Honey, I blockchained the library
You lost, get over it...
Once upon a time the term “hacker” had a very particular meaning – hackers were wizardly types who could work wonders with technology. Like writing a tightly coded video game that was small enough to fit onto a ZX81 RAM pack, or the original Unix operating system which took up only 16KB of memory.
Neat hacks were a thing of wonder, and hackers were the demi-gods of personal computing and the early Internet. But as the Internet took off, hackers started to become seen as sinister and threatening, and the rest is history…
We’re in a similar place with blockchain – the technology underpinning the Bitcoin virtual currency has mutated into a sort of all-purpose solution looking for a problem. A floor wax and a shoe polish that beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans, if you like. For cryptocurrency purists this must be very frustrating, as many of the supposed use cases require significant suspension of disbelief. I suspect it is equally annoying for many information and computer scientists. “We have these things called databases,” I hear you say, “and they’re really quite sophisticated. You should try one!”
But here we are – just as “hacker” has become a pejorative, “blockchain” has become a portmanteau term for any sort of database which is sufficiently advanced that it seems like magic. It can be quite fascinating to see how blockchain’s magical status can turn it into one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins – a plot device that suddenly gives everyone permission to think the unthinkable, and reimagine what might have been perceived as the most fundamental aspects of organisations, industries and working processes.
A new kind of library
For some time now, I have been working with senior leadership teams from a wide variety of backgrounds to help them develop their digital innovation strategy. I’ve seen a particular dynamic repeat itself again and again – we begin a dialogue about radical change over a five to 10-year timescale, but people are disconcerted by this and feel a need to retreat to their comfort zone and areas of expertise. Periodic interventions are often needed to avoid regression to the mean, which is where a MacGuffin (like blockchain) can be especially handy.
At a macro level, blockchain dangles the promise of turning our existing practices inside-out and upside-down – anything and everything can be reduced to a transaction on a distributed ledger, facilitated by a smart contract that triggers automatically when certain conditions are met. What could that mean for libraries? Consider Public Lending Right – why should authors only be paid once a year when they could be paid in real time? And for academic libraries and publishers, could micropayments per journal article supersede today’s big deals and subscriptions?
In the world of academic and research libraries, blockchain offers the potential to revolutionise our processes – research papers could be linked automatically to grants, equipment, personnel, research data and software. And perhaps more importantly – citations, attempts to reproduce experimental results, retractions and updates. Taking this to its logical conclusion, blockchain could provide the global research community with programmable digital infrastructure.
If that wasn’t radical enough, blockchain can be the enabler for something called a Decentralised Autonomous Organization (DAO), where the rules of operation are set in code. What would the library look like as a DAO? Let us picture a future public library where staff pay and acquisition budgets were calculated automatically based on council funding and subscriptions from patrons after deducting running costs, with recommendations and ratings used to automate acquisitions. Perhaps the library would also issue its own cryptocurrency, enabling local government, staff and patrons alike to become “shareholders” in a new kind of library – reimagined as a social enterprise?
Be careful what you wish for
In truth, those examples I’ve outlined above don’t require blockchain or any other new magic and disruptive new technology. If we wanted to, and that’s a very big if, we could do them tomorrow. However, perhaps sometimes we need a MacGuffin to get the conversation going, particularly when it’s a fraught topic like the operating model for public libraries or the mechanics of the open access transition for research outputs.
Join me and experts from the National Archives, the Royal Society, and the House of Commons Library to discuss the potential of blockchain for libraries and information science at the CILIP Blockchain Briefing in London on 27 February 2020. Book now to avoid disappointment!
Photo: cc-by Martin Hamilton