Blockchain – Varietals and Weeds

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to present at the WESTPAC annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on separating the reality from the hype when it came to blockchain technology.  Blockchain is somewhat ubiquitous in the news, and I can understand a rolling of the eyes and tuning out when  you hear  the word.  The Financial Times has even referenced blockchain technology as a belief system.  My disbelief and, to be honest, annoyance at the kind of blind enthusiasm is why I decided to do presentations on blockchain.  I found the responses to my WESTPAC presentation heartening. Most people were interested in both what it really was, and in the different varieties of applications I mentioned during my presentation.

So what is it?

Blockchain is really just a database structure designed to store information in a linear, chronological order, facilitated through the use of distributed ledger technology. I know, long sentence –Bottom line, it means

a) There’s no one location for it, it lives on every computer that accesses it

b) It uses an appended structure — it adds on, it doesn’t overwrite when it adds new entries.

c) It’s supposedly immutable — once entered, the content can’t be altered in that entry. However, subsequent entries with contrary information can be added.

So what would that be good for?

What would be the likely uses? The most well known is its use to facilitate cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin.  It would prove useful for anything where you want a permanent, chronological record. So what kind of things would that be?

So what else are people using it for?

Here are some of the more surprising applications I’ve seen.

  •  – Ranchers in Wyoming entering their cattle into a blockchain for supply chain management.
  • U.N. World Food Programme – At a refugee camp in Jordan, the United Nations is using blockchain in combination with biometric eye scans to insure that the distribution of food to refugees is done in a way that discourages corruption, both on the part on the distributors and the recipients.
  • AP Moeller-Maersk — the shipping company is using it in their marine insurance contracts.
  • J.P. Morgan –  JP Morgan is heading up the Interbank Information Network, which is conducting speed tests on non-“run of the mill” payments between over 75 banks.
  • Storj – Distributed ledger cloud storage. – Essentially, your documents live on no one central server, but everywhere, on a distributed ledger. Launching in 2019.
  • Golem – Instead of offering data storage, it offers distributed computer power. Need more RAM? Get it from a blockchain.
  • OpenBazaar – A marketplace designed on Etsy and Ebay, combined with AirBnB, accepting cryptocurrency payments
  • Chronicled – This is probably most interesting in terms of legal application — Essentially, it’s records management  through a blockchain.
  • Gem – company working with the CDC to track disease vectors through a blockchain.
  • MedRec, SimplyVitalHealth, CoMEHeRe — three of a number of efforts to track medical records through a blockchain.
  • Provenance, VerisArt, and Blockverify — all track provenance of items/art/documents through blockchain.
  • Estonia – putting its public records on a blockchain (You can be an e-citizen!)
  • Arcade City — An Uber/Lyft style ride share company facilitated through blockchain.
  • La’Zooz – Coordinates empty seats with passengers
  • Ujomusic – Tracking and distributing music royalties
  • Webjet – tracking and trading of empty hotel rooms.
  • CryptoKitties – virtual pets. Yup, virtual blockchain kitty cats.


That all sounds really cool, but what are the weeds  you speak of?

I titled this post “Varietals and Weeds” for a reason.  I said that blockchain has been described as a “belief system”. Well, in that belief system, I’m somewhat of an agnostic/heretic. There’s some reason not to believe the hype.

  1.  Sometimes when people say “blockchain”, they don’t actually mean it. For example, a company called Primalbase purported to have a “blockchain-enabled co-working space” in central London. It wasn’t blockchain-enabled. Then there was the tea company that decided to change to being a blockchain company, but not really.
  2. It’s overblown. It may not be as secure as it purports to be, plus it’s not always appropriate.
  3. And the reason I personally have reservations — it doesn’t actively address the age old computer concept of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”.

Arizona recently passed Revised Statute 44-7061(E)(1), which states, in part, ”

“”Blockchain technology” means distributed ledger technology that uses a distributed, decentralized, shared and replicated ledger, which may be public or private, permissioned or permissionless, or driven by tokenized crypto economics or tokenless. The data on the ledger is protected with cryptography, is immutable and auditable and provides an uncensored truth.” (Emphasis mine).

Uncensored truth. The idea that the legislature is saying something is unequivocally true bothers me on a number of levels, not just in terms of technology.


I have deep reservations about the  the belief in a technology as a arbiter of truth and panacea for all that ails us. Yes, blockchain may be useful for ILL, authority records, linked data, the semantic web, and a number of other things. Yet now, more than ever, when data in a blockchain is considered by some as sacrosanct, data curation is of paramount importance, and that is where librarians come in. I tend to think of this as the need for discernment — discerning when the technology is appropriate, discerning what the data the technology contains needs to look like, and perhaps most importantly, discerning how we make decisions based on this technology. This may put librarians in a better position than ever to influence and contribute.

