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Enjoy Free Internet at the Library? You Can Thank This Woman

Klint Finley, Wired:’s now a given that just about every public library in the US has computer terminals for accessing the internet. It’s just a part of what you expect a library to do. But when Jean Armour Polly suggested that the library in tiny Liverpool, New York, near Syracuse, offer free internet to the public in the early 1990s, the idea was unheard of.

A decade earlier, Polly, fresh out of library school, accidentally attended a session about computers in schools at a conference of librarians. "I knew computers would be something that kids would take advantage of," she says. "But how were their parents supposed to get these skills? Or senior citizens or anyone else in the community?"

Polly had convinced the Liverpool Public Library to buy an Apple computer, making it one of the first public libraries to offer access to a personal computer to patrons. Soon after, Polly began using early online services via dialup like the WELL, and helped the Liverpool Public Library create its own bulletin board system. Hosted from a single computer, the "Night Shift" service didn't provide internet access, but it allowed users to dial in from home and exchange messages with other Night Shift users.

"Then in about 1991, I got my first internet account and the scales fell from my eyes," Polly says. "I thought, 'How are we going to get this into the public's hands?'"

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