Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 8: July 2007


Making it Work

The overall theme for this set of posts and commentary is balance: personal balance, attempting to stay current, balancing old and new services and patron groups. If you hear a hidden message, “Buy Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change, lulu.com/ waltcrawford,” that’s true enough. You can think of these posts (and commentary) as extending the discussion in that book.

Keeping Up, Falling Back & Staying Sane

Laura Crossett leads off with “leaving the league of awesomeness,” an April 25, 2007 post at lis.dom (www.newrambler.net). She speaks of success and “failure.” Success:

I just got home from a hugely successful program at the library. Tom Rea, a writer from Casper, came to talk about Ella Watson, also known as “Cattle Kate.” Thirty people packed the library–we ran out of regular chairs and had people sitting on the little kids’ chairs, but no one seemed to mind. I rigged up a screen (there was a miscommunication about what equipment was needed) by securing our aged tiny screen to the ceiling with the aid of a spare computer cord and a double half hitch.

“Failure”:

When Michael Porter (also known as Libraryman) sent out an invitation to join the 365 Library Days project, I jumped all over it, because, as they say, it was new and shiny, and because I sure do love Flickr, and because, as Steve Lawson put it, I wanted to be a part of the League of Awesomeness. A few weeks in, though, and I’m realizing that not only am I not going to be able to take all the pictures because of my damn camera batteries, but also that I am not going to be able to take them all simply because I have too much else to do, and while Flickring 365 days in the library will make me look awesome in the world of librarians who Flickr, it won’t mean much of anything to the population I serve.

Crossett balanced “library awesomeness” against the needs of her patrons—and “the population I serve” won. Crossett’s in Meeteetse, Wyoming, population 351, with median household income around $30,000. In a town that size, she manages a library with 25,000 volumes, open 44 hours a week, with a monthly book discussion group, a weekly story time and more.

We manage to do a lot of things, but we can’t do everything. It behooves me to remember the things that I am good at but also the things that I’m not. I’m good at giving teenagers the space to do their own thing in peace. I’m not so good at engaging them and getting them to come to organized events. I’m pretty good at ordering a selection of books that is–I hope–both broad and deep in all the right places for this community. I suck at getting those books read. I’m good at taking pictures of silly inanimate things that amuse me. I’m not so good at getting people to participate in pictures meant to go online.

She thinks (I agree) 365 Library Days is “a cool project” that “could potentially be a great way to get some news coverage for your library.” I know from experience that Crossett is engaged—engaged in blogging, engaged in discussing contemporary library issues, engaged in making it work. In this case, she retained balance by stepping back:

I’m going to go back to ordering books and trying to read more of them, thinking about summer reading, and wondering if it’s really essential for me to convince people that Firefox is so much better than Internet Explorer–another thing I turn out not to be good at.

Michael Porter and Steve Lawson both wrote nice comments—and both agree that her library is in the “league of awesomeness” given what she’s doing in a small community. Porter appreciated “that you would talk about your decision in a blog post”—as do I. Lawson noted the need to think about “doing what we are good at vs. doing what seems cool vs. doing what our patrons really need us to be doing,” with Crossett firmly in that last camp. I noted:

This is only a failure in the most literal sense. You tried something, you looked at your community’s needs and priorities and your resources, and you decided not to pursue it. I’d call it a balanced decision. I suspect Michael would agree.

Librarians keeping up and making time

I don’t normally follow Emily Clasper’s Library revolution (libraryrevolution.com), but Michael Casey quoted four points from this April 26, 2007 post (in which another librarian complained that she didn’t have time to read “all those blogs and online articles and research and stuff”), and I think they’re worth noting. Extensive excerpts:

1. It really doesn’t take that much time. I have all of my subscriptions in my aggregator, and I peruse them when I’m on the phone with people, killing a few minutes before a meeting, and (gasp!) at home when I’m not actually “on the clock.” If something looks really interesting and I don’t have time for an in-depth read, I keep it as new and hit it later. And if I don’t have time, I don’t sweat it. Or I just dump some of the more expendable stuff. And I don’t sweat that, either.

