The modern internet didn’t happen by accident. It took decades of work to turn what once was an obscure network used by a small number of academics into a global phenomenon reaching about half the people on Earth.

Every two years, the Internet Society’s “Internet Hall of Fame” honors the people behind those efforts. There’s no monetary reward, and unlike the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Internet Hall of Fame exists only online. But the honor shines a rare spotlight on the people, selected by former inductees, who made the internet what it is today. Some inductees, like Vint Cerf, who co-created the TCP/IP protocol, and World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee, are relatively well known. On Friday, the Internet Society will welcome a new batch of inductees to the Hall of Fame that you’ve likely never heard of, but whose online contributions you might take for granted.

For example, it’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.

Photograph: Courtesy of Jean Armour Polly

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?'”

This was before Berners-Lee had created the web, when the internet was more difficult to use. Nonetheless, Polly worked with the internet service provider Nysernet (New York State Education and Research Network) to get a dialup internet account for the library.

Polly traveled the US promoting the idea of online access in libraries, but other libraries were slow to follow. Surprisingly, she got little if any pushback from commercial internet providers worried that free access at the library would hurt their sales; the pushback came from other librarians. “The internet was considered a competitor to librarians,” Polly says. “There was a lot of skepticism about the authority of people on the internet trying to tell you facts. Librarians, in general, did not embrace the internet early on, certainly not for the general public.”

It took years of evangelism from librarians like Polly to make the internet near ubiquitous at libraries. It took similar efforts to spread the internet around the world.

Photograph: Courtesy of Adiel Akplogan

Adiel Akplogan, another of Hall of Fame inductee, helped start an early internet provider in West Africa while working for Togo-based telecommunications company CAFE Informatique & Télécommunications. Akplogan had seen the value of networked computing thanks to the French online service Minitel, which was available in Togo and much of the Francophone world. CAFE offered Minitel service, but in 1996 he and some of his colleagues were invited to an internet workshop in Canada and decided to launch an internet service in Togo.

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