Blockchain in Law Libraries – Down the Road and Now by Dan Blackaby

I’ve worked in law libraries for the past twelve years, doing pretty much everything. I’ve been a corporate librarian, a map librarian, cataloger, an acquisitions librarian, a reference librarian, and now I’m Technology Services Librarian at Cornell Law Library. This week, along with Debbie Ginsberg of Chicago-Kent, I’m giving a webinar to the American Association of Law Libraries on Blockchain, and what it will mean for law librarians. For me, as an academic law librarian, the first place I need to look at to assess the impacts are at our students—how will this impact their lives here, and perhaps more importantly, their lives as practicing attorneys? Verifying identities is the tip of the iceberg for the capabilities of a permissioned blockchain. So how would that work in an academic law library environment?

The first thought that came to mind was how does it impact the students’ actual day to day lives at school? One thing that immediately came to mind was the day to day of grading – paper submission, plagiarism checks, group project work, transcripts, all could have blockchain integrated into their protocols. Another obvious place is the bursar, with tuition payments, holds, all could be subject to verification by blockchain. And while this might sound like overkill, even someone’s resume and work history could be made verifiable in this way.

And then there are the resources. All the financial aspects of paying for library services are already being explored and integrated into blockchain by the banking and payment systems industries. The large shipping company Maersk, for example, is seeing how blockchain can be used to track shipments. Think of how that might impact interlibrary loan, user and user group identification, reserve use collections, curated data sets, or any number of other uses where specific or controlled group identities are required.

Loose-leaf continuing resources are notorious within law libraries for a number of reasons. Their upkeep, the difficulty in researching even what the text said two updates ago – blockchain can alleviate that. As the blockchain essentially takes a snapshot of a system at any particular point in time, now one resource can contain multiple versions of itself. (I realize there may be other ways to do this, but blockchain is here now).

Blockchain is also changing the nature of the work product lawyers will be producing. The idea of smart self-executing contracts is presently ubiquitous in legal media. The application of blockchain to the fields of probate, property transfers, digital rights management –essentially anything with records management is subject to change.

So what can we teach our students about blockchain that will help them as these changes come about? While we as librarians may be fascinated by the use of hashes and elliptical curve cryptography, that doesn’t impact the bottom line of whether this mechanism, the blockchain, actually verifies what came before. Just as not everyone understands how their computer or car engine works, but expect them to work anyway, soon it will just become standard expectation that blockchain does what it purports to do. So we don’t need to teach them to be mechanics, under the hood of the code of blockchain. We just need to teach them what we were teaching them before – how to drive. We’re just moving from a stick to an automatic.

Dan Blackaby, Cornell Law Library

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