Wednesday Geek Woman: Henriette Avram, developer of the MAchine Readable Cataloging standard

The Wednesday Geek Woman series is mostly on hiatus. Remaining WGW posts are appearing sporadically.

This is a guest post.

Henriette Avram, while working at Library of Congress, developed MARC, or MAchine Readable Cataloging, in the 1960s. Formerly she had worked at the National Security Administration, the American Research Bureau, and Datatrol Corporation, and by the end of her career at Library of Congress, she directed 1,700 employees.

The MARC format allowed the information from library catalog cards to be encoded and stored electronically. At first, it was used to automate the production of cards, but now it is primarily used for cooperative cataloging in a fully online environment. MARC is getting close to 50 years old, and many librarians are envisioning a transition to a newer encoding format that will interact more easily with other information on the Web. But for the time being, billions of records are encoded in MARC, and cataloging librarians like me are immersed in it daily. If you have looked for something in a library within the last several decades, that information was almost certainly brought to you–more efficiently–with the aid of MARC.

Modern library cataloging dates to the 19th century, and today’s catalogers continue to use that data as they build their catalogs. One current challenge we face is working with programmers, who often don’t fully understand the nature of our data–not surprising, considering the plethora of standards we use when creating it and the need to maintain over one hundred years’ worth of legacy data. But Avram was not a cataloger or a librarian, and she succeeded. Avram, and the team she led, were the pioneers of this work, and I hope she will be a model for future programmers who are librarians or who work with librarians in the task of attempting to organize the entirety of human knowledge.

Wikipedia: Henriette Avram
A library record for Avram’s book MARC, its history and implications. Click on “MARC display” to see it in MARC.

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2 thoughts on “Wednesday Geek Woman: Henriette Avram, developer of the MAchine Readable Cataloging standard

    1. Mary

      We need someone to write us the entry… if you’re interested just reply to this comment and I’ll email you with more details.

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