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ARCHIVES Home

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ARCHIVES  May 2006, Week 2

ARCHIVES May 2006, Week 2

Subject:

FYI: Henriette D. Avram, Modernizer of Libraries, Dies at 86

From:

Marion Sumerianlibrarian <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Marion Sumerianlibrarian <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 10 May 2006 20:34:06 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (138 lines)

May 3, 2006

Henriette D. Avram, Modernizer of Libraries, Dies at
86 

By MARGALIT FOX
Henriette D. Avram, a systems analyst who four decades
ago transformed millions of dog-eared catalog cards in
the Library of Congress into a searchable electronic
database, and in the process helped transform the
gentle art of librarianship into the sleek new field
of information science, died on April 22 in Miami. She
was 86 and had lived for many years in California, Md.

The cause was cancer, her family said.

Mrs. Avram, who was not a librarian by training, is
widely credited with developing the automated
cataloging system that rendered printed cards
obsolete. Known to librarians as Marc, for Machine
Readable Cataloging, Mrs. Avram's system is, in its
current form, the worldwide standard.

Her work changed forever the relationship of a library
to its users, making it possible, with the push of a
button, to search the holdings of a library thousands
of miles away. It also made it possible to "visit" the
library at midnight attired in nothing more than a
bathrobe, a practice brick-and-mortar libraries
traditionally discouraged.

When Mrs. Avram joined the Library of Congress in the
mid-1960's, the American card catalog had scarcely
changed in half a century. Each item in a library's
collection was represented by typewritten cards of
thick, cream-colored paper. Many of the cards were
annotated by hand, in what, impossibly, seemed to be
the same handwriting in widely separated libraries.
(In fact, the characteristic script  squarish and
slanting slightly backward  was taught in library
schools.)

"She developed the mechanism for being able to capture
the data that the user was seeing on the 3-by-5
catalog card into an electronic format," Beacher
Wiggins, the director of acquisitions and
bibliographic access at the Library of Congress, said
in a telephone interview yesterday. "And what that did
was open the door for data to be shared broadly."

Mrs. Avram's work in encoding and organizing data for
transmission across long distances also helped set the
stage for the development of the Internet, Mr. Wiggins
said.

Henriette Regina Davidson was born in Manhattan on
Oct. 7, 1919. She began premedical studies at Hunter
College, and in 1941 married Herbert Mois Avram
(pronounced AH-vrum).

In the early 1950's, after her husband took a job with
the National Security Agency, Mrs. Avram moved to the
Washington area, where she studied mathematics at
George Washington University.

Mrs. Avram's husband died in January. She is survived
by their children, Marcie, of Manhattan; Lloyd, of Key
West, Fla.; and Jay, of Arlington, Va.

In 1952, Mrs. Avram also went to work for the N.S.A.,
where she learned computer programming; she later
worked for Datatrol, an early software company. In
1965, she joined the Library of Congress, where she
was put in charge of the Marc pilot project.

It was not a job for the faint-hearted. The catalog
comprised millions of items  books, maps, films,
sound recordings and more  in hundreds of languages,
many using non-Roman alphabets. The cards for each
item contained many discrete pieces of information
(including author, title, publisher and place of
publication), each of which would need to be
represented with a separate mathematical algorithm. 

To translate the cards into something a computer could
digest, understand and share, Mrs. Avram also had to
enter the mind of the library cataloger, a profession
whose arcane knowledge  involving deep philosophical
questions about taxonomy, interconnectedness and the
nature of similarity and difference  was guarded like
priestly ritual.

"A big challenge would be just understanding what goes
on in this world of cataloging because it's a really
complicated world," Allyson Carlyle, an associate
professor at the Information School at the University
of Washington, said in an interview. "It's something
that's passed from generation to generation; there's
still a lot of unwritten practice."

The pilot project was finished in 1968, and, starting
the next year, bibliographic records were dispatched
on magnetic tape to libraries around the country. In
1971, Marc became the national standard for electronic
cataloging; it was named the international standard
two years later. Mrs. Avram retired from the Library
of Congress in 1992 as associate librarian for
collections services.

Today, a mouse click brings up the Library of Congress
Online Catalog (catalog.loc.gov), the modern
incarnation of the work Mrs. Avram began in 1965.

It also brings up eBay, where a copy of the American
Library Association's book "Rules for Filing Catalog
Cards" (2nd ed., 1968; 104 pp.; softcover; 6 x 9
inches), can be had for 99 cents.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company 


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