), handling instructions (the indicators), and parts (the subfields).” MARC was born.
Avram’s title at LC changed to Assistant Coordinator of Information Systems in 1967. In this position, she continued to direct the MARC Pilot Project, which concluded in June 1968; she directed the MARC Distribution Service, which began in March 1969; and she began the RECON Pilot Project, which was never completed. The RECON Project was a plan to convert retrospective materials to MARC format. Because this project was not embraced by LC, retrospective conversion has taken place across the country, rather than as a nationwide coordinated effort. Avram said, “This failure has severely impacted all libraries.” She also called lack of support for RECON the “single most disappointing experience” of her career.
Avram became a part of the development of the International Standard for Bibliographic Description for Monograph Publications (ISBD(M))when she attended an International Meeting of Cataloging Experts sponsored by the International Federation of Library Association (IFLA) in 1969. A year later, Avram became Chief of MARC Development Office at LC. She continued to head the MARC and RECON projects, but was also responsible for all of the automation involved with LC’s processing activities. Her duties further expanded when she became the Director of the Network Development Office in 1976. She was then in charge of coordinating library networking and bibliographic resources and standards at both the national and international levels. In addition, she became chair of the LC Network Advisory Committee, a position which she held for over a decade. As “one who knew how to exercise diplomacy, she could help bring about the consensus needed to forge complicated principles and produce documents sanctioned by organizations.” In keeping with this analysis, at this time she was also chair of the IFLA Working Group on Content Designators, which used the ISBD to develop the international version of MARC format known as UNIMARC.
By 1980 Avram was directing a staff of seven hundred in the Processing Department of LC. In her position as the first Director for Processing Systems, Networks and Automation Planning, she was responsible for networking, automation activities, and bibliographic products and services. When Avram became the Assistant Librarian for Processing Services three years later, her staff doubled. She was now in charge of cataloging, acquisitions, overseas operations, and development of networking and automation planning. This position lasted for six years. In speaking of her decision to remain with LC, despite other, more lucrative opportunities, Avram said, “I stayed because I loved the place, the people, and the challenge.” When she retired from LC in 1992, Avram was the Associate Librarian for Collections Services. Her staff of seventeen hundred was responsible for acquisitions, cataloging, preservation, collection development, overseas operations, network and automation planning, and processing and servicing special format materials.
MARC, MAchine-Readable Cataloging, is the method by which paper-and-ink card catalogs were converted to computer catalogs. This automated library systems, in turn greatly enhancing the feasibility of interlibrary lending and paving the way for networking capabilities. “Her work forever changed the relationship of a library to its users, and the relationship of geography to information, making it possible to search the holdings of libraries thousands of miles away. Her work encoding and organizing data for transmission also helped set the stage for the development of the Internet….” Avram was a key figure in the revolution of librarianship into information science.
MARC, in her words, is “an assemblage of formats, publications, procedures, people, standards, systems, equipment, etc., that has evolved over the years stimulating the development of library automation and information networks… nationally and internationally.” MARC has had many incarnations through the years, from the initial Planning Memorandum Number Three, which resulted from that first catalog card analysis at LC, to MARC 1, and eventually to MARC 21, the format that is used today.
When developing MARC, Avram went beyond the call of duty. In order to ensure that it would be adopted nationwide, she worked with the American Library Association and the American National Standards Institute to make MARC the nationwide standard. Not content with earning the national standard in 1971, Avram continued lobbying until MARC became an International Organization for Standardization standard in 1973. Largely due to her efforts, “MARC is now used as the basis for library automation and bibliographic communication throughout the world.” Avram was also one of the original planners of the Linked Systems Project. In this role, she was “tireless in spreading the gospel of using international standards to link databases housed on disparate computer systems.” Though she never intended to be a librarian, this petite woman managed to become a “towering figure in library automation and bibliographic control.”
When predicting her life after LC, Avram once said, “…I shall take on more than I can possibly accomplish… with the same impatience to accomplish everything immediately.” The couple remained active through St. Mary's College, where Henriette often arranged for Library of Congress officials to be guest speakers. After Herbert, her husband of 64 years, passed away in their home on January 15, 2006, Henriette relocated to Florida. She died of cancer at Miami’s Baptist Hospital on April 22, just three months after the death of her husband. She was 86 years old. Avram once said, “I’d like to be remembered as a good manager, as having done something that was significant in this world, of service to others.” Her energetic, diplomatic leadership and “Mother Avram’s Remarkable Contribution” to automation and bibliographic control are proof that she achieved this goal. Though proud of her accomplishments, Avram’s famous drive never quit. “We must not sit back and be satisfied, though,” she said, “there is much more to do”
At the acceptance of the Margaret Mann Citation, Avram said, “From the beginning… you (the American Library Association ALA) have welcomed and supported me. Tonight you have gone one step further—you have adopted me.” She later explained, “It was at that moment, and ever after, that I regarded myself as a librarian”
“As I advanced in my career in librarianship, I have been a woman in a man’s world. However, this issue has not been an important factor in my thinking.”
“Yes, I noted that there were hardly any or no women in certain high level positions. But as time passed, I, along with others, did attain, and with pride for managing to do so, a series of positions in the ladder.”
“In the early days of MARC, there was a small team of people dedicated to one thing—getting the MARC Pilot Project underway. It was a team spirit that I shall never forget… ”
On receiving life membership to ALA, “It’s an honor. ALA has been one of the closest organizations I’ve been involved with; I’ve worked with people at ALA since day one. ALA has been a great supporter and a big help to me. People were the most rewarding part, all the people I got to know, the support from people around the world. I couldn’t have done it all myself without all that help.”
“I believe the Internet is a great technical achievement. However, when it comes to the organization of information so that we can locate, select, and distinguish among bibliographic items for serious research, the Internet has a long way to go.”
“In my opinion, libraries and librarians are needed more than ever, and the literature is noting this more often. In the development of MARC, it was clear to me that we needed two talents, i.e., computer expertise and library expertise. Neither talent could have succeeded alone. We need this more than ever today. Librarians must become computer literate so that they can understand the relationship between the technology applied and the discipline of their profession.”
All links retrieved December 15, 2017.
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