Blockchain is a hot topic—the buzzword of the year, according to The Guardian. The technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain promises a new, decentralized way of recording and storing data. Experts are speculating about its potential uses in business, law and education, and San José State University’s School of Information has received a $100,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS, to find out whether blockchain could be useful for libraries.
“I heard about blockchain at a conference about two years ago,” says Sue Alman, the project’s co-principal investigator and a lecturer at San Jose State who teaches a course on emerging technologies. “There was a presentation from the Institute for the Future about using blockchain for credentialing—creating one authenticated source where an individual could store all their credentials. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if a library or information center could use that and people could store their credentials there?”
As she investigated further, Alman realized that blockchain has a number of other potential applications in information science. It could be used to build an enhanced metadata system for libraries and data centers, to keep track of digital-first sale rights and ownership, to connect networks of libraries and universities, or even to support community-based borrowing and skill sharing programs.
The IMLS grant will enable Alman and her colleagues to pursue a yearlong conversation around potential uses for blockchain in libraries. “People in our profession have been talking about blockchain, but there hasn’t been movement toward it until now,” Alman says. “As a result of the grant, we’re planning an online global conference in June on blockchain technology as part of Library 2.0, our ongoing virtual conference series.” Following the online conference, a national forum in August will bring a select group of 20 to 30 experts in libraries, technology and urban planning to SJSU’s campus to discuss the topic and make recommendations for next steps.
Project co-leader Sandy Hirsh, director of San Jose State’s School of Information, was drawn to the idea of hosting conversations about blockchain. “It seemed like a really interesting and important area for our school to take a leadership role,” she says. “We strive to be at the forefront of bringing innovations into our curriculum because we want students to think about new technology and how to integrate it into their careers.”
As part of the project, Alman and Hirsh have set up Blockchains for the Information Profession, a website and blog dedicated to chronicling their research and engaging students and information professionals in the conversation. “We are inviting experts to write guest posts and engage with the blog on our website,” Alman explains. “I’ll also be sending out a survey to participants of the online conference to gather their input, as a way to harness those who aren’t coming to the national forum.”
Looking for next steps
After the forum, Alman will review the project’s findings and write a white paper based on the participants’ recommendations. “In our initial conversations with the IMLS, we wondered whether blockchain would really add value to libraries and the communities they serve, so let’s test it out early on and see,” she says. “But I anticipate that there will be some suggested uses, which might lead to another project to develop a model for implementation.”
Meanwhile, the pair’s interest in exploring blockchain for libraries has sparked a book project with the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries. “They got excited about our research, and we’re going to be presenting next month at their conference,” Alman says. “Just last week, they sent us a book contract. We’ll be doing case studies and involving students, to provide a definition of blockchain and highlight what has been done and what we project will be done in the future.”
Other universities are also investigating the potential of blockchain technology for libraries. Debbie Ginsberg, educational technology librarian at Chicago-Kent College of Law, is interested in how law libraries could use blockchain to authenticate primary sources. Jason Griffey, fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, is exploring how blockchain could change views on intellectual property.
“I’ve been having ongoing arguments online about whether blockchain is actually a useful tool for libraries,” Griffey said in a 2016 presentation for METRO Libraries of New York City. “It might seem like magic and fairy dust—and maybe it is—but I don’t think so.”