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Distribution: Arch Linux 2007.05 "Duke" (Kernel 2.6.21)
Well, I always recommend Arch. Its a bit difficult to learn, but once you do - you actually know something. It's quick and lightweight as well. Paired with XFCE or fluxbox - That old desktop could just prove useful.
The extra 256 MB of memory is confirmed, making the total around 384 MB.
Also, I'm willing to learn; this PC will not (intially, at least) be connected to the internet, or be used for much in the way of multimedia. I plan to use it strictly to become comfortable with the command line and get started with a few fundamental languages like Python, Perl, etc.
Oh yeah, the hard drive is only 10 GB, though I've got an 80 gig backup, so no worries.
those specs should be enough to run any distro i would think. so you can try them out and see what you like. However if it is sluggish you can always go to dsl which can run on about anything. distrowatch
xpromisex - I could probably hook it up to broadband for the initial installation, but I'd like to keep the computer offline most of the time. Is internet access needed only for the installation of Arch Linux, or should I search for another distro if I won't have constant internet access?
Gentoo can run on any system as old as an 80386. It is easy to install, but tedious. Straight out of the box, Perl, Python, C, C++ is already installed and ready to interpret or compile your code. I suggest doing a stage 3 installation of Gentoo.
Arch doesn't require a constant connection but it's nice. Eg all the packages are hosted online (as is with most distros) and if you find something you want, it won't be on a CD around somewhere unless you download the repos on to DVD or something yourself.