Using A Library As An ISP In The 90’s

Ok, the picture is from about 2-3 years after what I’m about to write about, but it is close to the correct time period.

Back around 1995-1996, I didn’t have the money to pay for Internet access. It was dial-up and hourly. Now I could have been like some people I know and use borrowed AOL credentials to dial the 800 number, this number charged per minute. I didn’t do that. I had a shell account for a while at The Well but had to give that up due to funds. I logged into every BBS I could find locally and killed time that way to satisfy my drive of technology. It wasn’t enough though.

Then I found the backdoor I was looking for. I could get free Internet access at the library. This was in the days before it was a regular occurrence to use the library as your regular ISP. This was before the library even knew they had internet access. While always looking for new numbers to call with my modem, I found the dial-up number for the library the next town over. Most of the libraries were all partner libraries with the Cleveland library. This partnership was called Clevnet. I dialed this local number one day and noticed that there was a standard Gopher address at the bottom. For those that don’t understand what Gopher is, it was a markup protocol similar to what the web uses today. By modifying the address I had almost complete shell access to the system and access to Lynx (a text-based web browser).

I could telnet, FTP, and go to text-based web pages. Further testing showed that the line would disconnect you after an hour or two, but you could dial right back in. I never received a busy signal – so in essence this was an internet connection all to myself. You didn’t even have to log into it with your library card, because who would spend hours browsing a card catalog? I connected to chat accounts, and checked my email via an account I could telnet to. I could even download software slowly over this account. If I remember correctly I could download 5 megabytes to the library shell account and then download them to my computer from there. This was awesome for an internet-starved poor boy like me.

One day I was talking about it with a friend and he wanted to see it. I told him that since it was the standard card catalog software we should be able to access it at the local library. Along the way (the way teenagers tend to do), we picked up a friend that came along with us just to hang out. She didn’t care about computers but was there for the ride and wherever the wind would take her that day. When we got to the library I asked the librarian if there were plans to get a dial-up line for the internet there. She told me they didn’t have Internet at all within the library, but it was planned to have access at the library computers in the next 2-3 years. My friend started to correct her, but I gave him a kick and he shut up.

We wandered over to one of the computers that faced the bathrooms. I didn’t really care if a patron wandered by, but I didn’t want to get in trouble for exploiting a library computer. Our female friend then asked questions about what we doing. We explained it to her and at that point, I discover that her mother works for the library. This would have been pertinent information to know earlier. She swore she wouldn’t say anything, and we continued. I modified the address and there I was telnetting into a chat server I knew about. We were talking to people around the world. I checked my email (because it was something cool you could do before everyone had an email address). Then we logged off after about a half hour. I can say that I’m likely the first person to access the internet at the Vermilion Public Library outside of the card catalog. I’m sure the librarians thought it was so odd that three teenagers were spending so much time looking up a book on the computer.

I was using the dial-up daily for months. I assumed they had a bank of modems, but that proved wrong in the long run. A few months later I had a friend who complained that he hardly ever got a chance to talk to his sister in Hawaii. Phone calls were so expensive. His sister had internet access, but he didn’t even have a computer. So, out of extra parts I pieced together another computer and gave it to him. I taught him how to connect to the internet and he worked with his sister on how to use a chat site. Now, they could freely communicate.

I managed to get home that evening and the line was busy. Oops. Instead of a bank of modems, the library had a single one. I mean, how often and long were people going to log in to the card catalog from their computers? I spent the next month playing cat and mouse getting in. When I had the connection I monopolized it all I could. After that month I could hardly ever get in. The dream was over since I shared the information. Access to the internet was once again sporadic. I could have gone down to the library and done it from their computers – but I only ever did that one time. I had to now find another way to access the Internet. Eventually, I went through a few different methods of working outside of the system, and that led to actually paying for an account around 2001. I did scrape by purloining access somewhat regularly through different methods for five years, so I couldn’t complain. At 20.00 a month (which at the start wouldn’t even have been unlimited access only 20 hours a month) – I saved over 1200.00 and still had access. For those few months though with the library, it was my own private world.