2. We need to keep informed. Sometimes librarians get so busy “doing our jobs” that we forget the responsibility we have to our profession. And a big part of being good professionals is keeping current and well informed, even if it takes you away from day-to-day tasks now and then, and even if it means you have to devote some of your personal time to doing so.

3. We need to rethink our priorities. I think this is true for most of us in life, not just librarians. But when you find that you are missing out on something important in your profession because you “don’t have time,” I think some of the things that are eating up your time need to be reevaluated…

4. Employers and supervisors need to support professional development

It really doesn’t take that much time—particularly because nobody needs to keep up on everything in detail.

If I just had 15 minutes each day

Meredith Farkas ponders what she would do if that was her limit in this April 26, 2007 post at Information wants to be free (meredith.wolfwater.com). In part:

Keep up with just a few blogs that are less about ideas and issues and more about new tools and great applications of technology in libraries… There are a lot of interesting discussions going on and questions being asked in the blogosphere, but if you have 15 minutes, you just don’t have time for all that. Focus on tools and concrete examples…

Obviously the blogs you choose to follow will depend on your interests… And even within these blogs, you don’t have to read everything in-depth. Skim what’s less important and focus on what is really important to you. Only follow links that look like they might be useful. Especially follow links to libraries using cool technologies…

Once in a while, you may want to chunk four of your 15 minute sessions together and watch…a Webcast [Farkas cites several series]. Some of these Webcasts offer a 1-hour look at a specific technology and how it can be used in libraries. That one session will probably be worth days and days-worth of exploring.

The rest of your time should be spent actually using technologies. Try out some of these things... The value of actually using these tools is enormous. By using them, you will better understand their possibilities and limitations, their pros and cons. You’ll be better able to decide if this is something you might want to explore further for use in your library…

One thing to remember: there are a lot of cool tools out there, but you should focus on what you think would actually be useful to you in your professional or personal life. I often hear about tools that I don’t even bother to look at because I know from a one sentence description that I don’t need it…

Keeping up in 15 minutes per day? It all comes down to being focused, being ruthless, and aware of the needs of your patrons and your colleagues…

Amanda Robertson notes this post in “some thoughts on Web 2.0,” posted April 27, 2007 at Data obsessed (data-obsessed.renji.org). Robertson spends more than 15 minutes a day but recognizes that it can be done:

The trick is in limiting yourself. I have 52 blogs in my newsgator account filed under Libraries / Information / Knowledge. If you’ve only got fifteen minutes, don’t do that. Pick five or six, and as Meredith says, make them very focused on your interests. And after you’ve done that, play…

I have more than 350 library blogs and more than 400 blogs total in my Bloglines list—but that’s because I treat those blogs as source material and professional reading. If I had 15 minutes a day, I’d trim that list to 20 or 30. Robertson offers another important comment relating to Library 2.0 and the felt need to do everything:

I think the real key point that sometimes gets lost in the This Is The Future And We Have To Keep On Top Of It is…this is supposed to be fun. Don’t stick with a tool if playing with it bores you to tears or if you can’t see yourself ever using it. I have a Flickr account I usually forget about. But Writely/Google Docs? For me, one of the most awesome things ever. There’s enough toys out there for everyone to be able to find something for them. The trick is playing around long enough to find it.

How do you know you’ve been passed by?

Laura Cohen asks that question in a May 15, 2007 post at Library 2.0: an academic’s perspective (liblogs. albany.edu/library20/). Cohen points out that you have to know what “the right thing” is to know that you’ve missed that particular bus. How do you know? Some of her thoughts:

What’s right for you is your context. This includes your mission and library-wide goals. It also includes your assessment of user needs, and a strong understanding of the technologies that might accommodate these needs…

…You need staff that stays on top of things. You need people with a clear-eyed view of your specific situation, and the creativity, vision and will to propose initiatives. You need a culture that encourages and accommodates proposals that bubble up from below…

I’ve been trying to think of a formula that summarizes this. I've come up with the Three A’s.

Assessment. Library staff assesses the needs of its users and the current technology scene. These findings are considered in the context of the library’s mission, current offerings and capabilities. Bottom line, this activity never stops.

Agreement. Administration and staff come to an agreement about the technology initiatives they want to pursue.

Action. The library creates the conditions necessary for implementation. Implementations proceed.

