Susan Alman and Sandra Hirsh—like many people—couldn’t avoid news about blockchain in 2017. But it wasn’t all about Bitcoin. “There were interesting applications across numerous industries that piqued our interest,” says Hirsh, director of the San José State University (SJSU) School of Information.
That year, Alman, a lecturer at SJSU, and Hirsh secured an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to facilitate a national conversation on blockchain’s potential in libraries. By the time they hosted a national forum in summer 2018, cryptocurrency markets had soared and then tumbled, and the news had shifted to “crypto winter.”
But outside the cryptocurrency boom and bust, blockchain—the distributed, secure database structure underlying many cryptocurrencies—could prove useful for libraries, they thought. “There are credible examples of blockchain use for interlibrary loan, scholarly publishing, credentialing, and the development of a universal library card,” says Alman. “However, there is a need for model projects to be set up for beta testing, and that is the focus of the path forward.”
In order to get there, “there is a real need for training information professionals on what blockchain is, how it works, and how it could be applied in libraries,” says Hirsh.
So what is blockchain? “A blockchain is basically a distributed database where lots of different parties can read and write transactions to the database,” says Darra L. Hofman, a PhD candidate at University of British Columbia and researcher on archival applications of blockchain. “Instead of a third party checking those transactions, the blockchain has a built-in consensus mechanism that checks transactions to make sure they’re good (that I have the $20 I just tried to spend, for example).”
Transactions that pass get hashed—basically, assigned a digital fingerprint that identifies the transaction. Those validated transactions then get grouped together into a block, which is assigned its own hash. That hash becomes the first hash of the next block of transactions, linking them together in a chain.
“If everything works as it should,” says Hofman, “blockchains can theoretically give us a trustworthy database of good transactions without a human being or institution having to intervene to verify those transactions.”
What should librarians and library workers understand about blockchain technology? How will you train staff on blockchain concepts?
Hofman: What a particular librarian or library worker needs to know about blockchain technology is incredibly context-dependent; answering reference questions about Bitcoin requires an entirely different breadth and depth of knowledge from making decisions about a blockchain implementation to manage interlibrary loans. That said, as information professionals, everyone in the library world should have familiarity with what blockchain is because it’s likely to become increasingly common in spaces where parties have low trust but still want to cooperate. Perhaps the most important thing to know is that no one’s word in the blockchain space is gospel. Because this is such a new, evolving technology, we haven’t even agreed on what a blockchain is yet.
Kim: The decentralized nature of blockchain and the combination of transparency, security, and privacy that it offers without involving any third-party authority means it can impact many industries, ranging from educational credentialing to supply chain management. A deeper understanding can guide librarians and library workers toward seeing the potential of blockchain in librarianship and the information management industry. The easiest way to start engaging library staff would be to share introductory reading materials and have a group discussion about what each person found interesting and potentially useful. The discussion then can move into how blockchain could be used to benefit libraries.
What role can libraries play in educating their communities about this new technology?
Hess: At Palo Alto City Library, we are planning to embed blockchain into programs that have nothing to do with blockchain. We will teach about it by inadvertently solving a practical problem using blockchain, say, in a maker workshop where people need a way to share a digital object with a friend when no server is available to host the file.
Hofman: While there’s a lot of technological and mathematical complexity underlying blockchain, helping patrons learn about it is 100% within our capacity as information professionals. After all, not every librarian knows about diesel engines or TCP/IP protocols, but every librarian knows how to help patrons define their information needs and find the right sources to meet those needs. At the “intro to blockchain” level, libraries can bring in guest speakers, put together recommended reading lists, and integrate blockchain discussion into information literacy work. For libraries that have the resources and inclination, blockchain is also a good fit for lab- and makerspace-type initiatives, like walking people through coding a smart contract. A lot of education will also happen at the one-to-one reference interview level.
Kim: Blockchain technology can be introduced in multiple contexts depending on the interests of the community. At places where there are many senior citizens, the application of blockchain technology to electronic health records may draw attention. Blockchain can also be introduced as a technology that is driving a lot of tech start-ups, a field where more job opportunities are likely to appear. In a community where there’s interest in Bitcoin, libraries can explain how blockchain powers a cryptocurrency, show other digital currencies, and discuss how things would change if digital currencies become more common. For hands-on experience, a library can put together a class showing people how to set up and use a Bitcoin wallet.
