Exploring the Potential of Blockchain in LIS


Published: August 24, 2020 by Dr. Sue Alman

Our understanding of blockchain and its potential disruption to the information professions, education, and employment has gone from zero to warp speed since Sandy Hirsh and I began our investigation in 2017. However, we still are not experts in the technical aspects of blockchain development, but we have a strong vision for potential use cases. Our initial interest was piqued by the expanding literature that blockchain technology was a trend on the brink of revolutionizing the public and private sectors. There were conferences, books, white papers, start-ups, and numerous back-channel discussions on ways blockchain technology could address seemingly endless processes, but librarians were not evidenced in these mainstream discussions. However, the use of blockchain technology in libraries seemed to be on the radar of many information professionals.

IMLS funded our proposal to investigate the possible uses of blockchain technology by libraries and information centers, and since then we have engaged with a variety of professionals representing libraries, businesses, and education.  With this grant, we hosted a national forum, delivered a Library 2.0 virtual conference, “Blockchain Applied: Impact on the Information Profession”, sponsored a MOOC on blockchain and decentralization for information industries, published a book outlining opportunities and challenges for blockchains in libraries, and made numerous presentations at professional conferences and webinars.

The results of the project provided clear directives for a continued investigation to reach the next stage of maturity by developing and piloting blockchain models that can scale for libraries and enhance information literacy and digital inclusion efforts through expanded innovative collaborations. The most compelling blockchain use case, among the many suggested, focuses on using the technology to identify all potential library users–both credentialed and non-credentialed–and provide unencumbered access to resources for them. The goal of this proposed two-tiered project is to provide unencumbered access to digital content and print collections to all potential users in participating library systems while managing risk to ensure that the privacy and personal identity of each user is secure. Information literacy and digital inclusion efforts will be enhanced as users gain access to all resources in those libraries through the creation of their secure and private digital identity. 

At a DOE Summit we met a group, Learning Economy, interested in blockchain and libraries with a ready-made library blockchain protocol. (See diagram below.) This group became committed to our idea to use self-sovereign identity (SSI) and a universal resolver that will enable individuals with verifiable digital credentials to gain access to resources at all participating libraries. Sovereign Identity (SSI) is used to describe an individual or organization that has sole ownership and control of their digital and analog identities. A Universal Resolver is an identifier resolver that works with any decentralized identifier system, including Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs).

Our partners for this project include Urban Libraries Council, Seattle Public Library, California State Library, Maine State Library, American Library Association – Center for the Future of Libraries, University of British Columbia, Learning Economy, Jason Griffey (NISO) Technical Advisor, & Califa (Advisor). They are enthusiastic, and there are other individuals and library systems that have expressed interest in moving forward with this project.  Our work was put on hold during the pandemic, but we are ready to begin and are in the process of identifying potential funders.


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