ALA Annual 2015 schedule, with bonus mod_proxy hackery

My ALA Annual this year is going to focus on five hashtags: #mashcat, #privacy, #nisoprivacy, #kohails, and #evgils.

#mashcat is for Mashcat, which an effort to build links between library systems and library metadata folks. We’ve had some recent success with Twitter chats, and I’ve made up some badge ribbons. If you’d like one, tweet at me (@gmcharlt)!

#privacy and #nisoprivacy are for patron privacy. My particular interest in using our technology to better protect it. I’ll be running the LITA Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group meeting on Saturday, (where I look forward to Alison Macrina’s update on Let’s Encrypt). I’ll also be participating in the face-to-face meeting on Monday and Tuesday for the NISO project to create a consensus framework for patron privacy in digital library and information systems.

#kohails and #evgils are for Koha and Evergreen, both of which I hack on and which MPOW supports – so one of the things I’ll also be doing is wearing my vendor hat while boothing and meeting.

Here’s my conference schedule so far, although I hope to squeeze in a Linked Data program as well:

In the title of the post, I promised mod_proxy hackery. Not typical for an ALA schedule post? Well, the ALA scheduler website allows you to choose you make your schedule public. If you do that, you can embed the schedule in a blog post using an iframe.

Here’s the HTML that the scheduler suggests:

There’s a little problem with that suggestion, though: my blog is HTTPS-only. As a consequence, an HTTP iframe won’t be rendered by the browser.

What if I change the embedded URL to “https://alaac15.ala.org/user/36364/schedule-embed”? Still doesn’t work, as the SSL certificate returned is for https://connect.ala.org, which doesn’t match alaac15.ala.org. *cough*

Rather than do something simple, such as using copy-and-paste, I ended up configuring Apache to set up a reverse proxy. That way, my webserver can request my schedule from ALA’s webserver (as well as associated CSS), then present it to the web browser over HTTPS. Here’s the configuration I ended up with, with a bit of help from Stack Overflow:

This is a bit ugly (and I’ll be disabling the reverse proxy after the conference is over)… but it works for the moment, and also demonstrates how one might make a resolutely HTTP-only service on your intranet accessible over HTTPS publicly.

Onward! I look forward to meeting friends old and new in San Francisco!

Exercises involving a MARC record for an imaginary book, inspired by a recent AUTOCAT thread

Consider the following record, inspired by the discussion on AUTOCAT that was kicked off by this query:

100 1_ ‡a Smith, June, ‡d 1977-
245 00 ‡a Regarding events in Ferguson / ‡c June Smith.
260 _1 ‡a New York : ‡b Hope Press, ‡c 2017.
300 __ ‡a 371 p. : ‡b ill. ; ‡c 10 x 27 cm
336 __ ‡a text ‡2 rdacontent
337 __ ‡a unmediated ‡2 rdamedia
338 __ ‡a volume ‡2 rdacarrier
650 _0 ‡a United States ‡x History ‡y Civil War, 1861-1865.
650 _0 ‡a Police brutality ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson ‡y 2014.
650 _0 ‡a Ferguson (Mo.) Riot, 2015.
650 _0 ‡a Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-).
650 _0 ‡a Race riots ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson ‡y 2014.
650 _0 ‡a Demonstrations ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson ‡y 2014.
653 20 ‡a #BlackLivesMatter
651 _0 ‡a Ferguson (Mo.) ‡x History ‡y 21st century.
650 _0 ‡a Political violence ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson ǂx History 
       ‡y 21st century.
650 _0 ‡a Social conflict ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson.
650 _0 ‡a Civil rights demonstrations ‡z Missouri ‡z Saint Louis County.
650 _0 ‡a Social conflict ‡z Missouri ‡z Saint Louis.
650 _0 ‡a Protest movements ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson.
650 _0 ‡a Protest movements ‡z Missouri ‡z Saint Louis.
650 _0 ‡a Militarization of police ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson.
650 _0 ‡a Militarization of police ‡z United States.
651 _0 ‡a Ferguson (Mo.) ‡z Race relations.
653 _0 ‡a 2014 Ferguson unrest
650 _0 ‡a African Americans ‡x Civil rights ‡x History.
650 _0 ‡a African Americans ‡x Crimes against ‡x History.
650 _0 ‡a Police brutality ‡z United States.
650 _0 ‡a Police ‡x Complaints against ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson.
650 _0 ‡a Police-community relations ‡z Missouri ‡z Ferguson.
650 _0 ‡a Discrimination in criminal justice administration ‡z Missouri
       ‡z Ferguson.
650 _0 ‡a United States ‡x Race relations ‡x History.

