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Smart Libraries Newsletter [July 2019]


How will blockchain impact libraries?

Blockchain has captured the attention of many organizations as a technology with intriguing possibilities. The basic concept involves a series of records, linked together using digital encryption technology. Records are bound together in blocks, each of which contains a hash of the previous block in the chain, in addition to its own data. This structure takes advantage of public key / private key encryption to enable the data in the blockchain to be openly viewed, but impossible to change. Blockchains can be distributed across diverse storage devices and need not be managed on a centralized server or database. The hashes used to bind each block are created using software that uses a private key to generate a hash, which can be validated with the associated public key. Implementations of blockchains can either be open to the world for viewing, or they can be associated with permission systems available only to authorized users.

Blockchains are best known for their use in cryptocurrencies, especially bitcoin and ethereum. These currencies exist outside of any specific country or government. The values of these currencies have seen wide fluctuations. The ability to make or receive payments anonymously has attracted darker elements. Many organizations' initial encounters with bitcoin, for example, have been through ransomware attacks where the victim must pay the ransom in bitcoin to receive the key to decrypt data files.

The concepts surrounding blockchain have led to innovations in multiple domains besides cryptocurrencies. Businesses anticipate the implementation of smart contracts based on blockchain that automatically execute payments and terms without manual intervention. IBM, for example, has developed the IBM Blockchain Platform that supports a financial platform called Batavia being developed and deployed by a consortium of major banks.4 In addition to currencies and financial applications, many other industries see blockchain as a technology with the potential to transform aspects of their work.

Blockchain has also been a topic of interest for libraries. There have been suggestions that blockchain could transform some aspects of the way that libraries carry out their work. The San Jose State University iSchool, for example, has launched a project to investigate library blockchain possibilities.5 One possibility describes a new enhanced metadata ecosystem for libraries:

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. Such a system would be accessible to any organization who wishes, with no additional expenditures. The system would scale cleanly, while still maintaining quality of data through selective reading/output choice based on hash signing.6

Some other possibilities listed include:

  • An enhanced metadata system
  • The ability to manage first sale rights for digital resources
  • Badges or micro-credentials for skills training
  • Support for community-based collections
  • Connecting a network of libraries or universities

Although these examples suggest some theoretical possibilities for using blockchain concepts in libraries, I am not optimistic regarding these becoming a major trend in libraries nor do I see any great advantage in libraries investing significant resources in their pursuit. This may be an unpopular opinion, but it is hard to see adding a new level of complexity to aspects of the library ecosystem to achieve relatively minor gains. When I look at the broad realm of library processes, such as metadata repositories, materials acquisition and payments, provenance of historical or cultural assets, digital rights management, and other proposed use cases, I see cryptographic based open ledgers as more of an impediment than a solution.

Each aspect of the library environment needs to be implementable at a level that will reach a wide range of libraries, especially when it comes to the complexity of technology involved. While there are many libraries with a high level of technical capacity, there are many that struggle with even the basics.

Taking the example of enhanced metadata repositories, it seems to me that the complexity and resources involved in deploying a decentralized permission-less distribution environment for metadata would introduce practical barriers to access for some as it opens access to others. Reworking existing cataloging workflows to accommodate any new ecosystem of metadata is an undertaking of massive proportions. Devising protocols and technical interfaces to provide access to blockchain-based metadata services might require enhancements to systems, such as integrated library systems, digital repositories, interlibrary loan systems, or other related resource management applications. Contributing metadata records to this new ecosystem would require some technical infrastructure, presumably including some means to create the digital hashes needed to insert new items into the blockchain.

I would also be curious how metadata records from licensed services, such as OCLC and BiblioFile, would make their way into freely available blockchain services. This technical model might provide an alternative to the business model currently in play where a combination of commercial services, national libraries, and other organizations produce metadata, create aggregated repositories, and provide access. But ramping up this new bibliographic ecosystem would likely be a gradual process that would take a long period to gain a critical mass to be a viable service for most libraries. The library bibliographic ecosystem so far has been resistant to changes. The transition from AACR2 to RDA has so far been slow and incremental, and the change from MARC to BIBFRAME remains more in the experimental realm than operational.

The design and deployment of a library metadata ecosystem based on blockchain would be a massive project that would require substantial investment in personnel resources and in technical development. Of all the problems that libraries currently face, the incremental improvement in metadata management that might be possible through a new blockchain ecosystem don't necessarily rise to the top. Bibliographic services seem to me as largely a solved problem. Barriers in access are narrowing through the increased volume of metadata available in the public domain or through liberal creative commons licenses.

The main concern that I see with blockchain in the library domain relates to the technical complexities involved. On a theoretical level, creating the digital hashes needed to participate in a blockchain seems to represent a low level of technical difficulty. But in the real world, these barriers are substantial. Some of the same technology involved in creating digital hashes for a blockchain, public key / private key encryption, enables libraries to deploy their websites using https rather than sending web resources in the clear using http. Despite prevailing concerns to encrypt library pages to protect patron privacy—one of the central values of the library profession— large portions of libraries have not implemented https encryption. My latest analysis indicates that 34.6 percent of academic libraries and 48.1 percent of public libraries do not employ https for their main library websites. These disappointing statistics make me a bit skeptical when it comes to ideas for new services or systems that depend on blockchain or other complex technologies that might need to be propagated throughout the global library ecosystem.

Blockchain will continue to be one of the technologies that libraries should be aware of, explore, and experiment with. As it gains traction in the business and consumer arena, libraries need to be able to help library patrons understand it as they have with other new technologies. Yet, when it comes to the day-to-day systems that libraries use, I do not anticipate blockchain becoming a major component of our technical infrastructure in the near to medium term future.


  1. Fabio Keller, “Blockchain-based Batavia Platform Set to Rewire Global Trade Finance,” IBM, April 18, 2018, chain-based-batavia-platform-set-to-rewire-global-trade -finance/.
  2. See Blockchains for the Information Profession: A Project of the SJSU iSchool at blockchains/.
  3. “Ways to Use Blockchain in Libraries,” Blockchains for the Information Profession: A Project of the SJSU iSchool, accessed June 14, 2019, blockchains/blockchains-applied/applications/.
View Citation
Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 07
Issue:July 2019
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:24477
Last Update:2022-11-29 00:18:46
Date Created:2019-07-26 08:15:07