A Computer Wise Librarian: Henriette Avram 1919 October 07

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Henriette D. Avram, whose far-reaching work at the Library of Congress replaced ink-on-paper card catalogs and revolutionized cataloging systems at libraries worldwide,

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.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.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.

The practical effect of her complicated mathematical formulations was to make library collections more readily accessible to scholars and the general public. Her work greatly expanded interlibrary loan programs throughout the nation and allowed people to sit at computers and look through automated card catalogs at libraries everywhere.

After working at the National Security Agency during the early years of the computer age, Avram joined the Library of Congress in 1965. With no background in library work, she was assigned to develop an automated cataloging format where none had existed.

Combining two complex fields, computer programming and intricate cataloging practices, she and a small team completed the MARC Pilot Project—for Machine Readable Cataloging—in 1968. The system quickly became the preferred format for libraries throughout the country and, ultimately, around the globe.

She designed a mathematical code using cataloging numbers, letters and symbols to denote different elements, or fields, of bibliographic information. The result was a system that could be shared among libraries, greatly increasing access to their materials and reducing the legwork needed to find them.  Avram’s innovations enabled libraries to exchange information more quickly and in greater depth. Interlibrary loans grew more common, as people could instantly learn where documents and other items were housed.

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.

One thought on “A Computer Wise Librarian: Henriette Avram 1919 October 07

  1. I love these posts where I learn something I did not know before. And also it is nice to feature the accomplishments of women who are often unheralded in these fields.

    Liked by 2 people

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