It may look easy, but of course it’s not. It takes a lot of hard, ceaseless work…

I would also argue that, in spite of your best efforts, right technologies will pass you by. You’ll never be able to do it all. You can’t, and you shouldn’t…There will also be compromises. Sometimes there are things that are simply out of reach. Maybe the definition of “right” is based on a hearty realism mixed in with the best that you can do.

Context, keeping up as an overall activity, user needs, compromise: All part of a balanced approach.

Isn’t taking the profession home enough?

“Hedgehog librarian” (hedgehoglibrarian.blogspot.com) feels the need to maintain some kind of separation between work and home in this June 3, 2007 post.

Some articles and other postings… suggest that an attitude such as this (not being at work 24/7) means that a worker is unmotivated and will not succeed in the workplace. I see it as a difference between the job being a major part of my life and being all of my life. I participate in [lists], catch up on my blogs and do what professional development I can when I’m at home—mostly because I'm not allocated any time to do this at work. I know others who only respond to [lists] or read RSS feeds that are “library-related” at work so that they have time away from it. Are they not involved? No, they just have a different perception on when they need to stop “library stuff” for the day.

I think I surprised/confused a coworker by bluntly stating that I didn’t like taking things home with me. I’ll work late or come in early to finish up a project as necessary, but I believe work should stay at work and not follow me home to tire me out there. While, to me, my profession and professional development don't shut off—my “job” can. I think it makes me a better worker when it’s not following me around all the time.

I’ve been spouting off about the need to take breaks for years. Beyond vacations and “serious breaks,” many people do need some separation between work and home (even if they “keep up” at home). That’s not being unprofessional, it’s being balanced.

Being a librarian on the bleeding edge

Continuing in a more personal vein, Michelle McLean, the Connecting librarian (connectinglibrarian.blogspot.com) posts this long discussion of her problems in trying to do everything and keep up (relating to Emily Casper’s post above and to excellent posts by Meredith Farkas and Sarah Houghton-Jan that aren’t discussed here). Excerpts:

When I first started reading blogs about 4 years ago, I started small and never thought I would go much higher than the 20 I ended up with then. Small and manageable and still giving me what I thought I needed from them. I added some out of my field, just to get a bit of the wider picture, then found more Australian blogs so feeling patriotic and interested, I added them to my feeds. My current list sits at 110, which includes the feeds for the blogs I contribute to… That list has been weeded down some recently and I plan to weed it down more. I survived whilst on my study tour with only 24 feeds in my reader and although there were some that I missed, generally I survived. As many bloggers have pointed out, if there is something special out there, another blogger will draw your attention to it…

One of my managers said to me again recently that I was on the bleeding edge of what is happening in libraries and that makes me a valuable asset to the library. When she first said it, I took some pride in it, but now I am not so sure.

I love being a part of the blogosphere and discovering all the new things that libraries are doing, but in the past year I have been feeling more of a responsibility to do so, for my library and not just for my own interest. Having that expansion means that my frustration with being one of the only ones out there on the edge at my workplace is magnified…

I love my work and I am passionate about Library 2.0, but I don't have enough time to be on the bleeding edge of everything that it encompasses. We have so much change going on at work and that can be a very painful process for some to go through and painful for people like me to wait for them to catch up…

So I will do what I can. First I will set myself some realistic goals—both at work and at home. (besides my family coming first regardless—which unfortunately hasn't always been the case recently) That will probably mean cutting back on more feeds, really thinking about new technologies and what they will mean for me and my workplace before getting involved and more…

McLean’s done the most important thing: Recognized that she can’t do everything and maintain any kind of life balance. Given that, I have no doubt that (as she projects) she will “regain her optimism” and the passion she has for her work and professional interests. Cutting back and focusing is frequently an essential step toward doing more, more effectively.

I am a cyber-quitter

What better way to close this section than with a detailed admission from a self-proclaimed perfectionist: “We…are going to have to make serious downward adjustments in our standards, should we wish to survive the new reality of the web”? So says Cindi in this June 14, 2007 post at Chronicles of Bean (alreadygone.blogspot.com), her “top ten failed web efforts.”