Even those who own cryptocurrency may not fully understand how blockchains work. What resources can libraries use to introduce staff and patrons to blockchain concepts?
Hess: The best approach is to explain the concepts at the highest levels. People already understand concepts like ledgers, peer-to-peer networks, crowdsourced truth (like Wikipedia), and shared documents (like Google Docs). These are good metaphors to use when getting blockchain concepts across. Once people understand how all these ideas come together, they are in pretty good shape to explore blockchain-related services like the distributed web or blockchain identity management apps. These are easy to use in a standard browser or on a phone.
Hofman: For libraries with nearby universities, researchers love talking about their work. I’m always thrilled when one of the local public libraries asks me to come talk about blockchain. There are also a number of popular-press books that might be useful for people looking for an “intro to blockchain” beyond cryptocurrency, such as Blockchain Revolution, by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott (Portfolio, 2016).
Kim:Nowadays, a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin can be purchased from an ATM at a convenience store. Therefore, it is likely that more and more people will end up purchasing a type of cryptocurrency without understanding exactly how it works. For this reason, the more widely a cryptocurrency is purchased and circulated, the more education about blockchain technology will be needed. A good general introduction to the concept of blockchain that I recommend is “The Great Chain of Being Sure about Things” in The Economist from 2015.
Many people are skeptical about blockchain. How do you navigate a healthy skepticism amid the blockchain buzz?
Hofman: My work on blockchain isn’t about the really cool math underlying the cryptography or developing neat consensus mechanisms. My work is about understanding blockchain as a recordkeeping technology: How does this technology help protect (or conversely, undermine) people’s rights? How will we preserve these records in their context to ensure their ongoing availability for a variety of societal needs and purposes? What can blockchains help people do? What’s missing? These questions are prompted by the technology, but they’re fundamentally questions about people and information that we’ve been grappling with for millennia. When you look at blockchain, or really any technology, through that humanistic lens, then the naive techno-optimism that fuels the hype is a lot less powerful. The focus shifts from the super-cool technology to how we can really use this technology to help people.
Kim: Libraries are not here to convert people into blockchain enthusiasts or make them blockchain skeptics. They are here to equip people with sufficient knowledge and capability to tell useful and nonbiased information from a marketing or sales pitch. A library’s role in educating the public about blockchain is to help people understand both what it is capable of and what it cannot do, in order to empower people to make informed decisions should blockchain get adopted more widely in the future. These efforts ought to be combined with libraries’ ongoing mission of educating the public about information literacy.
Coward: Admittedly, blockchain is being touted as the new panacea, mostly because so few people understand the limitations as well as the capabilities of the technology. Many believe it’s a fad, a flash in the pan. Once the fervor dies down, technologists and enthusiasts will continue to put blockchain to use where it is most effective and transformational.
While blockchain is most commonly associated with cryptocurrency, applications have been proposed for rights management, fighting fake news, and managing health records. How might blockchain technology be used to solve problems libraries are facing today? What applications are libraries working on?
Hess: One area I am exploring is how blockchain can be used to enable community members to share things beyond the library walls. Conceptually, such a distributed, autonomous service could run on blockchain. People would interact with it as a distributed app on their devices, but underneath, it would be blockchain. This might seem threatening to many librarians, but it is a huge opportunity. In a sense, what we are talking about is infecting the internet with library values. How can that be bad?
Norman: Currently, library data is locked in various silos by vendors and by governance. Blockchain represents, in part, a shift to distributed recordkeeping and person-centered portfolios. Person-centered recordkeeping will provide benefits to individuals and allow the entities that serve them to quantify the cumulative value that is obtained from services for individuals and at scale across all users. The goal is to view library data seamlessly to gain more insights into library value. A blockchain-based distributed data management solution would perhaps enable us to access data more easily across the library landscape.
