Published: Sunday, January 28, 2001 7:44 a.m. EST

-- Paul Jones, In The Right Place At The Right Time --

The Renaissance geek


CHAPEL HILL - What gives Paul Jones away is his laugh. Up until the point of laughter, however, he's pretty suave. He'll be holding forth about some hybrid of computers, poetry, teaching; eloquently explaining why people should be more willing to share knowledge, whether it's music or software or recipes; seamlessly working in quotations from the U.S. Constitution, Walt Whitman, "Citizen Kane" -- and punctuating it all with his short, sharp, startling snort of a laugh whenever he thinks something is funny. Which is quite often.

"Teaching is not, as one idiot once put it, about getting facts from my head into yours," Jones says, and laughs. "It's about trying to make people leave your class with the ability to be smarter than you are -- which is, um, easier for some of us than others." And he laughs again.

Jones' laugh brings to mind ... well, honestly, the word "geek." As in "computer geek." It makes perfect sense that he used to co-write a high-tech advice column for this newspaper called "Stump The Geeks."

But Jones isn't just any geek. He's a veritable Renaissance geek of the Internet, a person whose wide-ranging interests go far beyond computers. The World Wide Web owes much of its structure to people who were in the right place at the right time with the right mindset and made the most of the opportunity.

For Jones, who is 50, that all came together at the University of North Carolina, where he has parlayed his generalist's curiosity into one of the biggest interchanges on the information superhighway. From a modest office in Manning Hall on the Chapel Hill campus, Jones runs UNC's ibiblio (, an online archive formerly known as SunSITE and MetaLab.

A "collection of collections," ibiblio is a wide-ranging Smithsonian-like storehouse that has a little of everything -- from KGB archives to Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Roger McGuinn's "Folk Den" Web site. If you've got something unusual that you want to share with the world, chances are that ibiblio will put it online for you.

Along with overseeing ibiblio, Jones writes poetry and teaches at UNC (journalism and information/library sciences, mostly). He also spends a lot of time evangelizing about the Internet, talking up the open-source gospel of the free flow of information. That gives him occasion to hobnob with politicians, poets and, of course, other geeks.

Jones certainly does get around. His online biography says, "He can be found many places on the Internet." Click on the link, and a list of 318 pages comes up.

Talk to people who know the Internet, and they know Jones' work. One champion is Bob Young, co-founder of Red Hat, whose nonprofit Center for the Public Domain foundation gave ibiblio a $4 million grant last fall.

"I was at the University of Singapore last March, and they were wanting to know how to make themselves a hotbed of technology," Young recalls. "One guy asked, 'What can we do in Singapore to create a resource such as the famous UNC MetaLab project?' Which was fascinating to me, that the University of Singapore understood the significance of Paul's work across the Internet. Paul is a true visionary and a pioneer."

Jones himself describes his working life in more modest terms.

"It's sort of like an Andy Warhol movie without the sex and drugs," he says. "Basically, I answer e-mail, talk on the phone too much, meet with students, meet with faculty and get very little done."

Somehow, enough gets done to make ibiblio one of the busiest sites on the Internet. Between its software archive, streaming the university's WXYC-FM radio station (the world's first continuous Internet radio station, according to Jones) and various collections, ibiblio serves up more than 3 million files per day to users all over the world.

Call Jones in his office, while he's at the computer, and the conversation will probably be as non-linear and hyper-linked as the Internet itself. Surfing the Web as he cradles the phone receiver, he'll offer tips about goofy Web sites (check out sometime) while chatting about the difference between copyright and copyleft, or the Richard Brautigan poem "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace."

"I have other things that have nothing to do with computers, and I try to know what goes on in the world around me," he says. "Plants, animals, stars. You know, the things in 'What A Poet Should Know' --some of all the great, great works from every major country, the names of 100 plants within a mile of your house, 50 different animals and insects, phases of the moon, all the stars you can see three times a year. That got easier once I started wearing glasses."