Some exercises for the reader:

  1. Identify the subject headings that detract from the neutrality of this record. Show your work.
  2. Identify the subject headings whose absence lessens the accuracy or neutrality of this record. Show your work.
  3. Of the headings that detract from the neutrality of this record, identify the ones that are inaccurate. Show your work.
  4. Adopt the perspective of someone born in 1841 and repeat exercises 1-3. Show your work.
  5. Adopt the perspective of someone born in 2245 and repeat exercises 1-3. Show your work.
  6. Repeat exercises 1-3 in the form of a video broadcast over the Internet.
  7. Repeat exercises 1-3 as a presentation to your local library board.

I acknowledge with gratitude the participants in the AUTOCAT thread who grappled with the question; many of them suggested subject headings used in this record.

Desiderata for the next Librarian of Congress

The current Librarian of Congress, James Billington, has announced that he will retire on 1 January 2016.  I wish him well – but I also think it’s past time for a change at LC.  Here are my thoughts on how that change should be embodied by Billington’s successor.

The next Librarian of Congress should embrace a vision of LC as the general national library of the United States and advocate for it being funded accordingly.  At present LC’s mission is expressed as:

The Library’s mission is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.

Of course, Congress should continue to have access to the best research resources available, and I think it important that LC qua research library remain grounded by serving that unique patron population – but LC’s mission should emphasize its services to everybody who find themselves in the U.S.:

The Library’s mission is to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people, present and future, and to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties.

Having LC be unapologetically and completely committed to being a national library first is risky.  For one thing, it means asking for more funding in a political climate that does not encourage such requests. By removing the fallback excuse of “LC is ultimately just Congress’ research library”, it also means that LC perforce cannot not evade its leadership responsibilities in the national and international library communities.

However, there are opportunities for a Library of Congress that sees its patron base as consisting of all who find themselves on U.S soil: even broader support than it enjoys now and the ability to act as a library of last resort when other institutions fail our memory.

The next Librarian of Congress should be willing and able to put LC’s technology programs back on track. This does not require that the next Librarian be a technologist. It certainly doesn’t require that they be uncritically enthusiastic about technology – but they must be informed, able to pick a good CIO, and able to see past puffery to envision where and how technology can support LC’s mission.

In particular, research and development in library and information technology is an area where the Library of Congress is uniquely able to marshal federal government resources, both to support its own collections and to provide tools that other libraries can use and build upon.

I wonder what the past 20 years or so would have been like if LC had considered technology and R&D worthy of strong leadership and investment. Would Linked Open Data – or even something better – have taken off ten years ago? Would there be more clarity in library software? What would have things been like had LC technologists been more free to experiment and take risks?

I hope that LC under Billington’s successor will give us a taste of what could have been, then surpass it.

The next Librarian of Congress should be a trained librarian or archivist. This isn’t about credentials per se – see Daniel Ransom piece on the “Real Librarians” of Congress – although possession of an MLS or an archivists’ certificate wouldn’t hurt.  Rather, I’d like to see candidates who are already participating in the professional discourse and who have informed opinions on library technology and libraries as community nuclei (and let’s shoot for the moon: who can speak intelligently on metadata issues!).

Of possibly more import: I hope to see candidates who embody library values, and who will help LC to resist the enclosure of the information commons.

What I would prefer not to see is the appointment of somebody whose sole professional credential is an MBA: the Library of Congress is not just another business to be run by a creature of the cult of the gormless general-purpose manager.  I think it would also be a mistake to appoint somebody who is only a scholar, no matter how distinguished: unlike the Poet Laureate, the Librarian of Congress has to see to the running of a large organization.

Finally, the next Librarian of Congress should not attain that position via the glass elevator.  There are plenty of folks who are not white men who can meet all of my desiderata – or any other reasonable set of desiderata short of walking on water – and I hope that the President will keep the demographics of the library profession (and those we serve!) in mind when making a choice.

Forth to Hood River!

Tomorrow I’m flying out to Hood River, Oregon, for the 2015 Evergreen International Conference.

