Jean Armour-Polly sits in library with her award

Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the digital world has the Internet Hall of Fame. Every two years, the Internet Hall recognizes a group of pioneers and visionaries “who have made outstanding contributions to the Internet’s global growth, reach, and security.”

The 2019 inductees included Jean Armour Polly ’74, G ‘75, a retired librarian who pioneered free internet access in public libraries and is often credited with coining the term “surfing” the web. Polly, who earned her master’s degree in library science from Syracuse University, is the first librarian to be inducted into the Internet Hall. Polly and other members of the 2019 Internet Hall of Fame class were honored last fall at a ceremony in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.

In 1981, Polly was an assistant librarian at the Liverpool Public Library, a small library in a suburb of Syracuse. Computers were not yet common at home but schools were beginning to get them, and Polly wondered how children and their parents would learn the skills necessary to effectively use them. Her library purchased an Apple 2 Plus computer and set it up for patrons to use. “As you can imagine, it was really popular,” Polly recalls. Six months later, the library purchased a second computer with a printer. She adds that it was “a really big deal” at the time.

Her fellow librarians were skeptical, she says; they believed that computers were a threat to the core mission of libraries: providing books and promoting literacy. But Polly thought it critical for libraries to embrace emerging technology, provide internet access and educate community members about basic computer and internet functions. By 1992, the Liverpool Public Library had its own domain name and offered free public internet access – and Polly was in demand as an advocate, trainer, and speaker.

“I was always on a plane, going on a trip to evangelize the internet,” she recalled. “It was seen as a competitor to libraries and I got a lot of pushback early on. I felt really strongly about internet access and children’s access. I felt strongly that librarians, instead of fighting it, should demand a place at the table.”

Helping adults and kids take incremental steps to make use of this new tool and use it wisely earned Polly the nickname “Net Mom” (now a registered trademark). When she wasn’t working at the library and traveling around the country, Polly started to write “The Internet Kids and Family Yellow Pages,” a family-oriented resource that detailed thousands of safe, educational, and entertaining sites for children. Later editions of the book are titled “Net-Mom’s Internet Kids and Family Yellow Pages.” The book has been updated six times and has sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide.

Polly eventually quit her library job to concentrate on the books. She later became  director of public services and internet ambassador for NYSERNet, a non-profit internet service provider. She was “lured back” to the Liverpool Public Library in 2002 to serve as assistant director and oversee the systems and technology department, she says, and was named the library’s director in 2009. She retired from that role in 2014.

In retirement, Polly, 66, has logged hundreds of hours as a volunteer for non-profit organizations. She enjoys conducting genealogy research for herself, family, and friends. Much of that research is done using databases and tools available on the internet.

“Retirement is great because you can do anything you want,” Polly says. “You don’t have to think about closing the library on a snow day.”

By Margaret McCormick