Jones' manner is an amusing combination of self-deprecating humor and ego. His online biography at a survey where you can vote for which celebrity Jones most closely resembles. The 13 choices include NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, new-age keyboardist Yanni and the figure on the Shroud of Turin. For accompaniment, the text of Whitman's "Song of Myself" scrolls by on the bottom.

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself..."

A likable fellow

Ask Paul Jones how he's doing and he'll invariably answer, "I'm happy and I love everybody." Perhaps that accounts for the fact that even people who disagree with Jones seem to like him personally.

Poet Betty Adcock, for example, is a self-described Luddite who refuses to own or even go near computers. Yet she and Jones are good friends, even if they spend a lot of time arguing. In 1998, they co-authored a magazine piece headlined "In Search of the Poetry in Technology: An Amicable Debate."

"Oh, we've been having this fight over computers for years," Adcock says, half laughing and half sighing. "We'll get on the phone about something else, and inevitably it comes up. But Paul has one foot in my world, even if I don't have one in his. He is very much a poet who has written some very un-computer-geek poems -- very lyrical, beautiful, involved with the natural world and natural imagery."

For example, Jones' poem "Against Morning" from the collection "What the Welsh and Chinese Have In Common":

All night the sun has waited

to bring this lace of light;

color comes to the room

without grace and too soon

we see too well to dream;

mystery was our aim --

it left no room for sleep;

now in the tangle of sheets,

we are still and touching;

we trust so much in things

we must lose in daylight;

you move and bright bands

bend on your back; the blinds

keep in what days lack."

"You never know what he'll say," Adcock says. "Paul is like no one else, truly. I suspect a lot of people who are totally into computers write what they call 'poetry,' and I'll tell you that very few of them do. But Paul Jones does write poetry."

Neither Jones nor Adcock won the in-print "Amicable Debate" about computers. You could say that Jones had the last laugh, however. One of Adcock's poems subsequently wound up on the Web, even though she says she didn't want it there.

"Paul happened onto that and called me up just chortling, 'I never thought I'd see the day,'" Adcock says. And she laughs at the memory in spite of herself.

The human connection

Poetry provided Jones with the introduction to his wife of 10 years, Sally Greene, whom he met in a UNC poetry class. Greene is a lawyer, and also president of the Virginia Woolf Society. She is Jones' third wife, and the couple have one son, 7-year-old Tucker. Being a father means that Jones writes fewer poems nowadays, but he doesn't seem to mind the tradeoff.

"Writing is very solitary, you have to get into a reflective space," Jones says. "So do I want to shut the door and let my mind settle down, or go interact with this really cool new human being? It's no choice for me. I've used a lot of my time up already, I didn't become a father until I was 42. So I can't say this child is stealing my freedom or my youth. I already squandered that ruthlessly. I've got 20 years in the bank of not being responsible for anyone but myself.

"At my age," he concludes, "I'm thankful for the opportunity to have kids and be around them, so I don't feel compelled to keep being one myself."

Poetry is also partly responsible for the gadfly aspect of Jones' career. He says he learned public-speaking from doing poetry readings in bars and nightclubs, often for people who weren't particularly interested in listening to him.

That will come in handy this December morning. Jones is at UNC's Friday Center to deliver the keynote address to Carolina Technology Consultants' annual retreat. He looks very dressed-down professorial -- jeans, tweed blazer, penny loafers. He's here to give what he calls "the 'Mr. Rogers' talk on why sharing is good for you."

This conference, however, is about how to preserve and protect information, meaning that the audience is a potentially hostile one. As Jones points out, "My version of 'protection' is to have thousands of copies of everything out there."

Fortunately, an ice-breaker materializes almost as soon as he is introduced. Jones is just launching into his spiel, when a ringing cell phone out in the audience interrupts.

"Oh, I like this," he says. "I'm glad I'm at a geek conference. That's almost musical. How many people out there can identify their own?"