I’ve learned my lesson from last year — too many presentations at one conference make Galen a dull boy — but I will be speaking a few times:

Hiding Deep in the Woods: Reader Privacy and Evergreen (Thursday at 4:45)

Protecting the privacy of our patrons and their reading and information seeking is a core library value – but one that can be achieved only through constant vigilance. We’ll discuss techniques for keeping an Evergreen system secure from leaks of patron data; policies on how much personally identifying information to keep, and for how long; and how to integrate Evergreen with other software securely.

Angling for a new Staff Interface (Friday at 2:30)

The forthcoming web-based staff interface for Evergreen uses a JavaScript framework called AngularJS. AngularJS offers a number of ways to ease putting new interfaces together quickly such as tight integration of promises/deferred objects, extending HTML via local directives, and an integrated test framework – and can help make Evergreen UI development (even more) fun. During this presentation, which will include some hands-on exercise, Bill, Mike and Galen will give an introduction to AngularJS with a focus on how it’s used in Evergreen. By the end of the session, attendees have gained knowledge that they can immediately apply to working on Evergreen’s web staff interface. To perform the exercises, attendees are expected to be familiar with JavaScript .

Jane in the Forest: Starting to do Linked Data with Evergreen (Saturday at 10:30)

Linked Data has been on the radar of librarians for years, but unless one is already working with RDF triple-stores and the like, it can be a little hard to see how the Linked Data future will look like for ILSs. Adapting some of the ideas of the original Jane-athon session at ALA Midwinter 2015 in Chicago, we will go through an exercise of putting together small sets of RDA metadata as RDF… then seeing how that data can be used in the Evergreen. By the end, attendees will have learned a bit not just about the theory of Linked Data, but how working with it can work in practice.

I’m looking forward to hearing other presentations and the keynote by Joseph Janes, but more than that, I’m looking forward to having a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues in the Evergreen community.

How long does it take to change the data, part I: confidence

A few days ago, I asked the following question in the Mashcat Slack: “if you’re a library data person, what questions do you have to ask of library systems people and library programmers?”

Here is a question that Alison Hitchens asked based on that prompt:

I’m not sure it is a question, but a need for understanding what types of data manipulations etc. are easy peasy and would take under hour of developer time and what types of things are tricky — I guess an understanding of the resourcing scope of the things we are asking for, if that makes sense

That’s an excellent question – and one whose answer heavily depends on the particulars of the data change needed, the people requesting it, the people who are to implement it, and tools that are available.  I cannot offer a magic box that, when fed specifics and given a few turns of its crank, spits out a reliable time estimate.

However, I can offer up a point of view: asking somebody how long it takes to change some data is asking them to take the measure of their confidence and of their constraints.

In this post I’ll focus on the matter of confidence.  If you, a library data person, are asking me, a library systems person (or team, or department, or service provider), to change a pile of data, I may be perfectly confident in my ability to so.  Perhaps it’s a routine record load that for whatever reason cannot be run directly by the catalogers but for which tools and procedures already exist.  In that case, answering the question of how long it would take to do it might be easy (ignoring, for the moment, the matter of fitting the work onto the calendar).

But when asked to do something new, my confidence could start out being quite low.  Here are some of the questions I might be asking myself:

Am I confident that I’m getting the request from the right person?  Am I confident that the requester has done their homework?

Ideally, the requester has the authority to ask for the change, knows why the change is wanted, has consulted with the right data experts within the organization to verify that the request makes sense, and has ensured that all of the relevant stakeholders have signed off on the request.

If not, then it will take me time to either get the requester to line up the political ducks or to do so myself.

Am I confident that I understand the reason for the change?

If I know the reason for the change – which presumably is rooted in some expected benefit to the library’s users or staff – I may be able to suggest better approaches.  After all, sometimes the best way to do a data change is to change no data at all, and instead change displays or software configuration options.  If data does need to be changed, knowing why can make it easier for me to suss out some of the details or ask smarter questions.

If the reason for the change isn’t apparent, it will take me time to work with the requester and other experts and stakeholders until I have enough understanding of the big picture to proceed (or to be told to do it because the requester said so – but that has its own problems).

Am I confident that I understand the details of the requested change?

Computers are stupid and precise, so ultimately any process and program I write or use to effect the change has to be stupid and precise.

Humans are smart and fuzzy, so to bring a request down to the level of the computer, I have to analyze the problem until I’m confident that I’ve broken it down enough. Whatever design and development process I follow to do the analysis – waterfall, agile, or otherwise – it will take time.

