Henriette Davidson Avram didn’t set out to revolutionize libraries, but that’s what she did.
Born in Manhattan in 1919, Avram had visions of a career in medicine and began premedical studies at Hunter College in the 1930s. She switched gears to study mathematics at George Washington University after her family relocated to the the Washington, DC area in 1951.
In 1952, Avram began working at the National Security Agency, where her husband Herbert Mois Avram also worked. There, she learned computer programming as part of an early computer research program, which she later described as a “bootstrap operation.”
After a stint as a systems analyst at Datatrol Corporation, Avram joined the Library of Congress’ Office of the Information Systems Specialist in 1965. She was asked to lead a team tasked with analyzing cataloging data to determine if it could be computerized.
The team developed the MARC format, Machine Readable Cataloging, an automated cataloging system. Since the mid-1800s, library bibliographic and holdings information was typewritten on cards, some annotated by hand. When Avram’s team set out to modernized it, the catalog included millions of books, maps, films, and recordings. She developed a way to capture the card data electronically, designing a mathematical code, using numbers, letters, and symbols for different fields of information.
MARC incorporated the Dewey decimal system and other classification methods into a central system, and the Library of Congress information was stored on magnetic tape. MARC became the national standard for electronic cataloging in 1971, and Avram led seminars at libraries across the country to introduce it.
Henriette Avram presented a magnetic tape containing 9,300 records to the British National Bibliography’s Richard Coward in 1967. Source: American Libraries
The format led to an international data standard, which automated library functions and enabled sharing of information electronically between libraries.