Using Blockchain to Get Information When You Need It From Wherever You Are

Using Blockchain to Get Information When You Need It from Wherever You Are

Sandra Hirsh, College of Professional and Global Education, San José State University
Susan W. Alman, School of Information, San José State University

Libraries can provide information resources and services to help people for everyday needs or during emergencies when their personal data may be lost or unavailable. A library card is usually needed before people can use certain library services such as computers, accessing online resources, or taking materials out of the building. One way to provide a universal library card (ULC)  to everyone whether they have a fixed or descriptive address or not is through the use of blockchain and other new technologies. Blockchain is a decentralized and distributed ledger technology (DLT) with no central authority that is used to record (and store) the same information in a block across many computers. Each record is given a unique digital signature created by a cryptographic hash function and linked together in a chain, making it difficult to change or hack the system. Additionally, individuals who possess a ULC will be able to control their personal data via a self-sovereign identity (SSI) and to access resources from multiple libraries.

Why This Matters

The implementation of a ULC would enable disenfranchised users in partner libraries to gain access to information—enabling them to locate human services, jobs, and housing. Using a specially developed library blockchain protocol that maintains personal identity, privacy, and security, libraries would continue to manage users with the existing technology infrastructures already in use in their home organizations with an API that would connect with each organization’s ILS platform.

—The Covid-19 crisis has increased homelessness and accentuated the problem that users without a physical address are unable to obtain a library card—

The coronavirus pandemic, societal and economic changes, natural disasters, and political upheaval have created groups of people who are away from their residency on a permanent or temporary basis due to homelessness, statelessness, employment (business-related or seasonal work), or travel, and many of these individuals have lost their personal possessions, including identification. They could benefit from timely access to information that is readily available in a library IF they were able to obtain a library card without having a physical address or if their library card moved with them. Potential library users who do not possess a library card and who are impacted by Covid-19, homelessness, or statelessness are unable to access library resources either inside a physical library or by using outside WiFi, making it impossible for them to look for human services, jobs, and housing through library resources. The Covid-19 crisis has increased homelessness and accentuated the problem that users without a physical address are unable to obtain a library card. A recent Pew Research survey discovered that “…one in-five U.S. adults (22%) say they either changed their residence due to the pandemic or know someone who did.” The numbers are higher if you break the population into segments by age, race, and ethnicity. These at-risk individuals and their school-age children will benefit from a ULC that allows them to access library resources.

Individuals from all age groups and social strata need multiple types of information resources. These include support for literacy, community integration, new skill development, employment services, verified credentials, research, disaster relief, and entertainment. Libraries can provide no-cost services to these communities that they cannot obtain anywhere else;  however, many libraries require proof of residency to apply for a library card.

Those without a permanent address or photo ID may be excluded from accessing library resources. This problem can be resolved through the use of descriptive addresses for those without a fixed address and the implementation of blockchain technology to enable the creation of a ULC. A  blockchain application that crosses all types of library systems would enable all users who have a fixed or descriptive address (e.g., Under bridge by McDonalds) to obtain a ULC and to use all resources at participating libraries.

The U.S. Office of Educational Technology developed the Education Blockchain Action Network  in part because “…blockchain technology has pushed us to rethink and reimagine many of the foundational aspects of our traditional systems…” The American Council on Education published a report on blockchain initiatives and included a section on Blockchain Frameworks and Libraries; the co-author, Lemoie, just completed doctoral research on self-sovereign decentralized identity. Blockchain has many potential uses that are still untested in libraries. Implementing a digital wallet system where individuals can control their personal data as a self-sovereign identity and hold a ULC will reimagine how libraries provide “access to library and information resources, services, and technologies…, especially [to] the economically disadvantaged, who may experience isolation, discrimination, and prejudice or barriers to education, employment, and housing.” (#LibrariesRespond) Information professionals could introduce SSI to school, academic and public communities to demonstrate how SSI can be used by library users to control their learning credentials and personal data for job applications, a library card, and other personal information.

Proposed Project Design

The goal of this project is to provide unencumbered access to digital content and print collections while ensuring the privacy and personal identity of each user is secure. Partner libraries will issue a ULC to any individual with either a fixed or descriptive address. Information access will be increased as users gain access to resources and services in those libraries that recognize the ULC.

The ULC will leverage blockchain technology to deploy a library identity and credentialing application to be developed by the Learning Economy. It will connect existing library information and library card systems while allowing libraries to continue managing users with their existing technology infrastructures already in use. The design architecture (as shown in the figures below) will provide for the following:

  • each ULC will be linked to a new Self-Sovereign identity (SSI);
  • each SSI is anchored on a blockchain allowing for cutting edge cryptographic trust and interoperability;
  • each user’s identity and corresponding library card data is fully owned and managed by the user with a simple UX;
  • each library connects their existing ILS infrastructure to the solution with their own decentralized identifier (DID);
  • each ULC stores the user’s data in a secure enclave on their phone, computer, or physical card;
  • each library or library consortium can issue credentials to a user to grant access to library resources;
  • each ULC can be shown by a user to relying parties, including other library systems, to prove library membership and relevant identity information for practical library use (e.g., guest passes, tiered traveler memberships, access to print and electronic resources);
  • any SSI system can be attached using the latest industry, open-source standards;
  • administrators can manage SSI users via existing systems or a simple UX;
  • an API can attach to any information system;
  • and, education and future of work API services can be added to any library system.

Next Steps

This pilot project is designed to explore the feasibility and scalability of a library blockchain protocol to increase information access to all populations. The project goal is to implement the library blockchain protocol in partner libraries to enable anyone with the ULC to use and borrow library materials. We welcome new partner institutions to join this project.  Please contact us at [email protected] or [email protected] for more details about participation.  At the conclusion of this project, recommendations will be made to either promote or suspend the extended use of the blockchain protocol based on the final evaluative reports from each partner library.

Cite this article in APA as: Alman, S.W., & Hirsh, S. (2021, August 5). Using blockchain to get information when you need it from wherever you are. Information Matters, Vol. 1, Issue 8.

Sandy Hirsh

Dr. Sandra Hirsh is Associate Dean for Academics in the College of Professional and Global Education at San José State University (SJSU). She previously served as Professor and Director of the SJSU School of Information for ten years. Prior to joining the iSchool, she worked in the Silicon Valley for more than a decade at major technology companies: Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and LinkedIn. She holds both a bachelor's degree and Ph.D. from UCLA and a MLIS degree from the University of Michigan. She is 2021 President of the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), and is Past President of the Association for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T). She has published two editions of Information Services Today: An Introduction with Rowman & Littlefield; the third edition is due in March 2022. In November 2019, she published Blockchain as book 3 in the ALA Library Futures Series.