Am I confident in the data that I am to change?

Is the data to be changed nice, clean and consistent?  Great! It’s easier to move a clean data set from one consistent state to another consistent state than it is to clean up a messy batch of data.

The messier the data, the more edge cases there are to consider, the more possible exceptions to worry about – the longer the data change will take.

Am I confident that I have the technical knowledge to implement the change?

Relevant technical knowledge can include knowledge of any update tools provided by the software, knowledge of programming languages that can use system APIs, knowledge of data manipulation and access languages such as SQL and XSLT, knowledge of the underlying DBMS, and so forth.

If I’m confident in my knowledge of the tools, I’ll need less time to figure out how to put them together to deal with the data change.  If not, I’ll need time to teach myself, enlist the aid of colleagues who do have the relevant knowledge, or find contractors to do the work.

Am I confident in my ability to predict any side-effects of the change?

Library data lives in complicated silos. Sometimes, a seemingly small change can have unexpected consequences.  As a very small example, Evergreen actually cares about the values of indicators in the MARC21 856 field; get them wrong, and your electronic resource URLs disappear from public catalog display.

If I’m familiar with the systems that store and use the data to be changed and am confident that side-effects of the change will be minimal, great! If not, it may take me some time to investigate the possible consequences of the change.

Am I confident in my ability to back out of the change if something goes wrong?

Is the data change difficult or awkward to undo if something is amiss?  If so, it presents an operational risk, one whose mitigation is taking more time for planning and test runs.

Am I confident that I know how often requests for similar data changes will be made in the future?

If the request is a one-off, great! If the request is the harbinger of many more like it – or looks that way – I may be better off writing a tool that I can use to make the data change repeatedly.  I may be even better off writing a tool that the requester can use.

It may take more time to write such a tool than it would to just handle the request as a one-off, in which case it will take time to decide which direction to take.

Am I confident in the organization?

Do I work for a library that can handle mistakes well?  Where if the data change turns out to be misguided, is able to roll with the punches?  Or do I work for an unhealthy organization where a mistake means months of recriminations? Or where the catalog is just one of the fronts in a war between the public and technical services departments?

Can I expect to get compensated for performing the data change successfully? Or am I effectively being treated as if were the stupid, over-precise computer?

If the organization is unhealthy, I may need to spend more time than ought to be necessary to protect my back – or I may end up spending a lot of time not just implementing data changes, but data oscillations.

The pattern should be clear: part of the process of estimating how long it might take to effect a data change is estimating how much confidence I have about the change.  Generally speaking, higher confidence means less time would be needed to make the change – but of course, confidence is a quality that cannot be separated from the people and organizations who might work on the change.

In the extreme – but common – case, if I start from a state of very low confidence, it will take me time to reach a sufficient degree of confidence to make any time estimate at all.  This is why I like a comment that Owen Stephens made in the Slack:

Perhaps this is part of the answer to [Alison]: Q: Always ask how long it will take to investigate and get an idea of how difficult it is.

In the next post, I discuss how various constraints can affect time estimates.

Preserving the usefulness of the Hugo Awards as a selection tool for libraries

The Hugo Awards have been awarded by the World Science Fiction Convention for decades, and serve to recognize the works of authors, editors, directors – fans and professionals – in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.  The Hugos are unique in being a fan-driven award that has as much process – if not more – as juried awards.

That process has two main steps.  First, there’s a nomination period where members of Worldcon select works to appear on the final ballot. Second, members of the upcoming Worldcon vote on the final ballot and the awards are given out at the convention.

Typically, rather more folks vote on the final ballot than nominate – and that means that small, organized groups of people can unduly influence the nominations.  However, there’s been surprisingly few attempts to actually do that.

Until this year.

Many of the nominations this year match the slates of two groups, the “Sad Puppies” and the “Rabid Puppies.”  Not only that, some of the categories contain nothing but Puppy nominations.

The s.f. news site File 770 has a comprehensive collection of back-and-forth about the matter, but suffice it so say that the Puppy slates are have a primarily political motivation – and one, in the interests of full disclosure, that I personally despise.

There are a lot of people saying smart things about the situation, so I’ll content myself with the following observation:

Slate nominations and voting destroy the utility of the Hugo Award lists for librarians who select science fiction and fantasy.

