Years ago, I conducted interviews with academic librarians across Canada as part of a research project. In conversation with one librarian, I asked about her greatest challenge. “It’s less about quality content and more about how you got there,” she replied with resignation. She explained that most students used Google for research rather than the library’s quality resources, which are more difficult to use.
This is disruption for librarians. As a librarian by training, I understand the value we place on effective, efficient and strategic research. I also understand the frustration of algorithms providing “good enough” results without factoring in quality or specificity.
I’ve often wondered how Google’s algorithms might have developed if librarians had been more involved in their creation. As exponential technologies like blockchain emerge, librarians will have an opportunity to shape its development and be a part of the disruption.
Blockchain is, “a type of distributed, digital ledger. The name comes from the way new information that’s part of a “block” gets added to a “chain.” But it’s easier to think of it more like a giant Excel spreadsheet that’s shared across many different computers. Each time the spreadsheet is updated, everybody can see the change. In this way, a blockchain is a ledger that’s distributed across a network of computers, which records all changes for users to see.” 
It works like this:
While blockchain technology has been associated with cryptocurrencies, its implications are wide ranging. Let me share an example. Today, if I were to email a digital asset, like an eBook to a friend, we would both have the electronic file. As a result, the file’s value diminishes because it is widely and easily accessible. However, if the digital file is linked to a blockchain, a different scenario unfolds. The digital asset can be passed from one person to another and the original person no longer has the file. Essentially, an eBook now takes on the properties of its physical counterpart. As custodians and curators of content, this development has the potential to change the librarian’s role.
In the near future, we may experience decentralized libraries, where patrons’ records would be held on a blockchain instead of the library’s centralized database. Users could control their circulation records and manage their borrowing histories. For example, a user could check-out a controversial book and if they didn’t want anyone to know about it, they could cryptographically obscure their personal information for greater privacy. New economies could also emerge to reward library users for sharing their data with libraries.
Currently, San Jose State University  is researching blockchain’s implications for library science but we don’t yet know what its impact may be.
It’s imperative librarians take a role in directing the future of content distribution on blockchain. In March, I will be hosting a session, in conjunction with Special Library Association (SLA) Toronto to introduce blockchain and its potential for information professionals. I’m hoping you’ll attend and join the working group we’re forming to investigate this technology. For more details on the event, see the SLA Toronto website, Prescientinnovations.com and please join our Meet-Up, Blockchain for Librarians.
- Olson, P. (4 Dec. 2018). A Two-Minute Guide to Blockchain. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2018/12/04/a-two-minute-guide-to-blockchain/#4312ea6679c8
- Wild, J., Arnold, M., Stafford, P. (1 Nov. 2015). Adapted from “Technology: Banks Seek the Key to Blockchain”. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/eb1f8256-7b4b-11e5-a1fe-567b37f80b64
- School of Information, San Jose State University. (2017). Blockchains for the Information Profession. Retrieved from https://ischoolblogs.sjsu.edu/blockchains/