Blockchain and libraries

14 August, 2018

The list of use cases for blockchain seems to grow every day, but one area that does not tend to get as much attention as other is the potential applications for a library.

Libraries can take advantage of blockchain tech in numerous ways, some of which even involve minimal changes to the basic operational structure they have followed over the years. Compared to some of the other potential use cases for blockchain, much more research still needs to be done on its role in libraries, but a great deal of that investigation is already in progress.

Improving the Meta Data System

In order to function, libraries need to have metadata on books and other materials they have in their collection, and the blockchain can become incredibly useful in enhancing this data. Among the various uses for blockchain tech in libraries, some consider the ability to create a permission-less and distributed archive for metadata to be the most disruptive to the current system.1 This is possible because blockchains are informational ledgers without any centralized authority or organization to control the information.

That nature of blockchains means that it would be possible for libraries to work with each other and related organizations to create a metadata system that is distributed. Any library or organization would be able to access that system, and there would be no extra cost associated with that type of access. The system would also have great potential scalability, allowing more libraries to add their collections to the metadata system or a single library to dramatically enhance its offerings. It would even be possible for the metadata system to not only catalog the information of books and media but also to use cryptographic signing to ensure retrieval remains selective.

Creating a Network for Universities and Libraries

In addition to a system of metadata that can be shared by various libraries and organizations, it is possible to use the blockchain to create an Inter-Planetary File System (IPFS). This is a peer-to-peer protocol that developers created for a future system, and it gets around the gatekeeping that internet companies do. Instead, the system would have seeders store copies of various websites on their computers. Then, a network of universities and libraries could validate a website copy's credentials in a way similar to Bitcoin mining. This is just one example of the many partnerships the blockchain could allow libraries to make with other organizations, whether it is another library, a university, or a museum.

Rights for Digital Sales

With more and more people reading eBooks instead of or in addition to physical books, the issue of digital first sale rights becomes crucial. Libraries have figured out a method to ensure they do not lend out more digital copies of a book that they have the rights for at a time, but there is always room for improvement. Creating a system that manages the rights for books is an obvious extension of the blockchain as something similar already exists in many blockchain projects.2 Libraries could specifically apply this to digital first sale rights. In fact, experts are already working on a solution to this issue, in conjunction with a copyright expert.

Sharing Community Items

Many libraries offer more than just books, whether it is media like movies and TV shows or items like puzzles or even baking tins. These community-based collections are an extension of what libraries offer. Libraries could leverage blockchain technology, specifically smart contracts, to make it easier to share and index these items. The blockchain would then be responsible for governing who first loans the items and who has borrowed them. This particular use case has the potential to dramatically extend the resources that libraries can offer those within the community.

Hosting Peer-to-Peer Sharing

Taking the sharing of community items to the next level, libraries could expand the selections they can offer clients by hosting a peer-to-peer sharing system via the blockchain. Community members first will decide if they are willing to share a physical or digital book. The library could then use blockchain to connect those community members with another person who wants to borrow that item. This would allow libraries to give patrons access to hard-to-find items and dramatically expand their collection of books.

Authenticating Training

Many libraries also offer courses and workshops in addition to books. These libraries could use the blockchain as a way to provide badges or another type of certification to prove completion of a training course. In this case, patrons who attend a workshop or course would receive a blockchain-based badge at the end of the session(s), giving them immutable proof that they have gained the necessary skills from the training. This can help patrons find jobs in the future as they will have proof of training to show potential employers.

Challenges to Blockchain Development for Libraries

Some experts feel that one of the biggest hurdles facing libraries in terms of adopting blockchain is the technology.2 It is time-consuming and highly technical to develop technology using blockchain. The typical library does not have access to a blockchain developer who would be able to create a system like this; unless someone in the library's team has a deep interest in blockchain and the necessary coding skills.

San Jose State University's Plans for Blockchain

Earlier this year, the San Jose State University won a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences for $100,000, which they plan to use to investigate the usefulness of blockchain for libraries.3 This project will likely have a dramatic impact on the future of blockchain in libraries. The co-principal investigator behind the project, Sue Alman, got the idea when attending a presentation about blockchain for authenticating a single source for individuals to store credentials. This led her to explore applications to libraries and information science as a whole.

Alman sees the potential for tracking ownership as well as digital first-sale rights, supporting community-based skill-sharing and borrowing programs, and connecting networks consisting of universities and libraries. The grant will let her team spend a year investigating potential use cases for blockchain in libraries. They already hosted a conference and will host a national forum as well where experts in technology, urban planning, and libraries will work together to brainstorm and make recommendations.

Other investigations into blockchain applications for libraries are also underway. Jason Griffey, who is a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, has made headlines for exploring how blockchain would change intellectual property, a topic closely linked to information in libraries. Meanwhile, Debbie Ginsberg, who is a Chicago-Kent College of Law educational technology librarian, is looking into ways how law libraries can authenticate primary sources with blockchain.

How Experts Say Libraries Should Get Involved

Since blockchain in the library is relatively still in its early stages, at this point, some experts suggest that libraries simply focus on making sure they understand the potential of blockchain. If they are aware of the implications of blockchain and its use cases, they will be on track to be among the first libraries to adopt it. Libraries should continue to encourage experimentation and the use of technology in their facilities.

Right now, the idea of libraries using blockchain is still in its exploratory phase, but with the right research and strong interest, there should soon be real-world applications for libraries.


1) Ways to Use Blockchain in Libraries. SJSU.

2) Blockchain: Could libraries and open science benefit from this technology? ZBW Blog.

3) Blockchain in the Library? Researchers Explore Potential Applications. EdSurge.