Hofman: Some of the library-specific applications being explored include interlibrary loan, identity management, and institutional repositories and research workflows. In other words, cases where parties who don’t necessarily have an established relationship all need to be able to read and write related transactions on a database and to be able to trust those transactions. Blockchains’ affordances, including tamper-resistance, disintermediation, and distributed architecture and redundancy, point to similar problems in both the archives and library spaces: those thorny cases where you have low trust between parties who nonetheless want to interact but where you would like to avoid the costs and delays of a third-party intermediary.
Kim: Managing digital rights, preserving historic documents and records accurately without corruption, and securing sensitive, private, or credential-related information are areas of interest to many libraries. These are also areas where blockchain can bring benefits, such as increased security, privacy, or efficiency, and blockchain applications are currently being developed and tested in these areas outside of libraries. It is possible that some of those blockchain applications will also meet the needs of and be used by libraries.
Coward: In academic libraries, blockchain technology is directly applicable to the peer-review process and for chain of custody for digital repositories. In corporate, government, or other special libraries where security is paramount, blockchain is applicable in a wide variety of information-sharing scenarios within an organization, especially if that information is restricted or classified.
What factors should libraries consider before implementing a blockchain project internally?
Hess: To build blockchain services, you need programmers, solid project management teams, and well-paid visionaries on your staff. Many libraries, even big systems, do not do software development well. For this reason, most libraries would be better served approaching blockchain in one of three ways. The first option is to enter this space through existing services others have built for you, like the InterPlanetary File System. Another option is to delegate your project to a grant-funded nonprofit. The third is to stick to introducing blockchain concepts in tech programs, lectures, and community conversations.
Norman: Delaware is a small state and we depend on our vendors to develop new technologies for us. The library profession generally is also small, with a limited amount of value for vendors to invest and innovate on our behalf. For us to innovate ourselves would take a lot more resources, time, attention, and expertise than we have. Libraries should agree on what’s needed and speak with one voice to vendors. Blockchain solutions for data alignment might be more affordable and faster to implement and help ensure patron access and privacy over time.
Kim: Blockchain is not the only way to keep private or sensitive data securely and transparently. Blockchain’s decentralized mechanisms also make it slow and costly to implement and maintain. There are many other solutions that are faster and cheaper. If achieving data integrity, transparency, and long-term preservation by virtue of technical implementation alone—without relying on any third-party authority—is of paramount importance for a project, then blockchain would be a great fit. Embarking on an internal blockchain project would be an investment for libraries, so they need to carefully examine if a given project requires decentralization as a higher priority than speed or implementation cost.
Coward: I would go through a series of questions. First, what problem is the library trying to solve? Second, is blockchain really the right technology to solve the problem? Third, do you have someone already on staff with the technical know-how to create and upload to a block? And fourth, do you have someone on staff who’s able to maintain the system? If the answers to two, three, or four are no, then reconsider your approach. Any technology should facilitate and make a process more efficient.
What are some of the potential drawbacks of using blockchain technology?
Hess: Early on, many blockchain solutions will be attempted for problems that can be done just as well with standard software. Blockchain has some limitations that, if not considered, could mean wasted money and projects that do not pan out. The blockchain story is a long-term journey. Many lessons need to be learned still.
Hofman: One of the biggest drawbacks of blockchain technology is that it’s still very high up in the hype cycle, so it requires a good bit of thought and time investment to determine if a solution can actually deliver what an organization needs. Blockchain also heightens problems of “never forgetting” that the internet has brought to the fore. Transactions recorded on the blockchain are supposed to be immutable. What happens when that immutable data is wrong and needs to be corrected? How do we square that immutability with things like the General Data Protection Regulation, which provides for a right to erasure? When you consider how quickly “anonymized” data is becoming identifiable (or re-identifiable) with things like Big Data analytics and the ever-growing cache of auxiliary information being collected, then the idea of an immutable cache of personal information is obviously problematic. How to manage that problem is less a technological question and more a question of values, priorities, and needs.
Kim: Blockchain has a real potential to bring more efficiency and security. At the same time, if one party or individual gains control of more than half of a blockchain’s verifiers, they can rig the consensus mechanism, called a “51% attack.” This will completely undermine the promised security of a blockchain system. Currently, running a blockchain also requires a huge amount of computing power, which is a real environmental and economic concern. In addition, data stored in a blockchain is permanently inaccessible if the owner forgets her or his private key, because the system operates without any third-party authority to restore the key. The lack of interoperability between different blockchain systems and the difficulty in scaling with large amounts of data are other potential drawbacks, although these may be solved in the near future.