Why? Ideally, the Hugo process ascertains the preferences of thousands of Worldcon members to arrive at a general consensus of science fiction and fantasy that is both good and generally appealing.  As it happens, that’s a pretty useful starting point for librarians trying to round out collections or find new authors that their patrons might like – particularly for those librarians who are not themselves fans of the genre.

However, should slate voting become a successful tactic, the Hugo Awards are in danger of ending up simply reflecting which factions in fandom are best able to game the system.  The results of that… are unlikely to be all that useful for librarians.

Here’s my suggestion for librarians who are fans of science fiction and fantasy and who want to help preserve a collection development tool: get involved.  In particular:

  1. Join Worldcon. A $40 supporting membership suffices to get voting privileges.
  2. Vote on the Hugos this year. I won’t tell you who the vote for, but if you agree with me that slate nominations are a problem, consider voting accordingly.
  3. Next year, participate in the nomination process. Don’t participate in nomination slates; instead, nominate those works that you think are worthy of a Hugo – full stop.

Three tales regarding a decrease in the number of catalogers

Discussions on Twitter today – see the timelines of @cm_harlow and @erinaleach for entry points – got me thinking.

In 1991, the Library of Congress had 745 staff in its Cataloging Directorate. By the end of FY 2004, the LC Bibliographic Access Divisions had between 5061 and 5612 staff.

What about now? As of 2014, the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access unit has 238 staff3.

While I’m sure one could quibble about the details (counting FTE vs. counting humans, accounting for the reorganizations, and so forth), the trend is clear: there has been a precipitous drop in the number of cataloging staff employed by the Library of Congress.

I’ll blithely ignore factors such as shifts in the political climate in the U.S. and how they affect civil service. Instead, I’ll focus on library technology, and spin three tales.

The tale of the library technologists

The decrease in the number of cataloging staff are one consequence of a triumph of library automation. The tools that we library technologists have written allow catalogers to work more efficiently. Sure, there are fewer of them, but that’s mostly been due to retirements. Not only that, the ones who are left are now free to work on more intellectually interesting tasks.

If we, the library technologists, can but slip the bonds of legacy cruft like the MARC record, we can make further gains in the expressiveness of our tools and the efficiencies they can achieve. We will be able to take advantage of metadata produced by other institutions and people for their own ends, enabling library metadata specialists to concern themselves with larger-scale issues.

Moreover, once our data is out there – who knows what others, including our patrons, can achieve with it?

This will of course be pretty disruptive, but as traditional library catalogers retire, we’ll reach buy-in. The library administrators have been pushing us to make more efficient systems, though we wish that they would invest more money in the systems departments.

We find that the catalogers are quite nice to work with one-on-one, but we don’t understand why they seem so attached to an ancient format that was only meant for record interchange.

The tale of the catalogers

The decrease in the number of cataloging staff reflects a success of library administration in their efforts to save money – but why is it always at our expense? We firmly believe that our work with the library catalog/metadata services counts as a public service, and we wish more of our public services colleagues knew how to use the catalog better.  We know for a fact that what doesn’t get catalogued may as well not exist in the library.

We also know that what gets catalogued badly or inconsistently can cause real problems for patrons trying to use the library’s collection.  We’ve seen what vendor cataloging can be like – and while sometimes it’s very good, often it’s terrible.

We are not just a cost center. We desperately want better tools, but we also don’t think that it’s possible to completely remove humans from the process of building and improving our metadata. 

We find that the library technologists are quite nice to work with one-on-one – but it is quite rare that we get to actually speak with a programmer.  We wish that the ILS vendors would listen to us more.

The tale of the library directors

The decrease in the number of cataloging staff at the Library of Congress is only partially relevant to the libraries we run, but hopefully somebody has figured out how to do cataloging more cheaply. We’re trying to make do with the money we’re allocated. Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to get a library funding initiative passed, but more often we’re trying to make do with less: sometimes to the point where flu season makes us super-nervous about our ability to keep all of the branches open.

We’re concerned not only with how much of our budgets are going into electronic resources, but with how nigh-impossible it is to predict increases in fees for ejournal subscriptions/ fees for ebook services.

We find that the catalogers and the library technologists are pleasant enough to talk to, but we’re not sure how well they see the big picture – and we dearly wish they could clearly articulate how yet another cataloging standard / yet another systems migration will make our budgets any more manageable.

