Association of College & Research Libraries

Time to put the Internet in perspective

By Kristin Jacobsen

The Internet may seem new, but it began over 30 years ago

The Internet has virtually exploded into the public consciousness in the last few years.

It has made the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and countless other newspapers, and it has been featured as the cover story in Time, Business Week, the Nation, and the New Republic. Those who had never heard of the Internet before last year might be- lieve, incorrectly, that it is essentially an overnight success, a concep- tion that could lead to a faulty understanding of the Internet. To help our patrons at Northwestern University Libraries have a more accurate mental model of the Internet, I created an Internet time- line that illustrates the major events shaping its development.

Most media portrayals of the Internet focus on its possibilities and applications, a valid strategy when trying to explain an unknown and powerful phenomenon. Many mention that this network of networks started as a Department of Defense project to design a decentralized communications network that could withstand nuclear attack. They normally do not have the space, however, to describe its evolution over the course of more than 30 years. In the decades of this evolution, the original ARPANET has grown far beyond its original purpose. It has been shaped and molded by its users to meet far different needs than originally envi- sioned, a process that continues today in many ways.

This timeline originally served as background material during a one-hour presentation at an alumni continuing education program and later at a workshop for graduate management stu- dents on business uses of the Internet. We have also made it available in the Reference Department’s Electronic Reference Center, along with a selection of books and journals on the Internet and on information technology.

Many events could be included in a time- line about the development of the Internet. I decided that important aspects to concentrate on were the exponential growth of the Internet; the creation of major structural elements and navigational tools such as gopher, Veronica, and Mosaic; examples of legislation concerning the Internet; and other events that have had an impact on the Internet or that came about because of it.

As we continue to explore ways to demystify the Internet, we look to put it in a context that makes sense in our patrons’ lives. We want patrons to understand not only what the Internet is, but how it developed, where it is going, and what significance it will have for them and for society as a whole. I hope that this timeline provides the beginnings of a framework for understanding the Internet and its impact on society.

Those who had never heard of the Internet before last year might believe, incorrectly, that it is essentially an overnight success.

Kristin Jacobsen is management reference librarian at Northwestern University; e-mail:


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