Tension broken, the talk goes well. The 150 people there listen attentively, laugh at his jokes and do not throw things.

"I try to do these things with a tone that lets people participate and take it in," Jones says afterward. "It's hard for people to be hostile to this sharing message of mine. They can be incredulous, sure, they can think I'm full of it. But it's obvious on its face why they should. I'm speaking to the Southern Presses Association in February, and I'm sure they'll be pissed."

Maybe the toughest crowd Jones ever faced was at a conference in Colorado a few years back. He spoke on a panel about music copyrights in the Internet age with record executive Don Grusin and drummer/composer Leo Sidran. That made for some contentious exchanges.

"Grusin was calling people who downloaded his music 'pirates,'" Jones recalls. "And I'd tell him, 'They're your fans, and love should be flowing between you.' I put it to him like this: What if there's a bunch of people somewhere playing folk music, making and sharing it; then somebody comes in and records them, and makes money off them with a commercial product. Who is stealing the soul of whom?"

Jones pauses to laugh.

"He'd never actually read copyright law, so I just kept quoting the Constitution," he says. "Article I, Section 8. I don't think I changed his mind, but we still have an e-mail correspondence."

A geek is born

Given his combination of somewhat ungainly physical build and quirky mindset, Jones was probably doomed to be a computer geek. Sports weren't really an option ("I was always picked last and never knew what the game was," he says), although he did play on the state championship soccer team at East Mecklenburg High School in the late '60s. Then again, there were only a half-dozen public high school soccer teams in the state back then.

"We had a hilarious team," he says. "It was made up of Yankees who'd transferred down, Cuban immigrants and exchange students, people whose grades weren't good enough to stay on the football team, and people like me who thought it would be nice to play a sport even though we were genetically predisposed against it."

Jones was born in Hickory and grew up in Charlotte, the oldest of five children. After high school, he went on to what he calls "Nerd Heaven," N.C. State University. He enrolled in 1968, back when every incoming freshmen had to have a slide rule.

Having founded an underground newspaper in high school, Jones was interested in writing. But in those pre-spellcheck days, his dyslexia (and poor handwriting) ruled out English as a major. So he went into computer science instead.

"They had no idea what they were teaching us, really," Jones says. "It was part of the applied math program. I'd go over to the basement of the textile building with these punch cards. I was so dyslexic, it took hours and hours. Students now have no clue about the old days. They've never seen a punch card. 'Do not fold, spindle or mutilate' means nothing to them."

Jones got his undergraduate degree in computer science from N.C. State in 1972, and came to UNC as a systems programmer in 1978. This was in the days before electronic mail, which Jones helped get up and running at UNC in the mid-'80s. That involved writing some of the interface for UNC's campuswide e-mail system -- and talking everyone into using it.

"I had to explain why you wouldn't just shout down the hall," Jones says. "The early buy-ins were the people who needed to do business overseas. There was one political science professor who went to Spain on a NATO leave. At first his students went bananas, thinking that would put their careers on hold. But after the first two weeks, they didn't want him to come back. With e-mail and the time difference, he got back to them about their papers much faster."

At one point, UNC did have a transitional "paper e-mail" system for faculty members who didn't want to be on the university's electronic mail system. E-mail messages sent to those people's addresses were printed on paper, put in envelopes and delivered the next day.

"One faculty member had a nice conference where she met a nice guy in England," Jones recalls. "She was embarrassed to tell him she didn't have e-mail. So she gave him this paper-mail address, he sent e-mail -- and of course, the printer jammed. So here Mr. Right was writing to her, she couldn't get the message and I had to come fix it. She made me promise I wouldn't read it, but of course I had to; only way to figure out which one was hers."

By the early 1990s, the World Wide Web was growing. Jones turned UNC into one of its major outposts with SunSITE, which started up in 1992 with funding from Sun Microsystems "to share software and things of interest."

