Position the Library for Web3
How Blockchain and the Distributed Web Are Poised to Remake the Information Landscape
by M Ryan Hess
When the World Wide Web was born in 1989, its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, ushered in a wave of innovation that shook the world. Today, a collection of technologies known as Web3 is aiming to write the next chapter of the internet. And as before, Web3 promises to be just as disruptive. Imagine the following scenarios:|
- An academic researcher specializing in Counter-AI Epistemology publishes her work as an OA non-fungible token (NFT). Each download and citation of her paper earn her SmartyPants tokens used to achieve tenure and rank. In addition, she can earn even more tokens for other academic tasks, such as submitting reviews or serving as an editor.
- A community member wants to borrow time with the library AI but needs a library card. Their library requires proof of residence in California among other things. In the Web3 world, no personal data will ever be stored by the library. Instead, the library only needs to scan the customer’s digital wallet address. From there, the library’s ILS can see that the customer has a government-issued soulbound NFT that attests to their California residency. Once satisfied, a new soulbound NFT is provided by the library representing the customer’s library card.
- A library’s AI recommends a book to a customer. This reader prefers to read in print, but they don’t need to enter a library to borrow this book. Instead, they can query their community-
based collections to see if any neighbors are lending their personal copy. This system uses a decentralized app running on a hypothetical LibChain, which is a blockchain developed for libraries to facilitate community asset sharing. To incentivize people to share their property, power users earn LibChain tokens they can trade for free bus rides.
To put it all together, Web3 is a vision for a new decentralized internet that allows for trust between total strangers, without the need for intermediaries such as banks, governments, or tech giants. But what about libraries? As we shall see, libraries are at an inflection point as we race into this decentralized future. There are some threats, but there are also opportunities, just as there were with Web1 and Web2. The real question is if libraries will seize the moment.
From Web1 to Web3
In the beginning, there was hypertext. As Web1 came online in the mid-1990s, people discovered the conveniences of the internet. It was generally anonymous, and most everything was transmitted through a single, centralized server (i.e., AOL). In the early web days, trust was sorely lacking. Would anyone ever put their credit card number on there? No way! Comic artist Peter Steiner underscored Web1’s trust problem in a proto meme published in The New Yorker in 1993, in which a canine sitting at a computer explains, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” 1 Web2 attempted to address the trustworthiness of the internet by creating trusted platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, in which users provided enough identifying information that you could tell if they were a dog or not—most of the time.
Along the way, a kind of online identification began to take shape. For example, you could use your Facebook profile to log in to other websites. Structurally, Web2 just increased the variety of servers people interacted with. For example, you might use Google for search, Yahoo for news, and Flickr for family photos. However, the sense that direct communication between people was occurring on the new social web was only a facade. Everything remained on corporate servers. Increasingly, ownership of our data—who controls access to information and who can exercise free speech online—began to fall into the hands of these Web2 companies. A new kind of trust issue emerged.
Then, in 2008, an anonymous figure (or figures) under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto published a white paper calling for “a system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.” 2 Nakamoto’s vision inspired the decentralized web movement, seeking to free Web2 from the clutches of social media giants and hand power back to users. In Web3, services and content would not exist on centralized servers, but rather in a distributed web. Users would harness open protocols to interact directly with one another. They would have sole control of their data. And an emergent trust would manifest between total strangers through the certitude of mathematical proofs made possible by Nakamoto’s gift to humanity: blockchain.
A Weird Wiki Sorta Thingamajig
Blockchain is not really that complicated, but the math behind it is. So, let’s boil it down using a Web2 analog. Blockchain works similarly to a public wiki page in which anyone can contribute. And like a wiki, contributions must pass the smell test imposed by the wiki community. If the community agrees that the contribution is factual, they allow it to be added. If not, it is rejected. However, with blockchain, once a contribution is added, nobody can ever remove it. It remains part of the fixed chain of contributions.
So, what is the smell test the community uses to ensure the blockchain remains 100% true? Cryptographic proofs. Again, let’s boil this down. Consider a simple algebraic formula such as 10X = 90. X must equal 9. If someone claims X = 8, they are wrong, no exceptions. The trustworthiness of blockchain entries works in a similar way but uses the complicated math of cryptography. If you look under the hood of any blockchain, you will find cryptographic hashes throughout. Every wallet address is such a hash, as is every transaction and every NFT collection.
Here’s an example of one such hash: 13575e124acd e173424dbb6283e3fee8c316c3f2d266dfd752043e98f 7f05e4f. It was generated using an SHA-256 hash calculation, derived from the secret passphrase “I flunked math class.” 3 Importantly, this conversion works only one way. If you have the passphrase, you can convert it to the alphanumeric hash. But if you only have the hash, you cannot determine the passphrase. This feature provides the basic security for blockchains. So, for example, you can share your wallet address without compromising your secret passphrase. But if you share the passphrase, you also hand over control of the wallet. In addition, the hash is totally unique. Only “I flunked math class” can generate the same hash. Herein lies the truly killer aspect of blockchain: For the first time ever, unambiguous ownership of unique digital assets and information is possible.
Take a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT. On the surface, this NFT is just a JPEG anyone can copy and paste. However, the JPEG is only a representation of a unique cryptographic hash. Only one exists in the entire universe, and if the blockchain says you own it, you own it. It’s as simple and irrefutable as 10X = 90, in which X = 9.
The Distributed Web
A related technology to blockchain is the distributed web. This overlay atop the current internet is composed of a network of millions of nodes running software, often on home computers. They store and provide access to data to anyone, all without central servers.