She’s largely abandoned accounts at MySpace, Joost, LiveJournal, Tumblr and “countless others” I’ve never even heard of. She’s learning to ignore (I believe) “Google Reader’s constant taunts of (100+) [unread blog posts], not to mention all those starred items I never went back and fully parsed.” She’s given up tracking interesting OpenURL bits—and she’s set aside “grand plans for participating in reference and professional development activities in Second Life” in favor of “well, my first one.”

She’s still on Twitter but has a love-hate relationship with it. (Ask me about that in August.) She created a Wikipedia account but has made only a few edits. And, #1 on the list, here’s another 365 Days participant who couldn’t hack it, if only because “it was taking me upwards of two hours to do the ones of which I was most proud.” There’s more, to be sure—a list that shows how easily we can get involved in more things than we can possibly do well.

The Old and the New

Steven Bell asks, “So what if we do pander to students” in a March 26, 2007 post at ACRLog (acrlblog.org). Noting a debate over the future of reference desks and connecting with users on their own turf,

I said this was especially important for millennial generation students because we couldn’t expect them to come to the library to wait for an authority figure behind a desk to provide answers. An attendee, during the questioning period, asked if that point was just another way of saying that we should pander to students who wanted it their way. This individual claimed that students come to college to learn how to deal with the real world, and that by bending over backwards to accommodate students who expect to get it their way wherever and whenever they want it we were actually doing them a disservice.

…I responded that it was perhaps best not to think of it as pandering, but rather being student focused and shifting our ways of doing business to meet the needs of our students. To that I added that reaching out to students in their places, whether it be classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, or academic departments, made sense in today’s mobile society…

So while I’m generally not in favor of pandering or kowtowing to students just to get them to acknowledge we exist, I do think it makes good sense to re-engineer reference services so that we are providing it to the user community on their turf. You can avoid doing so, if you think this is pandering, at risk of your own obsolescence.

The first comment (from Lisa Hinchliffe) offers a good “non-pandering” response: “I’d ask what ‘business’ we are in—teaching students to do better research and find good information or teaching them to come to a desk to ask questions?” Another ten comments raise interesting issues (some related to the debate itself), and one from Elena O’Malley pointed up an interesting balance issue—although perhaps not related to reference desks as such:

We don’t just serve the millennial generation, and college presidents, alumni, faculty, and staff won’t all die off or stop using the library in the next five years. Some of those categories of folks (including the millennial generation) will adopt and have adopted mobile technology and want to text us, but some of them will still be quite upset ten years from now if they walk into the library and there’s no one physically there to work with them.

We usually only get to add more services—we almost never get to drop one.

Candice Benjes-Small agreed that reference needs to move beyond the desk (which doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning the desk) but added another comment that really belongs in a later section of this essay:

I hope to never, ever hear again about how “millennials” are so different.

The “nontraditional” Gen X and Baby Boomer aged students (and faculty!) seem to appreciate our coming to them instead of forcing them trudge to the desk. I think it has nothing whatsoever to do with the generation and everything to do with customer service… The world has changed and it’s not generation specific.

And I bet that “pandering” comment was from someone who is just as sick of hearing about generations and libraries as I am.

What are we for, revisited

Pete Smith posted this on April 23, 2007 at Library Too (havemercia.wordpress.com). It’s worth reading in full; it’s not long. Excerpts:

Are libraries about information? No; at least that shouldn’t be their focus

Are libraries ‘just’ for books? No

Should they be ‘mainly’ about books? For now, yes

Should they be about ‘anything we can think of’? No

There has to be a limit to what libraries are charged with doing, be that by government, commentators or librarians… [Omitted: Smith’s take on what they should and should not be about: Go read the post.]

Libraries have their part to play in various schemes etc, but they do that best by being good libraries. Anything that happens in them should contribute to that; not to numbers, not to getting ‘em in so we can sell ‘em something else.

If libraries are everything, eventually they will be nothing.

I feel as though that last sentence should be engraved in bronze somewhere.

Library as place-with-books

Which segues back to ACRlog, this time an April 24, 2007 post by Barbara Fister. You really should read the whole post. She notes a Harper’s article that concludes by quoting a library director saying an academic library is “not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared,” to which the writer (Gideon Lewis-Kraus) comments:

This is odd. Most people might suppose, to the contrary, that a library is exactly a space where books are held. There are many places on a college campus where ideas are shared: lecture halls, seminar rooms, computer clusters, dorm lounges. The library happens to be the only where ideas are shared precisely because books are held.

