Tech Legends: Paul Jones, director of ibiblio.org and UNC web pioneer, reflects on emergence of the internet

Tech Legends: Paul Jones, director of ibiblio.org and UNC web pioneer, reflects on emergence of the internet

Editor’s note: This is the latest in WRAL TechWire’s exclusive “Tech Legends” series in which we profile men and women who have helped create the Research Triangle and North Carolina tech economies as we know them today. In their own ways, they also have been pioneers in the development of the internet – something few people knew anything about 30 years ago. 

CHAPEL HILL – First, “We form our tools, then our tools form us,” says Paul Jones, quoting Marshall McLuhan. Jones helped create and directed an Internet tool with 12 to 16 million transactions a day.

After 42 years as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jones,  who was director of  one of the largest “collections of collections” on the internet, ibiblio.org, has retired and has been named “Professor Emeritus.”

Jones caught laughing. Photo by Sylvia Freeman,

Founded at SunSite.unc.edu in 1992, the free online library, now known as ibiblio.org, was formed as a collaboration between the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill‘s MetaLab and the Center for the Public Domain in September of 2000.

It offers free software and information on topics that include music, literature, art, history, science, politics, and cultural studies. It has millions of worldwide transactions per day. It was also a pioneer in the development of Internet radio.

Today, ibiblio.org continues its role as a technology pioneer by expanding its realm from simply Web-based services. it is involved in Internet2 projects, 3-D environments and video archiving. It supports NASA educational videos and the streaming of seven not-for-profit radio stations. ibiblio.org is also involved in free software development directly,  as well as leadership in the Linux Documentation Project.

Jones launched the first UNC website, email service and Internet radio at station WXYC-FM. Two decades ago, many projects required some jury-rigging. To get the Internet radio up and running, they took a radio receiver and ran an antenna out a window and digitized the signal in the basement. “If you are the second to do something, it has to be better than the first, if you’re the tenth, it has to be much better. But if you’re the first at doing something, it just has to work,” Jones said.

He has noted that he prefers starting things to “fine-tuning them way down the line.”

More recently, Jones was an advisor on the Arch Mission Foundation Lunar Library project. The 30-million page library crash-landed on the moon containing Wikipedia, the Guttenberg Project, and more. Jones encouraged them to include material in languages other than English.

Paul Jones advised the Lunar Library mission. Photo courtesy of Paul Jones.

Like most of the NC Tech Legends we’ve profiled at WRAL Techwire, Jones has deep interests in the arts as well as technology and is a published poet. In addition to a BS in computer science from NC State University, he holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College. In an exclusive interview with TechWire, Jones said he took 20 years off from writing poetry to work on Internet projects.

His first chapbook, “What the Welsh and Chinese Have In Common,” was a North Carolina Writers’ Network publication winner. Jones is vice-chair of the network and helped form it 40 years ago and expects to be more involved again in retirement.

Jones’ reviews have been collected in Contemporary Literary Criticism (Gale) and some of his poems are collected in Best American Erotic Poetry: 1800 – Present (Scribners), and in 27 Views of Chapel Hill (Eno Publishers). He is a contributing editor to the Heath Anthology of American Literature.

Just said no to email

Jones famously quit using email in 2011 with a few exceptions and gave talks about better ways to communicate, among other topics, at many conferences and events. He was getting a lot of spam. He has said social media is better for communication.

He also prefers voice communication to text email or typing, and says he has several Google Home Devices throughout his home. He notes there are many options for communicating other than text or emails, ranging from Signal and Instagram to WhatsApp and Facebook’s messenger.

“Voice is driving everything, and that’s so much better,” he added.

Pushing further out, he noted that “Tech is beginning to invade us. We’re carrying electronics inside. Joint replacements. Small implants. Our bodies are becoming more like Telslas than say conventional automobiles.

Ever since studying computer science at NC State, Jones has been primarily interested in how tech changes people’s lives and jobs. “I was really more interested in how tech impacts people’s lives in a positive way. So much of his work focused on sharing information in various digital forms.

In retirement, the poet is likely to re-emerge. Two of his poems are in the current edition of South Writ Large. In July 2020, Unbroken will feature another two poems and theTriggerfish Critical Review will present three more.


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