-Dan Blackaby

Cornell Law Library





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25 CS-SIS membership grants offered to CONELL participants

It’s often hard to prioritize the special interest sections that cover all interests, and at $20 a section, the fees add up.  The Computing Services SIS would like to make it a bit easier to join sections by sponsoring 25 CONELL participants with a 2018-2019 section membership grant to CS-SIS.  There is a string attached, however.  We’d like the grant recipient to join a committee.  Committees are at the heart of CS-SIS, and joining a committee is the best way to network and to help move CS-SIS initiatives forward.

Are you a newer member of AALL interested in joining CS-SIS? Or do you a know a newer member who might be interested?   If so, please fill out the form or share the link.  Only 25 section membership grants will be awarded, so sign up soon.  Direct questions to CS-SIS Chair, Tawnya Plumb.

Where the Dead Information Goes

Guest post by David Whelan; originally published on David’s own blog

When you weed – deselect – from a collection, you are focused on a particular audience. No-one can keep everything. I was looking for an album to stream over the weekend and was amazed to find it unavailable. Deselection can also mean that weeded content, by being out of sight, becomes out of mind as well. It makes me wonder how often library users realize what’s missing.

I almost did an eye roll when I saw Southern Methodist University law library’s collection described as having dead books in it. I worked at the Underwood Law Library right out of law school and, while I didn’t spend much time in certain parts of the collection, I’m not sure I’d call any of the books dead.

I think the writer was doing the dead trees thing but perhaps it’s passé.

Items that are in a collection have always seemed to me to be like an object with potential energy. A lack of regular use isn’t a value reflection; it retains the same value it had when it was selected. If it’s remained on the shelf, it’s probably got some value to impart. And if it is weeded, it may not be a value reflection either; there may be something better, or a library just needs shelf space.

In a digital environment, the assumption may be that everything is available, and so a search is comprehensive. I know that’s not true in law, although maybe not all legal researchers do. I expected more in music, although now I’m not sure why I had that expectation.

Preferred Formats

In my case, I was just looking for the soundtrack to Amadeus, the 1984 film starring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, among others. I have the vinyl LP record but I was going to stream just a selection, figuring it would be easier than relocating to the record player. The movie won a ton of awards, so I figured the soundtrack would, similarly, have enough profile to live on digitally.

Google’s listing of awards won in North America and Europe for Amadeus.

Wrong. I couldn’t locate the soundtrack on Apple’s iTunes. Nor on 2 other music services I use. 7Digital brought up nothing. Google Play responded in a typical Google way: we know you’re looking something that involves these two people, but we’re not going to show it to you.

Sir Neville Marriner conducted the orchestra that played on the Amadeus soundtrack. But Play doesn’t have the soundtrack itself.

Then I thought of Spotify. Surely Spotify would have it! Sort of.

To paraphrase Lou “Blue Lou” Marini, “that green Play button is greyed out on purpose.” I saw a small message at the top that warned me to come back later, that Firefox was installing something to play DRM content. But when I restarted the browser – and tried in Edge – the button stayed unplayable.

Mission Impossible

I can’t stream Amadeus, that much is clear. I can probably find a Youtube or other copyright-violated online version. But the failure of the immediate access promised by digital music services struck me. If I really wanted to listen to this music, I’d have to fall back on other formats.

Slower formats. Library formats.

Toronto Public Library has 4 copies of the soundtrack. That was the nearest copy to me in a library to which I had borrowing privileges. I could put one on hold and have it forwarded to the nearest branch. Could be a week or more.

I could order a copy online. Amazon has one for about C$22 and could deliver by tomorrow. For those privileged enough to afford it, you can see why Amazon has a potential for replacing libraries who base value on delivering specific formatted content.

Whether from the library or Amazon or some other store, a CD format would eventually become a digital format for me. I don’t listen to CDs much; my collection is mostly just an archive now.

Or, since I was fortunate enough to own a vinyl copy, I could plug my Ion record player into a computer and, using Audacity, make my own digital copy. I’ve done it in the past and it’s a bit of a hassle but it’s not impossible. It’s how I copied my parent’s LP called Feux Folletsa 1960s era Canadian folk dance and music ensemble. I’ve never found that anywhere else.

Dead and Unknown

This is not the first time. I was looking recently for the heavily bagpipe-reliant soundtack to The Navigator: a Medieval Odyssey. The score lines up a bunch of European and Middle Eastern bagpipes with other instruments; it’s an interesting mix, but not for everyone.

Before that it was German Brass, a group that’s been performing since the 1970s with a changing line up. And the Cambridge Buskers, a novelty act from the early 1980s.

