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Smart Libraries Q&A: Blockchain

Smart Libraries Newsletter [March 2021]

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How can blockchain be useful for library training?

Blockchain has attracted incredible levels of interest in recent years, especially through its association with cryptocurrencies. Headlines in recent days, for example, hype Bitcoin's ascent to a value of $50,000. Apart from cryptocurrencies, blockchain finds more mundane applications, mostly in the financial and supply chain sectors. In essence, blockchain defines a distributed model for storing data based on cryptography.

The basic idea of blockchain involves transactions or other points of data stored in lists, or blocks, encoded with a precise timestamp and a cryptographic hash. Each transaction is posted to block, following an algorithm called a Merkle tree. When a block is completed, a hash for it is generated and added to the chain, along with the hash of the preceding block in the chain. Most implementations involve distributed storage across many nodes with multiple replicates of each block rather than a centralized data store. Changes cannot be made to any transaction in the blockchain without recalculating every hash of every transaction and each block for every copy in the distributed network. Such a change would be computationally impossible.

Every implementation of the blockchain model varies in technical details. Transactions in blockchains can be publicly visible or secured as private, depending on the cryptographic architecture of the implementation, whether permissions are applied to access transactions, how blocks stored, and many other possible variations. Blockchain as a data storage protocol needs to be understood apart from implementations, such as Bitcoin.

Bitcoin, for example, includes a computationally intensive activity called “mining” as part of the transaction verification process. Bitcoin miners can earn bits of currency by solving complex mathematical puzzles. The complexity of these puzzles requires massive computational resources, ranging from individual personal computers to large-scale data centers. A recent news article reported that the computing performing Bitcoin mining annually consumes 121 Terawatt hours, slightly below the energy consumption of the country of Norway1. This extreme example does not apply to blockchain implementations that do not require intensive proof-of-work tasks.

The basic model of blockchain can be implemented in many ways. Many of the characteristics of Bitcoin, for example, do not necessarily apply to other implementation scenarios.

Blockchain technology has potential benefit for some sectors through the validation of transactions without the need for manual verification or reliance on individual institutions. For cryptocurrency and financial services, blockchain enables trusted transfer of assets without the manual validation of transactions through a central authority such as a bank. It includes mechanisms for enabling transactions by anonymous entities. The blockchain network itself validates the transaction. Blockchain can enable smart contracts where terms are automatically executed without the need for a central authority. In a manufacturing and supply chain context, blockchain technology can be used to authoritatively track the source of an item and each step in distribution and transport.

This general understanding of blockchain informs its suitability to library applications. Opinions differ on whether blockchain technologies offer benefits to library applications. A fundamental difference applies to transactional data of library operations relative to the principles of blockchain. Blockchain transactions are immutable. They cannot be altered once committed to the blockchain. The basic idea behind blockchain is create trust by making it impossible to forge or alter transactions. Investopedia states: “The goal of blockchain is to allow digital information to be recorded and distributed, but not edited.”2

Library transactions are inherently transitory. Most categories of operational data for libraries, or at least those related to patron services, are stored only as long as needed for operational requirements. Out of concern to protect patron privacy, most libraries delete, or at least anonymize, transactions once the active lending or use activity has completed. When a patron borrows a book, for example, the library needs to be able to identify the specific individual to generate circulation notices or fines or fees for items not returned. When the item is returned, the library will either scrub the transaction from its records or remove anything that associates a specific individual with the transaction. Some variation of this process applies to online access of digital materials, interlibrary loan, reference interactions, and other services. While libraries need statistics describing activities, the records themselves for those transactions have a limited lifespan.

The deletion of transactions or the requirement to alter transactions as they transition from identifiable to non-identifiable formats seems antithetical to the basic concepts of blockchain.

Library business activities outside patron services may present theoretical opportunities for blockchain. The procurement of print and digital resources and related financial transactions resemble those in other sectors that have implemented blockchain. The diverse numbers and types of suppliers involved would complicate any implementation of blockchain for financial transactions or supply chain management. It would seem to require an industry-wide adoption of the technology, which would be impractical. The business components of library acquisitions systems and those of their suppliers were slow to implement basic interoperability protocols such as EDI, which does not bode well for the implementation of complex and computationally-intensive blockchain technologies. In the realm of business processes in the library ecosystem, it would be difficult to argue that blockchain offers substantial benefits not met by current technologies that would justify enormous investment in systems development and disruption of the current business workflows.

Library adoption of blockchain will happen or not in concert with the broader realm of consumer and business technologies. If the primary database and transactional engines used in business broadly shift to blockchain, libraries will naturally follow along. Such a transition seems unlikely. Blockchain will probably continue as a relevant technology for a fairly limited niche in business technologies without becoming common business infrastructure.

Blockchain can have some implications for library training scenarios. In the same way that libraries provide training and instruction on other technologies, this may be a topic of interest. As Bitcoin and blockchain have become so prominent in popular culture, it is reasonable for libraries to include it in their technology literacy programming. Libraries can help clarify some of the confusion that might exist between Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and the general characteristics of blockchain technology. Blockchain is a topic that should be in the repertoire of library technologists regardless of whether implement it themselves.

It would also be interesting to explore possibilities for using blockchain technologies in the performance of a training program. It is possible to create an experimental blockchain implementation that could be used to support learning activities and to allocate badges and rewards. Such an implementation would help investigate how blockchain technology could be implemented in ways that address the privacy issues discussed above and whether the cost and complexity exceed practical value.

Notes

  1. “Bitcoin consumes ‘more electricity than Argentina.'” BBC News, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology -56012952.
  2. Luke Conway, “Blockchain Explained,” Investopedia, 2020. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blockchain.asp.
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Publication Year:2021
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 41 Number 03
Issue:March 2021
Page(s):5-7
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smart Libraries Q&A
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
ISSN:1541-8820
Record Number:26219
Last Update:2022-11-14 05:38:35
Date Created:2021-05-04 07:26:23
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