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Meet the woman who helped libraries across the U.S. 'surf the internet'

An Internet-enabled computer runs at the Brooklyn Public Library June 24, 2003, in New York City.
Spencer Platt
/
Getty Images
An Internet-enabled computer runs at the Brooklyn Public Library June 24, 2003, in New York City.

When former librarian and author Jean Armour Polly first introduced the idea of having computers in libraries in the early 1980s, she was met with pushback.

"People scoffed and said, 'Why would you go to a library to use a computer?' " she said.

Even when the internet rolled around, many librarians felt they were supposed to be the sole gatekeepers of knowledge and information.

"But I just knew it would be a wonderful thing. You know, school kids could use [computers] in schools, but what about the lifelong learners? And adults and seniors?" Polly said.

She got interested in the potentials of technology early on. Years earlier, in the mid-1970s, Polly had taken free computer classes while a graduate student in library sciences so.

In 1981, Polly managed to secure an Apple II Plus into the small library she was working at the time in Liverpool, N.Y. At the time, there was only one other library in the nation that she knew offered public computing.

Within six months, her library would add a second computer and a printer.

"And we had to have these validation sessions because nobody knew how to use a floppy disk or a disk drive," Polly said. "It was the Wild West back then."

She would go on to help the Liverpool Public Library create its ownbulletin board system, an old-school computerized system that allowed users to exchange public messages or files.

By 1992, they were offering free internet for the public, a year after the first website was introduced to the public.

Since the internet was hard to use back then, the service was mediated by local librarians, who would help library-goers take their baby steps online.

"We didn't have all the graphic interfaces like we have now, and we didn't even have Google or anything. So you really needed somebody to hold your hand," Polly said.

Polly would also go around attending library conferences about the internet, excitedly speaking to anybody who would listen about the resource.

How "surfing the internet" was born

It was around that time that Wilson Library Bulletin, a library magazine, asked her to write a beginner's article for librarians explaining what the internet was and how you could use it.

She needed a good metaphor as to what navigating the internet felt like in the early days. "It was hard. You needed some skill to do it, but it was fun," Polly said.

Her mousepad happened to have a picture of a surfer and said "information surfer," a phrase that was already floating around. The words just clicked for her.

"Surfing the Internet" was published in the summer of 1992, quickly becoming viral as a catchphrase after Polly put the article up online that same year.

In 2019, Polly was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame for evangelizing computers in public libraries, the precursor to the internet being offered as a core service in those spaces.

Today, Polly runs a website called Net-mom, which is a registered trademark, and spends her free time doing genealogy and gardening. She retired from being a librarian in 2014.

When asked what she hopes for the future of libraries, Polly expressed concern because of the growing battle over book bans. However, she remains optimistic.

"Libraries have always been the intellectual freedom bastion and they're coming under a lot of fire," she said. "But they will survive. I think they will."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diba Mohtasham
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