Magazine article American Libraries

Henriette D. Avram: Close-Up on the Career of a Towering Figure in Library Automation and Bibliographic Control

Magazine article American Libraries

Henriette D. Avram: Close-Up on the Career of a Towering Figure in Library Automation and Bibliographic Control

Article excerpt

Henriette D. Avram:

IN 1971, THE MARGARET MANN CITATION WENT to Henriette Avram with the notation that, for the first time, the award had been won by "a person whose profession is not primarily that of librarian." Today one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would refer to Avram--at this writing the Assistant Librarian for Processing Services at the Library of Congress--as anything but a librarian, so far-reaching and pervasive has been her impact on the profession.

Though Avram did begin her library career later than most colleagues, this petite woman from New York has become one of the giants in the field during the time she has served it. As one measure of her achievements, she has won about every top honor that can be bestowed on a librarian (see chronology box).

When Avram joined LC's Office of the Information Systems Specialist in 1965, she began a career that launched a revolution in libraries through its profound effect on bibliographic control and the dissemination of cataloging data in automated form. Assigned to analyze cataloging data to determine their manipulability by computer, she submerged herself in the rudiments of cataloging and quickly recognized the most crucial aspect of library automation: to devise a standard vehicle for the communication of bibliographic data. The culmination of these efforts was the MARC Pilot Project.

The MARC project was to test the practicability and usefulness of a central source for converting cataloging data to machine-readable form and distributing it to the library community. All the pilot yielded was: a format structure that became the basis of MARC formats worldwide; an extended character set capable of accommodating requisite diacritics and symbols that became the standard for the roman alphabet; codes for language and country; and the MARC Distribution Service, a prototype for similar services in other national bibliographic agencies. These results also gave rise to bibliographic utilities in this country, whose existence has had tremendous impact on how libraries carry out their technical functions.

It was a measure of Avram's personality and persuasive powers that she was able to foster a cooperative spirit among the computer specialists and librarians on her staff. It should be remembered that when she spearheaded the MARC Pilot, the application of the computer as a tool for the processing of bibliographic data in the library setting was comparatively new. She, nevertheless, made it work.

A key factor in her success had much to do with the character of the lady herself--in her typical fashion, she stepped into the world of libraries and learned libraries' problems, adopting them as her own. She was never one to be spoon-fed by others. Her staff in the renamed Information Systems Office were energized by her example; no matter how hectic things got in those pioneering days, she was writing, publishing, speaking, taking work home, advising people, and performing myriad other tasks to further the acceptance of MARC.

MARC miracle

It seems inconceivable today that the MARC Pilot, set up in early 1966, was made operational by November 1966, and that a MARC subscription system was ready by March 1969. Avram and her staff allowed themselves eight months to complete the design of procedures and computer programs enabling LC and the participating libraries to begin the pilot. Imagine the surprise when it was learned that not one of the participating libraries had their programs ready to accept the new tapes on the scheduled starting date.

From the beginning, Avram displayed an unyielding commitment to standards. She was not content simply to develop a structure for machine-readable cataloging; she had the vision to realize that if the structure were to be accepted by the library world, it should be a standard. To that end, she worked with the American Library Association and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to establish the structure of the format as a national standard. …

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