A university, the American historian Shelby Foote once said, is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.
Foote, known for his three volume epic The Civil War: A Narrative, didn’t say it out of any ill will towards faculty, or a desire to malign the hard work of students. It’s not a sentiment rolled out to denigrate the many moving parts of a higher education institute or imply their superfluity. Instead, it emphasizes a simple truth about libraries: that they are not just places where information is stored and categorized, but sites where new knowledge is produced.
Mark Hakkarinen is a man who understands this. As the founder of the Blockchain Library, since 2017 he has been assembling a comprehensive bank of resources on blockchain and cryptocurrency, targeted at scholars working in the field around the world. The website groups material by topic, linking to academic papers in key subject areas (“Bitcoin”, “Blockchain”, “Cryptocurrency”, “Ethereum”, “Proof-of-Work”), and showcases a small curated book collection, featuring How Money Got Free by BREAKER’s own Brian Patrick Eha, among others.
Uniquely, it also publishes lists of the most cited publications across a range of blockchain-adjacent topics. These citation lists are so valuable because, while online searches for the same topics will return an enormous trove of information, it can be hard to assess how much of it truly represents knowledge.
For example: Imagine you are researching Byzantine fault tolerance, the ability of decentralized computer systems being able to reach consensus about shared data even when communicating over an unreliable network. Searching for the phrase through Google will return 414,000 results, the first of which is the Wikipedia page. Other results include explainer-type articles published on Medium—useful, although difficult to verify—and a short description from the website of Lisk Academy, a blockchain education project.
These results skew towards recently published, easily accessible media: a function of the preferential weighting for newness in Google’s search results. But on Blockchain Library’s citation page for Byzantine consensus, we can see that the most highly cited work on the subject is Concurrency Control And Recovery In Database Systems, a book published in 1987 by research scientists at the Computer Corporation of America—a company founded in the 1960s to provide database management systems for IBM mainframe computers. And so, besides guiding us to a valuable resource, the ranking of this information by citation count ends up situating the development of blockchain technology within a decades-old paradigm of computer science, as opposed to within Google’s eternal present.
This is exactly the kind of perspective that users of the library appreciate. “We’re always looking for information and academic articles of one kind or another,” says Samson Williams, partner at blockchain think tank Axes and Eggs. “We’re trying to build a part of the future, but to do that we need to look back at the past and see where we’ve been, what’s been tried before. That’s where the library comes in. You need that historical context.”
"We're trying to build a part of the future, but to do that we need to look back at the past and see where we've been."
The academic rigor of the Blockchain Library’s approach is driven by Mark Hakkarinen’s background in library science. After taking a masters in communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University, during which he studied digital payment systems, Hakkarinen took a job in the university’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, and eventually became head of the bioethics research library. In fact, while a member of the institute Hakkarinen co-authored a paper on citation analysis in bioethics which was published in the British Medical Journal.
With a growing interest in cryptocurrency, he decided to leave Georgetown in 2017 to set up the library, driven by the idea of applying his skills to a new field. “At the time I saw that there was a lot of interest globally in blockchain projects, but that interest didn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of resources around research and education,” he says. “I could see that there needed to be something developed around this, so I thought that if no one else was doing it then I would.”
Initially self-funding the project, Hakkarinen began to approach cryptocurrency projects with a proposal: donate to the library, and in return see a section of the website constructed with resources tailored to your target audience. A few projects declined—Dash was among them, in Hakkarinen’s words “too busy pumping Venezuela”—but eventually the community of merchant-oriented cryptocurrency SmartCash voted “yes” on a proposal to support the library. As a result, there is now a dedicated subdomain of the Blockchain Library for articles about SmartCash, and a rolling newsfeed for the project. (The one-time sponsorship deal ultimately became a more direct relationship, with Hakkarinen now working for the SmartCash outreach team part-time along with other cryptocurrency consulting jobs.)
"In the U.S., physical libraries have special status, but digital libraries are more contested."
For all the wealth of resources that are categorized and linked to by the Blockchain Library, the website does not host any files for direct download. It’s a notable omission, especially when so much of the material relating to cryptocurrency exists only in digital form, and can be stored and transmitted at minimal cost. A prime example of this are white papers, the origin documents of almost every cryptocurrency. Although white papers are easy to find, and intended to be distributed widely, Hakkarinen doesn’t host any of them out of concerns over possible copyright infringements.
“In terms of archival practice there are certain copyright laws that you have to be aware of,” he says. “In the US, physical libraries have special status around that, but digital libraries are more contested. So until I have a physical branch I’m not going to be sharing a downloadable link to things like that. In my own work I’ve collected more than 1000 white papers, and I have them on a private repository because I can’t share them.”
Navigating copyright presents an issue for digital libraries simply because of the ease with which materials can be duplicated. While a physical book is purchased by a library, loaned out, tracked and (usually) returned, digital documents can simply be copied again and again.
“Different copyright laws around the world have different approaches to the sets of uses that copyright holders control, but typically they include at least two rights,” explains David Hansen, a librarian at Duke University with responsibility for copyright and scholarly communications. “One of these is the right for the copyright holder to control the making of copies, and the other is the right to control how the original copy is distributed.”
For digital documents, it’s hard for a lender to guarantee these rights are not being breached—although Hansen himself has co-authored a white paper on techniques for controlled digital lending, which he proposes as a way for libraries to harness the full potential of digital books.
With so many proposed use cases for blockchain involving intellectual property and copyright enforcement, there’s a distinct irony to the fact that digital copyright law has been the main stumbling block for the development of a comprehensive resource on the technology itself. For now it looks like Hakkarinen’s thousand white papers will remain in his private archive, but he is far from discouraged. In terms of his forthcoming plans for the library, he envisions a shift towards a more active approach, intentionally spreading information that he judges to be important rather than leaving its discovery to chance.
“The first pass of the Blockchain Library was saying, here are a lot of resources that exist,” he says. “Now it’s time to dive in and do a bit more advocacy, to say: here’s something important, and you should be informed about it.”