Some of Fister’s following comments:

So here’s my question: as we pay attention to the “library as place” and try to demolish the “warehouse for books” stereotype of libraries, do we have any evidence that what’s in the library is contributing to the conversations we hope to foster? That is, as the library becomes a better place for students to do a variety of things, are they making better use of the collection itself? How well do collection development, information literacy, and “library as place” work together? What assessments have been made that can establish some causality—a better place means better learning using what libraries have to offer?

I always wonder about the wisdom of “demolishing” the “warehouse for books” rather than building on it, but in any case Fister raises good questions—and Lewis-Kraus raises an interesting point. Fister makes a particularly interesting observation in responding to one of the comments on the post: “It makes me think that we should not inadvertently dismiss some patrons’ interest in books as we advertise new services or design libraries to respond to non-bookish interests. We do often act as if books are so last year.” She goes on to say that the print/digital dichotomy is “of course” a false one—but it’s one that certainly seems evident in many comments from some academic librarians (and very few public librarians).

Library books versus gaming

Michael Westfall posted this as a guest post at Tame the web on May 15, 2007 (tametheweb.com); as he says in the lead sentence, “A blog post describing a teacher’s personal reservations about allowing students certain types of technology use, on a blog site that promotes technology and libraries may seem paradoxical.” Westfall’s an LIS student at Dominican and an elementary school media information specialist. Here’s his issue, noting that he’s in a school library: “I don’t like kids playing games on the computers in my library because I feel it is at the expense of the reading of books.”

It’s a full-page post, well worth reading. Westfall’s “not anti-computer, a killjoy, or a raving modern-day Luddite.” His library has a fully functional computer lab and he’s worked with students to make PowerPoint presentations and use clipart in documents—but this “engaged time” is, to Westfall, different than gaming because it “produces tangible products, something In can view, enjoy, and assess.”

At heart I am a book person…I’ve worked hard to find and add to the collection books that kids request or show an interest in, and I have been heartened by the reactions of many students to this throughout the year… What frightens me is that many of my students have significant difficulty reading and comprehending text online, whether it’s a Wikipedia entry, an advertisement, or even detailed directions for a game. Many of them just don’t seem to get that to use the internet you have to read… I believe my personal conflict raises a serious question: how to fully use limited school library time on two very different activities—building reading comprehension skills through engagement with books, or fostering the strategizing, problem-solving, and collaborative skills that gaming is supposed to aide in developing.

The comments offer a variety of perspectives; you should read those as well. I’m not qualified to comment on the issue of gaming in school libraries. I suspect it’s different (and more difficult in some ways) than gaming in public libraries. In any case, Westfall raises difficult balance issues worth thinking about.

Libraries: Good, cheap, but not fast

Jeff Scott posted this at Gather no dust (gathernodust.blogspot.com) on May 19, 2007. Scott discusses the common theme that you can choose any two of good, cheap and fast but not all three, noting that most libraries choose good and cheap. He’s interested in the claims that patrons would be willing to pay for better services, noting “This sentiment is often not shown through taxes”—and says something more interesting about some of these claims and calls for faster service even at a price:

Interestingly enough, this request for fast service, or convenience, comes from non-users. This makes the decision even more difficult as one risks losing the existing users to go after non-users. Nothing miffs patrons more than the dismantling of an existing and popular service. This is magnified if the dismantling comes at the behest of a perceived “progress.”

Scott “get[s] frustrated reading librarian bloggers lament about how their local libraries should do A, B, and C.”

This complaint often goes out on his or her blog instead of trying to create the change locally. I am a big believer of “Think Globally, Act Locally,” so when I see a blog post about it, my first thought is, what did this person do to try to create that change… Many libraries do what they do according to a strategic plan… If you are looking to create change in your local library, this is something to review…

However, you are at a disadvantage if you are just starting to use the local public library. Existing patrons beat you. They have already made the library their own. If you haven’t been using us already, you are in the minority… [Emphasis added.]

