The Blockchain: What It Is and How It Can Benefit Libraries (Part Two)

Encryption, Libraries and Data, Privacy, Technology

By: guest blogger Shawn Demerjian

(This is the second and final post of a two-part series on the blockchain and libraries. Click here to read part one.)

A smartphone sits on a table next to an open book. A pair of eyeglasses rests on the book.In the last post, we discussed the origins of blockchain technology, provided some detail into how it actually works, and listed some potential applications relevant to the library and information services profession. We’re now going to take a closer look at these (along with some important additions), briefly talk about the different types of blockchains that exist (yes, there is more than one blockchain), and discuss some of the issues and limitations.

There’s More Than One Blockchain

Just as there are multiple blockchain applications, there are also different types of blockchains. These can be generally viewed as either public and “permissionless” (participation is open to anyone) versus private and “permissioned” (participants are approved). More accurately, this can be broken down into four main categories: public, private, semi-private, and consortium. The most widely-known public blockchains include famous crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. Private blockchains are controlled by a single entity or institution, analogous to an organization’s private intranet. Semi-private blockchains are an extension of that, with participation granted to outsiders based on agreed-upon protocols. The Cook County, IL pilot project (referenced in the previous post) is one such example. The fourth type, consortium blockchains, consist of a group of companies, organizations, or institutions all acting as participatory members within a closed system. These function in a similar manner to the regional library consortia we see across the globe.

Trust and Identity

A fingerprint overlaid with 1's and 0's.One important component of many blockchain applications are smart contracts, self-executing transactional agreements converted to computer code, obviating the need for a middleman. A more thorough definition, as outlined by legal scholars, states that a smart contract is “an automatable and enforceable agreement. Automatable by computer, although some parts may require human input and control. Enforceable either by legal enforcement of rights and obligations or via tamper-proof execution of computer code.”

Another component worth mentioning is that of digital identification. Personal digital blockchain IDs would allow for individuals to control what they may wish to share on a “need to know” basis. They would send whatever identifying details are necessary to a commercial or governmental entity temporarily, only for purposes of authentication (and nothing more). The individual would then take that ID or “proof” and put it back into their virtual “wallet.” For example, someone could apply for a library card where all that is needed is confirmation of age and residency–without needing to disclose address, gender, or other irrelevant data.

On a larger scale beyond individuals, work is being done by organizations such as Techruption Blockchain in the Netherlands in the area of privacy-preserving analytics, defined as “focusing on the possibilities to do analysis on combined data sets of different organizations, without the input data being revealed to one of the participating organizations, as the data stays encrypted while doing the analysis.”

Blockchain Applications for Libraries

An extremely useful summary showcasing a test-bed of ideas can be found at the website for San Jose State University’s iSchool (who also just hosted a virtual mini-conference). The following list is hardly exhaustive, but still provides a good starting point.

Easier sharing of digital assets between libraries and/or consortia   

The consortium blockchain model would allow for academic, law, medical, and other research libraries to share information and associated digital assets without loss of control. Distributed ledger technology has the potential to be a successor to current Digital Rights Management infrastructure.

Metadata improvements   

San Jose State’s iSchool describes this as follows:

“Building a distributed, permission-less metadata archive has perhaps the most disruptive potential. Because blockchains operate as a type of informational ledger that don’t require a centralized gatekeeping organization, they could be used to build a truly distributed metadata system for libraries and related organizations. A blockchain OCLC, if you will.”

Digital “chains of custody” to safeguard against data censorship   

Harvard Business Review published an article last year titled “Using Blockchain to Keep Public Data Public” following the Trump administration’s decision to eliminate the White House’s open data. The author of that piece also referenced a Wired article about a “hackathon” held at UC Berkeley to save federal climate data from being permanently lost. Blockchain technology has the potential to allow for such data to be safeguarded against politically-motivated acts of censorship.

Greater civic engagement   

In the physical world, the City of Columbus, OH recently established “Internet Purchase Exchange Zones” for residents to safely conduct transactions originated online. Libraries could act as facilitators of transactions in the virtual world via a blockchain. Other ways to engage with the public could include having libraries certify electronic skills badges / credentials earned by patrons, or even allowing for a portion of collection development to be decided via blockchain “voting” tokens.

Issues and Limitations

Blockchain development has hardly been obstacle-free, with many calling it “a solution looking for a problem.” And while encryption protections are at its very core, there are still security issues that need further investigation, in addition to issues such scalability and complexity. As with any new innovations, this should still not deter us from further research, and to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Amara’s Law

If we were to compare the blockchain’s timeline (starting with the 2008 Satoshi paper) to the World Wide Web (starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 paper), we’re only as far as 1999–a time before Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or even Friendster! (Does anyone even remember Friendster?) Given where we stand right now, there are countless developments, successes (and failures), iterations, and breakthroughs to be made, as this technology is still in its infancy.

Corporate law behemoth Skadden Arps, in a recent memorandum specifically about the future of smart contracts, offered them up as an example of Amara’s Law, which states:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”

-Roy Amara

I believe this can just as easily apply to everything associated with the distributed ledgers and blockchain networks. Regardless of your outlook, we’re all in for an interesting ride.


Shawn DemerjianShawn Demerjian is an aspiring futurist, full-time student, and New England transplant now living in the Midwest. He spent the last decade-plus working in sales and client management roles in the market data, syndicated research, finance and technology sectors. Shawn has always been fascinated about the future, exploring the implications of technology in our society and what that potential may hold for us. You can follow him on Twitter @Future_Shawn as well as his blog, Ponder Tomorrow.

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