At the time, Jones says, UNC was the only institution outside of high-energy physics projects to have its own Web server. The Internet consisted of a dozen computer bulletin boards and fewer than 200 discussion newsgroups. SunSITE had acres of digital space but not much material. So Jones kept an eye out for material to put online.

"This was during the 1992 election, and we noticed that one presidential candidate was putting all his speeches and position papers on Internet newsgroups," Jones says. "That was Bill Clinton. So we got his campaign to send us all his stuff so we could index it and make it searchable. We tried the other candidates, too. Bush grudgingly sent a few things, Perot gave us an 800 number. But Clinton just sent tons of stuff every day, even though people who didn't like him could use what we were doing to find out mean things about him. And they did."

After Clinton won the presidency, SunSITE helped design and develop a White House Web site and put a number of federal departments online. Jones got to visit the White House and meet Socks, the first cat. While he was there, he also picked up a couple of mugs that said "Secret Service" at the gift shop.

MetaLab morphs

After parting ways with Sun, SunSITE became MetaLab in 1997. Jones found the new name to be problematic in at least one way, however.

"MetaLab was a wonderful name chosen by a near-genius -- me," he says. "But because I'm dyslexic, it used to come out as 'meatball' all the time when I'd try to type it."

That problem was finally solved last September, when MetaLab was rechristened ibiblio with the $4 million grant from the Red Hat-affiliated Center for the Public Domain. Ibiblio's main mission is to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, including computer software.

The ibiblio software archive allows users to download, share and tinker with Linux, an open-source operating system that competes with Unix and Microsoft's Windows NT. A message on ibiblio's Linux page urges visitors, "Think of us as your free public library of Linux software."

"I own some intellectual property, make some money from writing," Jones says. "But I'm also in the luxurious position of being paid by the state of North Carolina to help create, organize and disseminate knowledge for the betterment of the world. It's OK to own things, but sometimes there's greater social and personal utility in sharing. It's better to share things than to lock 100 top-line coders in a room in Seattle to write code but not let anyone else have it. You know, maybe Microsoft shouldn't dictate everything you do."

Disseminating knowledge also involves passing on this open-source mindset to future generations. Jones cultivates students through jobs with ibiblio, and keeps up with them after they graduate. One of his acolytes is Max Leach -- with whom Jones got off to a rough start.

Leach was a sophomore at UNC in 1991, when he started a poetry magazine. Jones submitted some poetry, which Leach rejected, enclosing a stick of gum with the rejection letter. Jones didn't much like that, and fired back a letter telling Leach where he could put that stick of gum.

A series of prank letters ensued, which included Jones' writing a letter posing as Leach's father (he used the Greensboro return address of Leach's dad); and Leach writing back posing as the secret lover of Jones' wife. Realizing that they were kindred spirits, Jones and Leach eventually became friends.

Leach accepted an alternate selection of Jones' poetry for his magazine, and Jones hired Leach to run a computer bulletin board. As a poetry student, Leach knew very little about computers. But he fit the idiosyncratic profile Jones looks for -- "talented, smart, wacky" -- and a career was born. Leach now works for MTV handling the network's e-commerce division, which, Jones cracks, Leach "will pay for in several after-lives."

"Paul is the reason I'm employed right now doing something besides teaching English as a second language," Leach says. "He's an amazing guy. His management style is perfect for students, he gives you the freedom to do what you want. Sometimes, that amounts to enough rope. But he's always got crazy people doing interesting things, and he's cultivated a lot of amazing people.

"He was doing Internet research stuff in this tiny little office for years, and nobody cared. Now he's THE Internet guy. To do what he's done within the bureaucracy of the school system, you'd have to have the patience of a saint. He does. I'm a big fan."

Staff writer David Menconi can be reached at 829-4759 or


© Copyright 2000, The News & Observer. All material found on is copyrighted The News & Observer and associated news services. No material may be reproduced or reused without explicit permission from The News & Observer.