By Alyssa Dearborn
Photo by Michael Di Giglio/MDG Images
Despite her long career as a public librarian in Central New York, Jean Polly never really thought the title suited her.
“I see myself more as an information professional,” she said. “I am a connector, linking people with resources.”
Polly — who retired from her post as executive director of the Liverpool Public Library in 2014 — has become an author, a leader in the field of computer science, an online technical influencer, and a 2019 inductee to the Internet Hall of Fame. The title of librarian helped her to find a unique role in the early years of the internet.
“I believed that [internet accessibility] was going to be important and I saw the potential of networked information — as well as the perils — and I thought libraries and librarians had better have a seat at the table,” she said.
Polly predicted that public libraries would eventually become an important center for people to explore the internet. Her vision proved to be accurate. With that vision in mind, she enabled her own library to be one of the first public libraries in the country to have internet. Today, Wi-Fi and internet accessibility are staples at most libraries in the country. Anyone can go to their local public library and expect to find a computer that they can use for a multitude of activities. But as Polly explained, the internet in our public libraries took many years to evolve into the incredible resource that we all enjoy and rely on today.
“Home computers were not widespread yet, but schoolkids were getting microcomputers in their classrooms,” she said. “I wondered how their parents were supposed to develop their own 21st-century skills.”
It was a professional risk at the time for Polly to embrace the idea of the computer.
“Librarians are generally not known for taking risks, but I believe that if you do take a risk you always learn something,” she said. “So we bought an Apple II Plus computer and some software and we started letting the public use it. Well, within six months the popularity was such that we had added a second computer and a printer.”
Though computers and the growing power of the internet were becoming more mainstream through the 1980s and ‘90’s, many other library professionals were skeptical — even averse — to its role.
“Public librarians generally considered the internet as a threat to the librarians’ role as gatekeeper to knowledge,” Polly said. “Plus, resources were largely unvetted and sometimes of dubious authority. But some of us recognized the potential on the horizon — that the public could not only access its wealth of information but contribute to it with their thoughts and offerings.”
The future of the internet as a public good and community resource became apparent to computer science pioneers like Polly.
“I had a tech column in Library Journal and I traveled to more than 20 states, encouraging public librarians to jettison their 19th-century paradigms and embrace the developing online world. I challenged them to create their own online resources,” she said. “Significantly I stressed that librarians, with their anti-censorship views and belief in the importance of universal access to information, must be involved with internet policy-making.”
It was the community that became an important focus of her work. As computers became more accepted, they also became invaluable resources.
“It’s a social equity issue now,” Polly said. “So many things are only easily accessible online these days: Job applications, health information, online courses for life-long learning, legal and government information, and more. Just as the traditional print-oriented library was the Great Equalizer of days past, so too is freely accessible bandwidth.”
In the community, Polly integrated the library computers even more by helping the library create a community electronic bulletin-board system and install a weather station that would push observational data to the Weather Underground. Away from her post at the library, she continued to be a force in the computer sciences by writing a book called “Net-mom’s Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages” — which was published in six editions by McGraw-Hill — and running her website, Netmom.com. It was her dedication to the field and community that helped her become an inductee of the Internet Hall of Fame.
“I was very honored to be inducted,” Polly said, “and particularly happy that they chose to recognize the important work done by public libraries in growing the accessibility and reach of the internet and training people to use it.”
While she was honored to be the first public librarian to be inducted, she hopes she won’t be the last.
“So to all the public librarians out there, the biggest enemy is complacency,” Polly said. “Continue to take risks.”