Jean Armour Polly: Hello everyone. Well I am—like everyone else I’m thrilled to accept this award and to be part of this stellar class here today. But like all of you I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life and my career, from this librarian thing—I’m going to focus on that—but I’ve also written a lot of books for kids on the Internet. And I worked as an Internet evangelist for a mid-level regional as well.
So, I’d like to focus on thanking the Internet Society for recognizing the important part that public librarians have played in helping to grow the reach of the Internet and its use by everybody. In 1981 I was a professional librarian at a small library in upstate New York. Home computers were not widespread. But schoolkids were getting them, and I was wondering how adults, their parents, or everyone else in the community was supposed to get these skills.
So, while librarians are not really known for our risk-taking skills, I do believe that you need to take a risk and you always learn something. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad, thing but I wanted to go with this thing.
So, we bought an Apple II+ computer and we put it out for the public to use. And we bought some software. We had Oregon Trail, of course, that was ubiquitous back then. And VisiCalc—remember that? And a word processor, some other things. We started letting the public use it.
Well, within six months it was so popular we had to buy a second computer, and we got a printer. That was a big deal. In 1983, as home computing started to become more mainstream, and as hobbyists began buying modems, they didn’t really have a lot of places to call back then. They just had a few bulletin board systems, electronic BBS systems, that people ran out of their homes and you would call that modem and get online.
Well I decided it would be fun to have the library run an electronic bulletin board system. So we operated it off a modem pool of one. And we only had one phone line at the library, so we plugged in the modem when we all went home for the evening—we called it the night shift. And we got about a thousand calls a month; it was huge. And we set it up like the Dewey Decimal System because we were librarians. So if you wanted to discuss religion you were in the “200” bulletin board discussion group, you know.
Also the modem, it was a 1200 baud modem, by the way.
By 1992 we were offering public access Internet via a SLIP connection, but we had moved up to 14.4. We thought that was great. And that later escalated into getting a 56k and a Class B network, because in those days it was thought that libraries would become freenets and community resources for connectivity.
Well, we always hear about the last mile connectivity problem. But I was more concerned myself with the last arm’s length, which is between your fingers and the brain. And that’s where my niche was as a librarian, how best to help people take their first baby steps on the Internet. And that’s where I got the nickname Net-mom, which by the way is a registered trademark. International Class 42. For you lawyers out there, Larry.
So, it’s painfully true than in those early days, though, a lot of my colleague librarians were not so thrilled about this Internet thing because heretofore they had been the guardians of knowledge and wisdom on the Internet and you know, here was this Internet thing that was unvetted and without any authority to tell you something. And they really considered it a competitor.
So, again I was a road warrior like many of you and took my five-pound laptop and my modem and my evangelism and went to twenty different states and talked about the Internet to librarians. And I helped them learn how to use it and learn how to not be afraid of it. We did recognize the potential on the horizon, and not only that people could access the wealth of the Internet but also could contribute to it, which is just as important. And these days I’m happy to say that public-access Internet is considered a core library service. Library users need it to apply for jobs, access health information, send and receive email, and of course play games because public libraries are for recreation too. But not only that it’s truly a social equity issue. Because so much information that helps people self-educate and self-empower is only available online now.
But, at this time I would like to confess that my undergraduate major was medieval studies. Do not ask me to set up a zone file. But do allow me to give kudos to the system administrators in libraries and the network wizards who keep the packets flowing in the public library systems. They’re largely unsung and if you give me a minute I’m going to sing them.
Their labors are critical and I want to acknowledge the work of my colleagues Rick Fenster and Stephanie Zwolinsky. And also to the web site designers and content creators, so thank you to Diane Tolson. And I want to mention two other visionary librarians who encouraged me. That would be Monica Ertel and Steve Sisler from the Apple Corporate Library in Cupertino. They seeded equipment and other help to libraries like my own who were willing to take risks.
I would also like to thank my nominator Susan Estrada, a Hall of Fame inductee in her own right, and my writers of endorsement letters, Beverly Choltco-Devlin of the Tacoma Washington Public Library; Karen G. Schneider, Dean of the university library from Sonoma State University; and Stephen Carrick-Davies, CEO of the Mondo Foundation in London. He does a lot of interesting Internet education activities abroad.
And also thank you to my family and my poor husband Larry. He’s a web site designer and developer and a lifelong learner. And our son of Net-mom Stephen, who’s here with his lovely bride Lauren over there.
And in conclusion it’s wonderful to be the first librarian to receive this honor, however as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female US Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ve always thought that while it’s wonderful to be the first, you don’t want to be the last.” So to all you librarians out there, the biggest enemy is complacency—you must reject it. And so continue to innovate and take risks, and someday you might be standing right here. Thank you very much for this honor.