I have to admit that I occasionally buy something in a format that I expect will soon not be available. A copy of Millbank, an 1871 novel, or Pa’s Green Book with the information on the awk, two books mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder, have both been acquired and added to our family’s library. Not because they’re great literature but because the Little House books meant something to us and those books are part of it.

It’s like the 1950 limit set on the Google cases. The all-encompassing nature of digital content suggests comprehensiveness. Libraries fight an uphill battle trying to challenge information retention based on format. At the same time, the shift to digital resources leaves both gaps, like Amadeus, or arbitrary cutoffs, like Google, that make the lost information invisible.

Case law at least has the benefit of citations. If no-one links to or talks about the Flying Lizard’s version of Money, no-one will know it’s missing.

The last copy networks that are being created by libraries are one way to capture the big things. Whatever the criteria, it’s a way for groups to take responsibility for keeping things of value even when there are good reasons to get rid of them.

That’s great for the object but I’m not sure it’s as great for the user. Toronto Public Library has an LP version of the Cambridge Buskers 1977 release but it’s reference only. It’s preserved but it’s out of sight and, probably, out of reach of many people. That’s not a criticism; that’s reality for preservation.

In the legal world, books can backstop some of this.  But that they exist doesn’t mean they’ll be used.  It’s not a value judgment.  It’s knowing that, beyond the edges of the visible map, there are other worlds that could be explored.

Unfortunately, not everything can be digitized. Even more content that can is unavailable due to licensing and other issues. Those are realities too and they are part of the perspective that everything is digitally available.  We can’t always know and communicate what’s comprehensive and what’s missing.

Even when we can, and provide information in different formats to fill gaps, it may not be meaningful.  The friction required to go beyond what the publishers and aggregators provide is probably more than most people will attempt. At some point, I expect the perspective is that, if it hasn’t been made available, then it isn’t necessary.

Find David on Twitter @davidpwhelan⁩ and be sure to check out his blog.

Call For Volunteers!

The CS Executive Board invites you to be an active partner in CS-SIS. With members from all types of libraries, whose functions range from network and system administrators, lab supervisors, and webmasters to department heads and library directors, the Computing Services Special Interest Section serves the fastest-growing sector within law librarianship. Above all, Computing Services SIS members are law librarians dedicated to serving all the information needs of their library users with the aid of computing technologies.

If you are interested in signing up for a CS committee, fill out the interest form at

Susan Boland – 2018 Winner of the CS-SIS Kenneth J. Hirsh Distinguished Service Award!

We are proud to announce Susan Boland is this year’s recipient of the Kenneth J. Hirsh distinguished service award!  

Susan has been a leader and active participant in CS-SIS for over 15 years. Over this time, Susan has sat on as well as chaired numerous committees such as Bylaws, Strategic Plan (Chair), Nominations (Chair), Grants & Awards (Chair), and others. Susan has also served on the CS-SIS Executive Board as Member at Large, Vice Chair/Chair-Elect, Chair, and Past Chair. She also served as a facilitator in the 2008 Web 2.0 Challenge.

Susan also has a steady and laudable pattern of contributions to the larger profession. She has worked on local, regional, and national committees and currently serves as President for the Mid-America Association of Law Libraries. In addition, Susan has presented several times on the national and regional level, and authored book reviews, annotated bibliographies, and several articles in professional publications.  We are grateful for all of the work she has done for CS-SIS and the law library profession.

Join us at AALL for CS-SIS roundtables

The Computing Services Special Interest Section is sponsoring three discussion-oriented roundtable sessions this year, each focused on a topic of current interest and led by an expert member who is actively working in the area.

Teaching Law Practice Technology Courses

Sunday, July 15 (12:45 PM – 1:45 PM)
Elizabeth Farrell Clifford

Curious about technology competencies? Considering adding tech trainings to the library’s offerings? Completely intimidated by the seemingly large and ever-changing legal tech landscape? In this roundtable, we’ll discuss anything from getting started to with teaching legal tech to considering advanced tech curriculum offerings. Perspectives from academia, firms, and courts are all welcome!

Increasing Access to Courts & Legal Information with Technology

Sunday, July 15 (5:15 PM – 6:15 PM)
Anne Rajotte
Technology is being used in new ways to improve access to the courts and legal information. Document assembly systems, predictive analytics, chatbots, online dispute resolution, and other systems provide ways to lower the cost of and expand access to legal services. This roundtable will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of how technology is changing access to courts and legal information and how it could change the delivery of legal services in the future.

Bots in the Library

Monday, July 16 (3:30 PM – 4:30 PM)
Debbie Ginsberg
When you have fewer librarians around, how can you get everything done? Automate! In this roundtable, we’ll discuss selecting and implementing technologies to automate library processes, from bots, to expert systems, to blockchain, and more.

Grant Winners 2018

Congratulations to this year’s CS-SIS Grand Award Winners!

