Steve Cisler, sometimes referred to as the first “digital librarian,” led Apple Computer’s early grant program for libraries, where he funded projects connecting libraries to the Internet throughout North America, with a focus on under-resourced communities.
Cisler’s experience with libraries began when he started one at a school in Togo, Africa, where he served in the Peace Corps before joining the Coast Guard in the late 1960s. Then, after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a masters degree in library science, the Kentucky native began a career as a California librarian.
Although his work engaged him daily with the importance of connecting people to information and each other, Cisler himself didn’t use computers or grasp their power for bringing people together until he was in his forties. That began to change in 1985 when he had one of his first hands-on digital projects helping found the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL), which has become one of the oldest, continuously operated virtual communities.
In 1988, Apple tapped Cisler to serve as a senior scientist in its Advanced Technology Group, managing the Apple Library of Tomorrow (ALOT) grant program. ALOT’s goal was to support libraries with Internet connectivity ambitions but little funding. In addition to financial support, guided by Cisler’s deep understanding of the needs of libraries, ALOT also donated key Internet equipment and software.
Through Cisler’s tireless advocacy for public access to the Internet via libraries, however small or under-resourced they might be, ALOT brought the power of global connection to millions. While at Apple, and in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, Cisler also produced the pivotal conferences The Ties that Bind, bringing together librarians, teachers, politicians, and people active in community development to learn from each other and technology experts.
In 1998, Cisler stepped away from Apple to continue connecting communities, this time as a private consultant. His work focused on supporting the poorest populations around the world, from the U.S. Appalachian Mountain region to Uganda, Ecuador, Jordan, and Mexico. As a devout evangelist for equitable Internet access, Cisler understood the role wireless fidelity radio frequencies, or WiFi, could play in bringing the Internet to anyone. During his years as a consultant, he is credited with working with the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate the 802.11 standards underlying WiFi long before WiFi was a household word. This allowed more private companies to increase their investment in WiFi and price it competitively to encourage more users to get online. In a more frontline demonstration of the power of WiFi, Cisler brought the first WiFi service to the annual Burning Man art festival in 2004.
Having spent nearly 20 years working to bring the Internet to anyone who might need it, in 2004 Cisler went offline and took to the road. He crossed America and Mexico to learn about the lives of those who were not on the Internet, including how they used libraries and how they communicated. This final project, before his death in 2008, brought his career full circle, putting him in touch once again with the real-life communities he’d spent his life digitally connecting.