December 10, 2017

SJSU-Led Team Explores Blockchain in Libraries

San Jose State University and IMLS logosA group led by San José State University iSchool (SJSU) Director Sandra Hirsh and SJSU lecturer Susan Alman is exploring how the library field could use blockchain, the open source, secure distributed database system originally developed to validate and record Bitcoin cryptocurrency transactions. Funded with a recent $100,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), SJSU is planning an online Library 2.0 conference on the topic on June 7, 2018, and a Blockchain National Forum gathering library leaders, blockchain innovators, and urban planners for mid-2018. This month, the project also launched Blockchains for the Information Profession, a new website that will serve as a landing spot for ideas, conversation, and education on the topic, as well as information about the upcoming conference and forum.

“We’re bringing together people who know about blockchain technology, who know about urban planning, who know about technology in libraries, and anybody who has lots of ideas, to have a discussion [about whether] blockchain can be used within our profession, and if so, how? And what will be our priorities?” Alman explained.

At the most fundamental level, a blockchain is a ledger with transaction and ownership information—who has what, and who gave what to whom. When this information involves assets such as money or property, consensus regarding the accuracy of the data is obviously crucial, as is the need for security to prevent tampering.

Blockchain ensures consensus and security via distributed peer-to-peer networks. To use Bitcoin as an example, when a user makes a transaction, a request is broadcast to a network of computers and specialized machines (popularly known as Bitcoin miners). Those computers then validate the transaction and update any affected accounts. Batches of these validated transactions then are encoded into an encrypted “block,” which also includes data linking it to the prior block, forming a chain of current and historical data stored in redundant copies on nodes throughout the network. The decentralized process and the transparency of the data to users throughout the network make tampering virtually impossible.

In a 2015 editorial titled “The Trust Machine,” The Economist praised blockchain as a technology that “lets people who have no particular confidence in each other collaborate without having to go through a neutral central authority,” and riffed on the technology’s potential beyond Bitcoin, noting that it could be used to make “cheap, tamper-proof public databases” for land registries or works of art, or to implement business rules, such as transactions that require the endorsement of two or more parties. More recently, PC Magazine this summer noted that blockchain “has applications across every kind of digital record and transaction, and we’re already beginning to see major industries leaning into the shift.”

As industries, businesses, and government organizations consider ways to use this technology, libraries should be ready to join the conversation, Alman said. She noted that the city of Dubai, UAE, in March announced a partnership with IBM and ConsenSys to oversee the migration of all of the city’s government processes—including tourism, health authority, and police agencies—to blockchain systems. Similarly, Alman said that the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology this year launched the Illinois Blockchain Initiative, which has been exploring the use of blockchain for validating academic credentials, registering health providers, securing vital records, and more. Familiarity with the technology will be important for libraries if these types of municipal and state projects proliferate.

“I think libraries need a seat at the table,” Alman said.

Potential usage scenarios for libraries are listed on the new website “to get the conversation started.” These include:

  • A permissionless, distributed metadata system that libraries could access for free—a “blockchain OCLC” as the site describes it.
  • A blockchain-driven digital rights management (DRM) system to verify ownership of digital assets. Potentially, this could help libraries in the ongoing effort to define and secure digital first sale rights. It could also enable libraries to host peer-to-peer digital sharing networks.
  • Creating a protocol to support community-based collections and borrowing. This type of system could keep track of the ownership and lending status of items shared throughout a community, from tools to cars to expertise.
  • Working with the open-source InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol across a network of libraries.
  • Partnering with museums, universities, government agencies, and other organizations to share MARC records, authority control, and user-generated content using a blockchain framework.
  • Developing a “badging” system that uses blockchain to record and authenticate skills that patrons or staff acquire via training programs.

Questions regarding network infrastructure may be addressed as well. Bitcoin’s blockchain is maintained by a network of thousands of computers, and individual owners of these machines are paid in Bitcoin for the use of their computing power and electricity. So, there is a financial incentive for participating in the network. However, municipal projects and library projects won’t have this advantage. And while library blockchain projects are unlikely to approach the scale of a global cryptocurrency, creating a distributed network needed to maintain any blockchain project may require ongoing commitments from several institutions.

Alman said that the goal of this initiative is to generate discussion and produce a set of recommendations regarding the viability and potential application of the technology within the library field. She encouraged anyone who is interested to check out the site, register for the online conference, submit presentation proposals, or contribute to the conversation via the site’s blog.

The site includes a curated selection of links to articles and abstracts regarding blockchain technology, and is designed “for somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about blockchain, but is interested,” as well as people with an advanced knowledge of the topic. “Anybody is welcome to come and explore,” Alman said.

In addition to principal investigators Hirsh and Alman, IMLS advisory committee members for the project include Miguel Figueroa, executive director, ALA Center for the Future of Libraries; Jason Griffey, fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University; Ryan Hess, library services manager, Digital Initiatives, Palo Alto City Library, CA; Amy Garmer, director, Dialogue on Public Libraries for The Aspen Institute; Christinger Tomer, associate professor, School of Computing and Information, University of Pittsburgh; Nadar Afzalan, chair of the Technology Division for the American Planning Association; and Alessandro Voto, regional director for ConSensys West. SJSU iSchool technology support Bob Lucore worked with iSchool students Christina Cornejo and Stacey Johnson to design the new site.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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