Intertitle: Briefly describe your most vital contributions; what led you to become an Internet Hall of Fame member?
Jean Armour Polly: Probably the thing that I’m most known for would be helping to evangelize the use of the Internet in public libraries. In the United States now, if you walk into a library you’ll see public computers set out and people can get free time on them. But it wasn’t always like that. And libraries were generally known for books and for literacy and…you know, if you had an LP record that was like a big deal that were getting into media. So the notion that somebody would put a computer in a public library was very unknown, and the first year I did that was 1981. Of course it wasn’t connected to anything, but we did have software, how to learn BASIC, and how to use a word processor, and VisiCalc was the spreadsheet of the moment, you know. We had a couple of games, things like that. It was very popular.
And that sort of set the stage for what we did next, which was we opened up an electronic bulletin board system for the public in 19…well let’s see, it was 1983 that we started the BBS system. And people were just starting to get home computers then and starting to get modems and trying to figure out where to call. So people at home, hobbyists, would run these BBS systems. But we thought it would be a good idea for a public library to run one because you know, we were going to be open and accessible. The problem was we only had one phone line at the library, so we had to only run this BBS at night on our 1200 baud modem. So we called it the night shift and only one person could call at a time, but we did start an online community very early in our upstate New York community that way.
And that again set the stage for the Internet, which was a few years later we got our first Internet connection in 1991 and opened it up to a mediated public access in 1992. And that was like opening the floodgates, you know. The Internet just became so exciting to people and everyone wanted to learn how to be on it.
Intertitle: What are the biggest challenges you had to overcome to achieve success; how did you overcome them? Was there an “aha” moment, a period of impact or a breakthrough realization or a steady flow?
Polly: You miss 100% of the shots that you never take. And if you do take a risk, you’re gonna learn something. It might be good or it might be bad but you’re going to learn something, and I was all about learning something in the library business because [of] my idea that complacency is the real enemy. So, in library land it really was not popular, the idea of putting the Internet out for the public because it was not going to be mediated information. It wasn’t going to be librarians being the gatekeepers of knowledge and wisdom anymore. Now people could get at this themselves and not only that but create their own resources and put them up.
So, there was a lot of pushback early on from other librarians, and I went around the country and did a lot of talks evangelizing use of the Internet, not only you know, B2B for libraries but also for the public. And that was a hard push but…we got there and yay libraries is what I say about that.
Intertitle: Which people, experiences or developments were most crucial in your professional success and its impact?
Polly: I had a lot of mentors along the way that inspired me. One I’ve gotta mention, Dr. Charles McClure. He was a social science researcher about the Internet in public libraries, and he kept encouraging me as my dealings with early Internet access went on. Also Monica Ertel from the Apple Corporate Library and Steve Sisler from the Apple Corporate Library. They helped disseminate not only information but also equipment and grants to libraries that were willing to take a risk. And they had the Apple Library Users Group, which also helped further things.
Intertitle: What are your hopes for the future Internet? Your fears? What action should be taken now for the best future?
Jean Armour Polly: Well you know the Internet back in the day was considered the Wild West. And then it got kind of civilized for a while but now it’s going back there. And a lot of these things were predicted, and we were told about them—we were warned about them. Things like loss of privacy and malevolence on the Internet and malware. We were warned, and a lot of us um, put on our rose-colored glasses and said oh well, let’s go chasing waterfalls anyway. And we did that. And there has to be more stringent concern about these issues than there is currently. I think it’s getting there, but I’m worried about it. I’m worried about it getting even worse. So that people would be abandoning parts of it. I mean we see people getting off Facebook for example now because they don’t like being a product of their personal information. And I think we’ll see more and more of that.
Intertitle: What advice do you have for the next generation working in your field?
Polly: My thing is take a risk. Complacency must be rejected, you know. Librarianship is a field where you have to keep growing. We learned in graduate school that the library’s a growing organism and it needs to be that way, you know. You don’t want to ever just say okay, we’ve won, here’s a library, we’ve done it. You want to keep on pushing the envelope. And I think it was Wayne Gretzky who said—the hockey player—said the secret of his success was to move to where the puck was going to be. And I like to think about that like where is the puck going to be as far as the public with the public library. And sometimes you guess wrong but sometimes you guess right, and we sure did with public Internet access.
Intertitle: What has surprised you most about the Internet as it has developed?
Polly: I was happy with a lot of the early resources on the Internet but I think now I’m astounded by some of the things on the Internet, and I’m so grateful that they’re there. I do genealogy as a hobby, and for example my hat is off to people who did genealogy back in the day when you had to go to a lot of town halls and repositories and archives—physical you had to go there, but now I can get a lot of that online and my research has been made a lot better. So the resources that are coming up that are authoritative and authentic are a surprise to me, and a happy surprise to me.
Intertitle: What are the most positive Internet trends emerging today? What are the most worrisome challenges today?
Polly: I think the privacy problem is probably the worst thing and the thing that I worry about a lot and the thing that I try to evangelize to my friends. You know, be sure that you’ve got two-factor authentication and other things set up. So that’s the worrisome thing to me.
And the worrisome thing to me is that it will be so bad that people will just start leaving. Or the other thing is if you are a content creator, the fact that your copyright is not always acknowledged and maintained by other people that just try to steal your content. Because one of the things I did as a content provider myself under the Net-mom aegis was write about good web sites for kids early on. This was all pre-Google so things were hard to find. And I hated to find my content that I had worked hard to provide at a newspaper in another country, or in one case it was being used as fodder for a large America city here. And they didn’t know that it was copyrighted by me, they were just using it under their own private label. So, lack of copyright is a big problem for people that are content providers.
Intertitle: How do you hope to see the Internet evolve?
Polly: I have the same hope in 2019 that all of the information that we are able to get to now could be used to solve these grand challenges that we still have. And I love seeing people like you, and young people really standing out and using these technologies to make a difference in the world. And that’s my hope.
Internet Hall of Fame profile