Coward: It’s a specific tool for a specific job, so carefully consider your resources before diving headlong into a project. Don’t assume it will be easy to create and maintain. It’s like any open source technology: You need staff with technology skills to keep this thing afloat.
Do you foresee blockchain technology—particularly its ability to facilitate transactions without third parties—changing the role of libraries? How so?
Hofman: I’m not convinced that blockchain will change what we do so much as how we do it. While librarians and archivists have always required an array of technical skills, our work lies at the intersection of information and people. Ultimately, the thing that makes one a professional is judgment. While blockchains might automate some of what we do, I would argue that the work that makes us library professionals or archival professionals is that messy, fraught, contingent work that relies on judgment, wisdom, understanding, and, ultimately, our humanity, and that work should never be automated.
Kim: Libraries do handle transactions, such as circulation, room bookings, workshop registrations, payments of fines, and so on, that could be facilitated on a blockchain. However, these are only a small part of what libraries do. Public education and community outreach, support, and advocacy take up a larger role than any of these transactions. I don’t think blockchain technology will change the role of libraries.
Coward: It may enable certain libraries to expand their service offerings to include anything that involves the secure porting of information or other assets in a linear fashion in a distributed network: passport and visa processing; academic or scientific peer review; chain of custody for medical, legal, or other sensitive information; and perhaps international interlibrary loan borrowing and fee payments. It will definitely show administrators and the public at large that libraries continue to embrace cutting-edge technologies that make patron and user lives easier and more enriched.
Hess: One of the killer applications of blockchain is how it revolutionizes trust. It enables total strangers to exchange things without trusting one another. You do not need an intermediary referee, like a library, to govern the sharing of things like books, tools, or services. It could greatly limit the role of integrated library systems or revolutionize how cataloging works. There is the potential for some very disruptive changes to the way libraries operate.
Learn more: SJSU will be hosting a six-week MOOC, Blockchain and Decentralization for the Information Industry, March 11–April 21. ALA Editions will release Blockchain, the third book in its Library Futures series, this spring.
51% attack: If more than half of the parties verifying a transaction are controlled by the same entity (or group of entities with a common interest), they can rewrite parts of the blockchain and hijack transactions.
Consensus mechanisms: How a blockchain’s rules are enforced and how a block gets written to the chain. Proof-of-work is a common consensus mechanism in the largest cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin and Ether). It relies on computers doing complicated calculations in order to secure the right to write to the chain and receive a small cryptocurrency reward. Many other consensus mechanisms exist, including proof-of-stake, proof-of-asset, and proof-of-storage, along with more centralized mechanisms with named approvers, which are more common in private blockchains.
Cryptocurrencies: Digital currencies that use encryption to verify and secure transactions and manage the amount of currency in circulation without centralized control. Most (but not all) cryptocurrencies operate on blockchain technology.
Decentralized application (dapp): Blockchain-enabled software systems that provide a user interface, often websites. Instead of running on a single server, dapps run on multiple nodes on the blockchain using smart contracts.
Hash: An algorithmically assigned key that identifies a piece of data but cannot be used to reproduce it. Hash algorithms are frequently used to verify the integrity of files, check passwords, and identify files.
InterPlanetary File System (IPFS): A file transfer protocol (like HTTP) designed for peer-to-peer sharing of content. It uses the Ethereum blockchain to store unalterable information. Plus, a blockchain-based cryptocurrency, Filecoin, is being created to incentivize hosting IPFS content.
Private and public keys: Private keys and public keys together identify a user’s cryptocurrency wallet. The private key as a kind of password, and the public key acts as an address. The private key cannot be changed and, if lost, renders the currency in the wallet unusable.
Smart contract: A piece of executable code on the blockchain. Can function like a simple program, sending payments when certain conditions are met, or perform more complicated functions like managing agreements between users. Ethereum, the blockchain platform that powers the cryptocurrency Ether, is designed for executing smart contracts.