Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada B. Lovelace Day: Women in Technology

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day set up here to encourage bloggers and twitterers to talk about women in technology. Ada B. Lovelace was a friend of Charles Babbage, and actually wrote the first computer program for Babbage's proto-computer. The idea is that women need to see role models for themselves in technology, and this is one way to help that happen. We all signed up to blog about a woman role model in technology.

I have thought about it, and chose to blog about Henriette Avram, who developed the MARC record for the Library of Congress. I really first read about Mrs. Avram, here, on OOTJ, when Marie Newman blogged about her obituary. Oddly, Avram was not a librarian, she was a computer programmer and data analyst. Here are pieces of her New York Times obituary and biography scattered around the Web (rather appropriately):

Henriette D. Avram, a systems analyst who four decades ago transformed millions of dog-eared catalog cards in the Library of Congress into a searchable electronic database, and in the process helped transform the gentle art of librarianship into the sleek new field of information science, died on April 22 in Miami. She was 86 and had lived for many years in California, Md.

The cause was cancer, her family said.

Mrs. Avram, who was not a librarian by training, is widely credited with developing the automated cataloging system that rendered printed cards obsolete. Known to librarians as Marc, for Machine Readable Cataloging, Mrs. Avram's system is, in its current form, the worldwide standard.

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.

When Mrs. Avram joined the Library of Congress in the mid-1960's, the American card catalog had scarcely changed in half a century. Each item in a library's collection was represented by typewritten cards of thick, cream-colored paper. Many of the cards were annotated by hand, in what, impossibly, seemed to be the same handwriting in widely separated libraries. (In fact, the characteristic script — squarish and slanting slightly backward — was taught in library schools.)

"She developed the mechanism for being able to capture the data that the user was seeing on the 3-by-5 catalog card into an electronic format," Beacher Wiggins, the director of acquisitions and bibliographic access at the Library of Congress, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "And what that did was open the door for data to be shared broadly."

Mrs. Avram's work in encoding and organizing data for transmission across long distances also helped set the stage for the development of the Internet, Mr. Wiggins said. (snip)

In 1965, she joined the Library of Congress, where she was put in charge of the Marc pilot project.

It was not a job for the faint-hearted. The catalog comprised millions of items — books, maps, films, sound recordings and more — in hundreds of languages, many using non-Roman alphabets. The cards for each item contained many discrete pieces of information (including author, title, publisher and place of publication), each of which would need to be represented with a separate mathematical algorithm.

To translate the cards into something a computer could digest, understand and share, Mrs. Avram also had to enter the mind of the library cataloger, a profession whose arcane knowledge — involving deep philosophical questions about taxonomy, interconnectedness and the nature of similarity and difference — was guarded like priestly ritual.

"A big challenge would be just understanding what goes on in this world of cataloging because it's a really complicated world," Allyson Carlyle, an associate professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, said in an interview. "It's something that's passed from generation to generation; there's still a lot of unwritten practice."

The pilot project was finished in 1968, and, starting the next year, bibliographic records were dispatched on magnetic tape to libraries around the country. In 1971, Marc became the national standard for electronic cataloging; it was named the international standard two years later. Mrs. Avram retired from the Library of Congress in 1992 as associate librarian for collections services.
New York Times, Henriette D. Avram, Modernizer of Libraries, Dies at 86, By Margalit Fox, Published: May 3, 2006. That's quite beautiful and a lovely obituary piece.

On Wikipedia, Mrs. Avrams' biography is told in more detail. She was born in Manhattan in 1919, and grew up intending to become a doctor and find the cure for cancer, which was common in her family. In 1941, she married Herbert Mois Avram, who enlisted in the Navy. After WWII, the Avrams had three children, and seemed settled in New York.

In 1951, Mr. Avram took a job with the National Security Administration, and the family moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Once settled in Virginia, Henriette Avram left her “peaceful” life of homemaking behind. She began studying mathematics at George Washington University, and joined the NSA herself in 1952. Working with the IBM 701, she soon became one of the first computer programmers. Reminiscing about her time with the NSA, Avram said, “Learning programming in those days was…a bootstrap operation. You were on your own with far less than perfect tools to learn from…and the numbers of people that made it through to become programmers were few indeed. It was an exciting time.

In the early sixties she moved to the private sector, working first with the American Research Bureau and later for a software company, Datatrol Corporation. Both jobs consisted of systems analysis and programming, but it was at Datatrol that Avram had her first professional experience with libraries. Asked to design a computer science library, she quickly read several library science text books in order to learn the appropriate jargon. She also hired a librarian to assist her in the design process. It was through this project that Avram was introduced to the Library of Congress Card Division Service. She also did consulting work with Frederick Kilgour, father of the Online Computer Library Center, on OCLC’s first attempt at computerizing bibliographic information, a task which Avram called, “the vision of bibliographic utility.” In March 1965, Avram heard of an opening at the Library of Congress (LC), and was hired as a systems analyst in the Office of the Information Systems Specialist. The rest, as Avram herself put it, is history.

Avram, considered a “librarian by achievement” by the American Library Association (ALA), owed much to the Library of Congress, about which she said, “…when I speak of and refer to it as ‘the Great Library,’ I do so with sincerity and appreciation for everything that I learned within those walls.” Avram is often noted for her petite stature, New York accent, and indefatigable drive. According to two of her co-workers, “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…” She was also an adept leader. “She was able to foster a cooperative spirit among the computer specialists and librarians on her staff. In her typical fashion, she stepped into the world of libraries and learned libraries’ problems, adopting them as her own,” her co-workers explained.

Her first assignment at LC was to analyze cataloging data for computer processing. In keeping with her training at NSA, where she learned “the prime necessity of thoroughly understanding the subject before tackling the computer solution,” Avram, along with two librarians, began this process by examining the information contained in a catalog record. “We went from right to left and up and down that card many times answering all my questions, and I had many,” Avram said of this experience. Her task was not an easy one: a separate mathematical algorithm would be needed for each piece of information, and there were millions of items in the catalog, in hundreds of different languages. She also studied ALA rules and LC filing rules to learn all that she could about bibliographic control. When Avram had thoroughly examined every aspect of the bibliographic record, “she translated what she learned into a set of fields…bearing a name (the tags), handling instructions (the indicators), and parts (the subfields).” MARC was born.

From the obituary in the Washington Post,
"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."
That is a woman who used technology to transform the world I live in every day. She lived a life I can imagine -- not so long ago, not so far away. Thank you Henriette Avram!


waltc said...

As one who got to know Henriette fairly well in the 1980s, may I say "thank you" for that lovely piece. She was a great library person, a great woman, and an interesting person to work with--particularly when we were at odds (which of course happened).

Betsy McKenzie said...

How cool to hear from somebody who knew and worked with her! Thanks for stopping by!