When a liblogger asserts that public libraries don’t matter to most people or fail to serve most of the public, that’s a factual assertion directly open to challenge—and Scott, with 24,000 library cards in a service area of 38,000, does challenge it...and challenges demands for new services and new convenience from non-users. There’s one more thing about pushes for new services in libraries with limited resources:

You need to ask. Not only that, you need to ask and use it! Nothing is more annoying than a patron who comes in to demand a service or a book, then when we do it, no one shows up to the program and no one checks out the book (the patron just thought we should have it). Libraries don't have endless resources, they need the constant push to get them to do what you want and you have to use it. Otherwise, we look like we are wasting our time.

Exciting wallpaper

That’s the title of Joseph Janes’ “Internet librarian” column in the May 2007 American Libraries. It’s the subtitle that got me: “The challenge of staying current yet keeping what works.”

Janes recounts a DIG_REF debate on “the relative merits of commercial digital-reference software and off-the-shelf instant messaging tools.” Noting topics in a discussion on digital reference at Midwinter, he says:

All important, all valuable, all to the good—although I couldn’t help thinking that those themes could just as easily be the list of topics covered in a discussion three years ago or more.

Does this mean that digital reference has run out of steam, that those heady days of excitement are over? Hardly. But neither does it mean that there’s nothing left to be done, and these are just production systems facing the typical day-to-day maintenance and management needs.

“Digital” reference (but really, we all know that it’s all “reference,” right?) needs to continue to grow and develop. It also needs to continue to perform; the techniques and tools of reference work using digital tools have become firmly ingrained in the practice of reference in general, and services can’t solely be lurching from fad to fad. By the same token, they can’t abandon innovation either.

The same is true for any other aspect of librarianship in the 21st century…

“Services can’t solely be lurching from fad to fad. By the same token, they can’t abandon innovation either.”

Speaking of reality, read Roy Tennant’s “Of real and digital libraries” in the May 15, 2007 Library Journal. Tennant has “extoll[ed] the benefits and virtues of digital collections and services” for nearly a decade, and here he turns that around: “Without real libraries, digital ones are nothing but a bunch of bits…. Digital libraries require real ones in a way that real libraries will never need the digital.”

Shorter notes on excellent posts

Abigail Bordeaux posted “Driving emerging tech” on May 18, 2007 at Ab’s Blog (abigailbordeaux.net). It’s a good read, stressing the need to focus on what we want to get done rather than the technologies at hand, but I specifically want to quote one sentence in the final paragraph:

I have wondered if the reason we can get so focused on trying new apps is because it’s a lot easier than some of the alternatives, such as meeting regularly with every faculty member in one’s subject area, or putting together a first-class marketing campaign, or trying to convince the powers that be to get librarians into every single freshman composition class.

Kathryn Greenhill offers two perspectives on Second Life on April 30 and May 1, 2007 at Librarians matter (librariansmatter.com): ten reasons your library should be in SL—and six “very bad reasons” to have an SL branch. The first post suggests great benefits to librarians in “getting a Second Life”—but limited benefits to patrons “at the moment.” The ten good reasons relate to learning new things, relating to new groups of users, networking, collaboration and flexibility. The second points out some real-world limitations, at least for now: Your patrons aren’t in SL to any significant degree; the presence of big corporations there (with empty stores) means nothing to library services; SL only provides more access for the most advantaged patrons; and, if you must be in SL, you might be better off taking part in an existing SL service. But that’s a terrible summary; if you’re feeling the urge to spend library time and money on SL, go read the posts.

Finally, Martha Hardy posted “Library [lists]: Not dead yet?” at The vital library (vitallibrary.blogspot.com) on April 22, 2007. [Editorial note: I change the trademark “Listserv™” to the generic [list] or its plural.] This is a class-related post (she was assigned to monitor Web4Lib and describe the differences between blogs and electronic discussion groups) and a good one. Here are the boldface points, each followed by one or more paragraphs of discussion:

Electronic discussion groups tend to be more formal than blogs.

Blogs are generally created by a single author or small group of authors, while electronic discussion lists are products of a specific community.

Electronic discussion groups are text only.

[Lists] have longevity.

Before discussing those points, she concludes, “Both remain useful and used for at least the near future.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 8, Whole Issue 92, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

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