Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Herbert and Henrietta Avram changed your life

Herbert and Henrietta Avram had by 1953 achieved the American dream. Behind them were the war, which separated them, and the Depression, which had impoverished them.The Avrams had three children and a home in suburban Washington. He had a good government job with the National Security Agency. All hush, hush. She had been a housewife, but after studying math at George Washington University, she too signed up with the NSA. They thought they had reached the pinnacle.

Greater days lay ahead.

They were two Jewish kids from New York. He was born on January 24, 1913, and she on October 7, 1919. He was a math whiz, and an excellent chess player. He was 6 when his Uncle Julius taught him backgammon and chess. Soon he was a regular at the Manhattan Chess Club. He attended St. Lawrence College, in Canton, New York, fro a year, but his father's work took the family to Turkey, where he graduated from transferred to and graduated from Robert College in Istanbul, not Constantinople.

She was an avid reader who took pre-med at Hunter College. Her dream was to discover a cure for cancer. But they met and she left college and they married.

Then came the war. He joined the Navy and rose to lieutenant commander. He served in both the Atlantic and Pacific. His awards included the include the American Theater Ribbon, American Defense Ribbon, European-African-Middle Eastern Ribbon with Two Stars, Asiatic-Pacific Ribbon with Five Stars, Victory Medal World War II-Occupation of Japan, and Philippine Liberation Ribbon.

After the war, they became reacquainted and settled in New York. In 1951, he took a job in Washington as an analyst for the NSA. Later he moved to the CIA. A year later, she went to work for the NSA as a computer programmer.

"Learning programming in those days was…a bootstrap operation," she told American Libraries magazine in 1989. "You were on your own with far less than perfect tools to learn from. The men -- women -- were quickly separated from the boys, and the numbers of people that made it through to become programmers were few indeed. It was an exciting time."

Her husband was an intermittent chess master whose work often superseded his play. Indeed, due to the sensitive nature of his work, he could not be alone with a Russian player. Nevertheless, he won the Virginia state championship in 1952, 1953, and 1954. They moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, and he won that state's championship in 1955. His next state championship came 24 years later, in 1979 again in Maryland.

His work took him from that. He left the government to pursue a better method of recording court proceedings. He was one of the founders of Stenocomp Corporation of Falls Church, Virginia. The work eventually evolved into close-caption television, an aid to those with hearing issues.

Her work, too, had just begun. Trained as a programmer, she left government to use her skills, joining the American Research Bureau and later for a software company, Datatrol Corporation. She received an assignment to design a computer science library. She studied up on library and hired a librarian to assist her. This also put her in contact with the Library of Congress Card Division Service.

When a job as a systems analyst opened at the Library of Congress in March 1965, Missus Avram got it. At age 45, the wife and mother of three had found her life's work. She would create and develop Machine Readable Cataloging -- MARC -- the international data standard for bibliographic and holdings information in libraries.

She incorporated the Dewey Decimal System; Melville Dewey's passion for numbers in the 19th century serves us well in the 21st century.

The task was daunting. She had to catalog millions of pieces of information in a wide array of languages. And she needed the cooperation and support of the American Library Association and the American National Standards Institute to make MARC the national standard. She avoided a Tower of Babel.

The American Library Association considered her a librarian by achievement, awarding her the first Margaret Mann Citation to go to a non-librarian.

She retired from the Library of Congress in 1992, and the couple enjoyed their retirement in California, Maryland. On January 15, 2006, cancer killed him. His obituaries included the tidbit that he beat a 14-year-old Bobby Fischer in chess.

Three months later, on April 22, 2006, cancer took her. Their marriage had lasted 64 years. Just a couple of kids from New York, out to change the world.

And they did -- in ways no one imagined.


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