This blogpost is a short write-up about the topic that has been lately on my mind. It deals with the notion of peer to peer networks and their applicability to the field of libraries. The reason why this post is out is that I wanted to share these ideas on the peer to peer network that we call the Web.
Peer to peer is an architecture for distribution of information. Spreading good information and ignoring bullshit is one of the fundamental functions of libraries. Let's see how they fulfil this duty at the present time.
Currently, libraries adopt the centralized distribution model. This is the hub and spoke model in which the library serves as hub offering information to its users. It is also a pull model where the spoke has to bother the hub to obtain something from it. In the traditional library setting the roles are clearly set; library is the content provider whereas its patrons are the consumers.
By contrast, peer to peer is a distributed network architecture in which participants make a portion of their resources directly available to other participants. Originally, the peer to peer principle was put into effect in file-sharing systems, however, the sharing doesn't have to be confined only to files. The resources shared can be almost anything, such as free time in the case of Wikipedia. If this statement is true, even knowledge embodied in documents or in people's expertise can be shared via a peer to peer network.
Both centralized and decentralized distribution architectures obviously have advantages and disadvantages at the same time but I will focus on just one side of this distinction for the sake of argument. The centralized model is dependent on the central node. The information is propagated through the network only via the central node, so in case it doesn't work properly no information is transmitted. Contrary to this, peer to peer architecture enhances scalability and service robustness by not relying on a single node and enabling participants to reach to one another without the need for middleman.
The communication in a peer to peer system is governed by a network protocol that prescribes how can the participants access the shared resources, with their roles and responsibilities clearly defined. Libraries could be the ones that formulate such a protocol that makes it clear how to share knowledge resources.
Libraries have the ideal foundation to become social networks oriented around knowledge and I believe that they still have the authority to declare the standard protocols for exchanging knowledge in a network setting. Libraries have such protocols even now; the library rules define exactly what are the limits of the user to library interaction. The role of libraries in such environment is to set up the rules and back them up. I wonder if libraries could lay down the grounds for such a network instead of sharding their potential in a number of small systems where it's the library that is the most important part.
The technology has matured, and with tools like WebID decentralized social networks can become reality. Imagine friending a library on social network to become its patron and a member of its peer to peer network with the right to access the shared resources. Peer to peer networks can serve to libraries as a platform for building new services as well, for example indexing and resource discovery.
Today, people can borrow books from library but not from one another. People can ask the library's reference service but they can't ask questions and give answers to them between themselves. How it would look like if to become a library's user would not only mean that one can take advantage of the services and resources provided by the library but also benefit from the community of its users as well?
According to the Wikipedia article, peer to peer networks lead to egalitarian social networking and flattening of the established hierarchical differences between the network's participants. Well, can library and its users become peers?