Few of us will ever be able to claim to have changed the world in a big and meaningful way but this morning's New York Times carries the death notice of Henriette Davidson Avram, a woman who made a Big Difference.
In 1952, Ms. Avram went to work at The National Security Agency where she learned early computer programming. She also worked for Datatrol, one of the first software companies. When she joined the Library of Congress in 1965, she was given charge of the early pilot project of automation there, with world-shaking consequences for all of us in libraries today.
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.