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.

Further Reference

Internet Hall of Fame pro­file