What is blockchain?

Lightbulb on a chalkboard with idea bubbles drawn branching off from it

Blockchain is exactly what it is named, a chain of blocks. Each block contains a record of information, such as a deed for a house, the metadata for an image, or potentially, a bibliographic record. The chain that links these blocks together means that if someone wants to change the information in one block of the blockchain without that change being obvious, they would also need to change each individual block that comes before it in the chain. The blockchain is also set up to be distributed, which means that it is copied many times and each copy is located on different computers at different locations. This also contributes to securing the information on the blockchain because if one copy is altered, then comparing that copy to all the other copies of the same blockchain will make it easy to see the alteration. If one copy of the blockchain has been altered, either intentionally or as a computer error, it is easy to simply delete that copy of the blockchain and replace it with a new copy made from one of the correct blockchains.

You may also hear blockchains referred to as decentralized. What this means is that the blockchain can be accessed and added to by anyone with the correct software without needing permission from a central company that owns blockchain technology. Although it is possible to create private or company owned versions of a single blockchain, blockchain technology in general is based on the idea that it will be decentralized and distributed over many computer networks which mean no-one company or individual has control over the entire blockchain. The single individual blockchain can be created and used by a company for internal use, but unless the company can provide multiple computers and networks to distribute the blockchain across, they will lose much of the security benefits of using a blockchain.

Blockchain technology is being considered for use in many different industries currently. This technology may be brought into libraries through vendor’s using smart contracts, through local government using blockchain to track budget use, or in the future through the process of hiring a new staff member whose transcripts are now located on a blockchain instead of with their individual university. Libraries may also use blockchains to establish a metadata catalog similar to OCLC which would be accessible and writable to every library, or to track first sale of an e-book which could potentially allow e-books to be resold as a used item or even donated to a library. For a current list of potential blockchain uses in libraries, click here.

There are many potential future uses of blockchain technology that could benefit libraries and other information professionals.  If nothing else, blockchain is a technology that will touch the lives of our patrons and users that we may be called upon to provide literacy teaching on. Currently, blockchain technology appears to be something with enough potential that we all should be keeping an eye on its progress.

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