Each of these tales is true. Each of these tales is a lie. Many other tales could be told. Fuzziness abounds.

However, there is one thing that seems clear: conversations about the future of library data and library systems involve people with radically different points of view. These differences do not mean that any of the people engaged in the conversations are villains, or do not care about library users, or are unwilling to learn new things.

The differences do mean that it can be all too easy for conversations to fall apart or get derailed.

We need to practice listening.

1. From testmony by the president of the Library of Congress Professional Guild to Congress on 6 March 2015.
2. From the BA FY 2004 report. This including 32 staff from the Cataloging Distribution Service, which had been merged into BA and had not been part of the Cataloging Directorate.
3. From testmony by the president of the Library of Congress Professional Guild to Congress on 6 March 2015.

Unsolved problems

I saw a lot of pain yesterday. I will see more pain today.

Pain from women saying that it’s back to the whisper network for them. Pain from women acknowledging the many faults of whisper networks.

Pain from women who do not want to be chilled — and who yet find themselves in the far north, with the wolves circling.

Pain from women who have seen their colleagues fail them before, and before, and before — and who have less hope now that the future of libraries will be any better.

Pain from women who fear that licenses were issued yesterday — licenses to maintain the status quo, licenses to grind away the hopes and dreams of those women in libraries who want to change the world (or who simply want to catalog books in peace and go home at the end of the day).

Above all, pain from women whose words are now constrained by the full force of the law — and who are now the target of every passerby who has much time and little empathy.

I will speak plainly: Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus did a brave thing, a thing that could never have rebounded to their personal advantage no matter the outcome of the lawsuit. I respect them, and I wish them whatever peace they can find after this.

I will speak bluntly to men in the library profession: regardless of what you think of the case that ended yesterday — regardless of what you think of Joe Murphy’s actions or of the actions of Team Harpy — sexual harassment in our profession is real; the pain our colleagues experience due to it is real.

It remains an unsolved problem.

It remains our unsolved problem.

We must do our part to fix it.

Not sure how? Neither am I. But at least as librarians and library workers, we have access to plenty of tools to learn, to listen.

Time to roll up our sleeves.

Briefly: information-seeking in the age of Google juice

Just now I read a comment on a blog to the effect that although the commenter was mildly interested in something, she wasn’t going to Google it.

The something in question was a racist cultural practice that used to be common, but nowadays is condemned by most.

Why not search to learn more about it? She wasn’t particularly concerned that somebody would go through her web search history and think she endorsed the practice. Rather, she didn’t want to contribute even so much as a click to making the practice have higher visibility on the web.

Google searches ≠ endorsement, of course – but I find it interesting that nowadays some find it necessary to say so explicitly.

Henriette Avram versus the world: Is COBOL capable of processing MARC?

Is the COBOL programming language capable of processing MARC records?

A computer programmer in 2015 could be excused for thinking to herself, what kind of question is that!?! Surely it’s obvious that any programming language capable of receiving input can parse a simple, antique record format?

In 1968, it apparently wasn’t so obvious. I turned up an article by Henriette Avram and a colleague, MARC II and COBOL, that was evidently written in response to a review article by a Hillis Griffin where he stated

Users will require programmers skilled in languages other than FORTRAN or COBOL to take advantage of MARC records.

Avram responded to Griffin’s concern in the most direct way possible: by describing COBOL programs developed by the Library of Congress to process MARC records and generate printed catalogs. Her article even include source code, in case there were any remaining doubts!

I haven’t yet turned up any evidence that Henriette Avram and Grace Hopper ever met, but it was nice to find a close, albeit indirect connection between the two of them via COBOL.

Is the debate between Avram and Griffen in 1968 regarding COBOL and MARC anything more than a curiosity? I think it is — many of the discussions she participated in are reminiscent of debates that are taking place now. To fair to Griffin, I don’t know enough about the computing environment of the late sixties to be able to definitely say that his statement was patently ill-informed at the time — but given that by 1962 IBM had announced that they were standardizing on COBOL, it seems hardly surprising that Avram and her group would be writing MARC processing code in COBOL on an IBM/360 by 1968. To me, the concerns that Griffin raised seem on par with objections to Library Linked Data that assume that each library catalog request would necessarily mean firing off a dozen requests to RDF providers — objections that have rejoinders that are obvious to programmers, but perhaps not so obvious to others.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?