Henriette D. Avram; Transformed Libraries

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

Henriette D. Avram, whose far-reaching work at the Library of Congress replaced ink-on-paper card catalogues and revolutionized cataloguing systems at libraries worldwide, died April 22 of cancer at Baptist Hospital in Miami. Mrs. Avram, 86, had recently moved to Florida from her home in California, Md.

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 catalogues at libraries everywhere.

After working at the National Security Agency during the early years of the computer age, Mrs. Avram (pronounced AV-rum, with a short initial "a") joined the Library of Congress in 1965. With no background in library work, she was assigned to develop an automated cataloguing format where none had existed.

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

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington praised her as "a pioneer of the information age at the Library of Congress."

A 1989 article in American Libraries magazine said she "launched a revolution in libraries" and was "one of the century's most influential library leaders."

The MARC format did not replace the old Dewey decimal system of cataloguing but rather incorporated it, along with several other classification methods, into a central system that could be easily searched at a computer terminal. It made bulky card catalogues, containing thousands of typed or handwritten index cards, obsolete.

"That was a major milestone in the library community," said Beacher Wiggins, Mrs. Avram's former assistant and the Library of Congress's current director for acquisitions and bibliographic access. "It's fair to say it was a monumental transition for librarianship, not just for cataloguing."

Despite not having studied library science, Mrs. Avram was charged with devising a way to compile and disseminate bibliographic records by computer, then an unknown quantity in library work.

"She was stepping in from the cold and came up with a prototype," Wiggins said. "It had not been done before her."

Mrs. Avram did more than type the text of card catalogues into a database. She designed a mathematical code, using cataloguing 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.

The MARC format was in use at the Library of Congress by 1970, and within a decade most larger libraries in the country had converted to the automated system, abandoning their manual card files. Mrs. Avram's innovations enabled libraries to exchange information more quickly, and in greater depth, than ever before. Interlibrary loans grew more common, as people could instantly learn where documents and other items were housed.

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