A personal heroine: Henriette Davidson Avram

Mar 24 2010 Published by under Miscellanea

This is my blog post for Ada Lovelace Day, on which we celebrate technical achievement by women. I'm writing it the day before, and setting it to post at midnight.

I hope someone is writing a biography of Henriette Avram. I will be first in line to buy it. I desperately want to know how she did what she did.

Her achievement is generally, and appropriately, recognized as a technical one: designer and implementer of the MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) format still in use in hundreds of thousands of libraries worldwide. If that had been all: dayenu, it would have been enough. For all its baroqueness, its bizarre redundancies, its even more bizarre limitations, I find a lot to like in MARC, especially taking into account the computing environment under which it was developed.

But that is hardly all Henriette Avram did. Consider: she led a team of male engineers. How did that work, exactly, in the 1960s? Just to add to the mystery, Henriette Avram had no college degree. How did she win their respect for her obviously fearsome intellect? I don't know, but I bet there's one hell of a story in it. If winning the respect of male engineers in the 1960s and designing and implementing MARC had been all Henriette Avram did: dayenu, it would have been enough.

But consider: Henriette Avram also succeeded in getting MARC adopted in libraries across the nation and eventually across the globe. This, despite not having a library degree at the time (she was lavished with honorary degrees later), in a profession that (as non-library-degreed software engineers even today will attest) is extremely conscious of its professional degree. This, in an extraordinarily insular profession with a propensity to view anything digital as a diabolical plot! (No, that loathing is not of recent vintage, not one bit. Nor has it disappeared.)

So Henriette Avram designed and implemented MARC, and she led teams of male engineers, and she succeeded in winning adoption of her new system. Dayenu, and dayenu, and dayenu.

How did she do it? How? Please, library historians, write this book before we lose all the people she worked with. I can't even begin to express how important her story is to me, a librarian who's run afoul of both boy's-locker-room software-development types and librarians who fear and loathe the digital.

Henriette Avram died in 2006. A selection of obituaries:

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