washingtonpost.com
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.

The current generation of the system, MARC 21, is the basis for library catalogues around the world, in more than a dozen languages. It remains essentially the same program that Mrs. Avram designed four decades ago.

"Henriette Avram transformed libraries in the age of automation," said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian of Congress, in an e-mail. "Joining the Library of Congress at a time when information technology and librarianship had hardly begun to intersect, she immediately saw the potential of computers to create a networked global library catalog. Rather than warehousing books as in the past, libraries today are centers of information technology and communications hubs for entire communities, thanks to Henriette Avram's vision and energy."

Henriette Davidson Avram was born in New York City on Oct. 7, 1919. She had early ambitions of being a doctor and was a pre-med student at Hunter College in New York for two years in the 1930s.

She and her family moved to Arlington in 1951 and later settled in Silver Spring. Her husband, who worked for the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, helped her land a job at the NSA in 1952, even though she lacked a college degree and had spent the previous 11 years as a homemaker. From then on, Mrs. Avram proved herself more than adept in what was an almost exclusively male preserve.

She took advanced mathematics courses at George Washington University in the 1950s and spent seven years at the NSA as a systems analyst and programmer in one of the country's early computer research efforts. She later joined a software firm, Datatrol.

"Learning programming in those days was not like it is today," she said in 1989. "You were on your own with far less than perfect tools to learn from. The men -- women -- were quickly separated from the boys, and the numbers of people that made it through to become programmers were few indeed."

After completing the initial MARC program at the Library of Congress in 1968, Mrs. Avram led seminars at libraries across the country, as her system was adopted nationwide. It became the international standard in 1973.

Later in her career at the Library of Congress, Mrs. Avram continued to make refinements in the MARC system and in computerized library networks. When she retired in 1992 as associate librarian for collections services, she supervised a staff of 1,700 and was responsible for many of the library's networking and automation functions.

"She could best be described as a dynamo," said Wiggins from the Library of Congress. "She was a very small lady, but she wielded such power. There was something about Henriette Avram that instilled loyalty and respect."

After moving to southern Maryland in 1992, she and her husband became fixtures at St. Mary's College, where she often arranged speaking engagements by Library of Congress officials. Mrs. Avram received many honors from national and international library associations and was awarded three honorary doctorates.

Her husband of 64 years, Herbert Avram, died Jan. 15.

Survivors include three children, Marcie Avram of New York City, Lloyd Avram of Key West, Fla., and Jay Avram of Arlington.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company