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?

CC BY-SA 4.0 Henriette Avram versus the world: Is COBOL capable of processing MARC? by Galen Charlton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One reply on “Henriette Avram versus the world: Is COBOL capable of processing MARC?”

  1. Another very slight point of connection: Henriette Avram was an acquaintance and colleague for quite a few years–and I had occasion to chat with Admiral Hopper once. Both impressive women. Also, I can testify that you can process MARC II using COBOL, having done so in the mid-’70s. (Admittedly, once it was efficient enough, PL/I was a *whole* lot better.) An oddity in the linked article having to do with journal continuity: That article appeared in the Journal of Library Automation. The name changed to ITAL (Information Technology and Libraries) years later.

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