Experienced Law Librarian Grant:

  • Lucinda Harrison-Cox, Roger Williams School of Law
  • Cynthia Bassett, Univ. of Missouri School of Law

Newer Law Librarian Grant:

  • Aaron Retteen, Texas A & M Univ. School of La

Election Results 2018

CS-SIS is happy to announce that Darla Jackson will be the incoming Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect. Darla works at the Oklahoma Bar Association and focuses on providing assistance to attorneys in using technology and other tools to efficiently manages their offices. Elizabeth Outler will serve as Member-at-Large for a two-year term. Elizabeth is the Assistant Director for Technical Services at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has consistently been a leader in her professional role to help librarians learn and feel comfortable with technology. We are excited to welcome both these members to the Board!

We are also grateful to all members this year, and each year, who stand for office and are willing to serve CS. Thank you, all.

CS-SIS Member Spotlight: Kenneth Hirsh

The Computing-Services Special Interest Section is made up of awesome law librarians doing interesting things.   The CS-SIS Member Spotlight is designed to shine light on our membership so that we can learn more about each other and stay connected.

CS-SIS Member Spotlight:  Kenneth Hirsh

Kenneth J. Hirsh, a Familiar Name

Since 2004, CS-SIS has honored members who have made outstanding contributions to the section, to AALL, and to the profession as a whole with the Kenneth J. Hirsh Distinguished Service Award.  Ken received the inaugural award in 2004 and continues to be recognized for his outstanding contributions having served as CS-SIS chair, SEAALL president, AALL Executive Board member, and a long-time member of the CALI Board of Directors.  If you didn’t meet him in one of these associations, you may have encountered him as a student at the University of Miami (AB), the University of Florida (JD), or Florida State University (MS).  He was a reference librarian and an I.T. director at Duke and is now the Director of the Law Library and Professor of Practice at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.  Last, but not least, you may have watched him win some money on Jeopardy in 2016.


What we know as Computing Services SIS was formerly the Automation and Scientific Development SIS.  Members communicated through the section’s print newsletter, Automatome, which is archived on our website for those interested.  In the 1990’s, many academics who were interested in computers joined the Technoids mailing list, hosted by Tom Bruce at Cornell.  Discussions at the time considered the roles of librarians, questioned who should manage computers in the law school, and covered hot topics such as Gopher and the internet.  Ken recalls when Anne Myers set up the first internet room at AALL in Boston in 1993.  In 1996, when Ken served as vice-chair, the section was renamed Computing Services.  Although several names where considered, “Computing” Services was selected to signify that the section is about people, not about devices.  With the name change came a new online newsletter, CS-SIS Connecting. It was initially edited by the late Liz Glankler, who received the Distinguished Service Award in 2006.


Ken continues to love CS-SIS and is glad to be part of it.   He believes that our section has always been and will continue to be a home for all law librarians interested in technology, regardless of their professional titles.  These days he sees a strong interest in teaching technology in law schools and in law firms.  He notes that this interest is reflected in conference coverage, such as at the ABA tech show and CALIcon, and in organizations such as ILTA (International Legal Technology Association).  An innovator in his own right, Ken has developed a Technology in the Law Practice course which he co-teaches at the University of Cincinnati.

Karaoke with Ken

Have you heard of Karaoke with Ken?  If you haven’t participated before, consider it a must-attend event at your next AALL annual meeting.

History:  While Ken had indulged in karaoke with Duke coworkers and SEAALL colleagues in years prior, 1997 was the year that Karaoke with Ken became AALL tradition, starting in Baltimore with Jim Milles and Don Buffaloe.  In 2001, CS-SIS became the official sponsor of Karaoke with Ken (well played, Kris Niedringhaus), and 2018 will mark the famed event’s return to Baltimore.

Please download the AALL 2018 app and add Karaoke with Ken to your schedule.  Singing will begin at 10pm on Saturday, July 14th at Supano’s Prime Steakhouse, 110 Water Street, but get there early to secure a seat.  Ken anticipates starting off the night with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, will work in his tradition Mack the Knife, and is hoping to sing a duet with Shira Megerman from Boston University.  We hope to see you there!

Thanks to Ken for his willingness to be interviewed for this CS-SIS member spotlight.   If you are interested in interviewing and writing a blog post about a CS-SIS member, please contact Tawnya Plumb at  It is a great opportunity to learn about a fellow member.

Karaoke with Ken – Important Update!

Due to Ken’s family circumstances, we’re moving Karaoke with Ken to Saturday night, July 14. Our venue will be Supano’s Prime Steakhouse110 Water StreetThe Debra Crawford Karaoke Show kicks off at 10 P.M., so we plan on being at the restaurant starting at 9:00 on Saturday. If you plan on dining at the restaurant, a reservation is required. Visit the website or call them at (410) 986-4445.

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