At Palo Alto City Library, my colleagues and I utilized a distributed web technology to publish a Gutenberg copy of Tom Sawyer online with our laptops using a protocol called the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). Over the ensuing days, other IPFS nodes duplicated the book and began serving it to anyone wishing to download it, much like a peer-to-peer files system (i.e., BitTorrent).
The benefits of the distributed web include the following:
- Resilience to censorship, since once something is distributed across the network, it is nearly impossible to take it down
- Download speeds that are much higher, because content is delivered by many computers simultaneously
The takeaway with the distributed web is that it forms an entirely new internet architecture that bakes in freedom of speech, OA, and permanence.
Impacts on Society
To appreciate where Web3 will lead society, consider some current Web3 endeavors:
Proof of stake —This is 99% more energy-efficient than the proof-of-work validation process used by Bitcoin, and it makes blockchain far less energy-intensive. Most modern blockchains, such as Ethereum, use proof of stake.
Smart contracts —Ethereum introduced programmable code into the blockchain, making NFTs and smart contracts possible. Most modern blockchains now have this feature (but Bitcoin does not).
NFTs —These can be composed of any digital file linked to a hash (such as music, images, or text). Use cases include group memberships, airline tickets, video game assets, or webinar avatars. The nation of Palau even issues national identification cards as NFTs. 4
Gaming blockchains —Gamers playing Illuvium or Axie Infinity earn money through blockchain-based, play-to-earn games, providing a preview for how a future metaverse economy will operate.
Data auditing —When it comes to monitoring the environment, data validation is key. The Regen Network uses blockchain to validate claims and reduce fraud in carbon offset accounts. Such use cases underscore the important role blockchain can play in ensuring data quality and reliability.
Social networks —Imagine controlling your social media data, such as moving friends from one social network to another. This is the vision of the LENS PROTOCOL, which aims to build a universal social networking protocol that hands data back to users.
DAOs —Distributed autonomous organizations (DAOs) have not had much success yet, but these community-based groups provide a blockchain-based method for vetting ideas and voting on proposals in a completely transparent, open way.
The list could go on, but these examples illustrate the disruptive potential of Web3. Such disruption has already gotten the attention of banks as well as media companies, including Disney and Facebook. Traditional publishing is also exploring how Web3 will impact their business models, especially with copyright, distribution, and royalties. Digital creatives are finding work designing and selling digital content. And soon, we may see issue-based DAOs leverage their communities to lobby politicians.
Libraries and Web3
Libraries too will face threats and opportunities from Web3. But first, it is important to acknowledge what you may have noticed about Web3 technology: It all feels very library-like.
For example, blockchain provides an automated system for tracking items as they are transferred between people without any intermediary involved. We can link metadata to an object, track changes, and make this data openly available for others to query and build on. Finally, the distributed nature of Web3 means that book banners and dictators will find it very difficult to keep information from people.
Some clear use cases in libraries seem obvious considering what Web3 currently offers and how libraries have historically operated.
Decentralized libraries —Web3 could support library services without libraries. NFT metadata is very similar to the item and collection records used in libraries. Each NFT has a hash representing a smart contract governing usage. These contracts also identify the items in the collection, each having a reference field that can point to anything, such as the Tom Sawyer file Palo Alto published to IPFS. If libraries use this technology, materials could be managed on a chain, allowing for acquisition, checkout, and borrowing rules to operate without an ILS or even a library. Any decision making could be handled by a DAO of library users governing a hypothetical LibChain.
Universal library cards —As in our previous example, blockchain can facilitate a decentralized library system. To interact with it, users only need a digital wallet. However, what is missing is a way to connect a library account to an actual person in cases in which fines are accrued, etc. However, open source, zero-knowledge solutions for digital identification are in the works, such as the Verite project, which could be leveraged for nonfinancial use cases,5 or Polygon-ID.6 Dystopian concerns aside, assuming the privacy and anonymity provided by blockchain are enshrined in Web3 ID, it seems plausible that one day, library users will be able to check out books without sharing any personal data.
The perfect digital archive —As we have seen, blockchain and the distributed web are quite robust. Once digital content is uploaded to Web3, it is there forever. Moreover, technologies such as IPFS create a hash based on the digital content of a given item. If a single character in that text is changed, the hash will also change, which is a property that could be used to provide a checksum for digital files. Moreover, Web3 has LOCKSS (lots of copies keep stuff safe) qualities built into it, since any file and its metadata are duplicated across the network. This ensures that the file cannot be lost if a single server crashes. Finally, the blockchain provides a way to track such things as provenance and rights related to the work.
Incentivized OA —Web3 is beginning to challenge publishing and distribution models. Musicians are already using NFTs to make a living without labels. As described in the hypothetical SmartyPants token scenario mentioned earlier, universities could use the same technology to incentivize faculty to publish their work through open repositories with a blockchain reward system. And while we are at it, why not leverage blockchain to ensure data quality and authenticity?
On March 10, 2000, the NASDAQ Composite peaked in what would later become known as the dot-com bubble. In the run-up, a kind of tulip mania occurred, as internet startups run by young entrepreneurs—who often didn’t have business experience—saw their valuations mushroom, only to crash into oblivion. Such were the earliest days of Web2. And yet, the technical value of HTTP is lasting.
Web3 is undergoing a similar phase. Some experiments have collapsed. A few bad actors have committed outright fraud on a large scale. Even Tim Berners-Lee is skeptical of Web3.7 And yet, the value proposition of digital ownership, decentralization, and privacy remains. In many ways, libraries missed the boat in previous iterations of the internet, often coming late to the party only to find their seat taken by the likes of Google. This time can be different. Indeed, Web3 shares many values with libraries. It is still very early. The possibility that libraries can fashion new relevance in this disruptive age is real. We only need to understand the technology and think creatively about what Library3 can be.