Becoming the Library They Need: Anticipating Users’ Expectations
Janice R. Lachance, SLA CEO
Opening Keynote Address
2012 Joint Spring Conference
SLA Kentucky Chapter/KLA Academic Library Section/KLA Special Library Section
12 April 2012
Thank you for that warm Kentucky welcome. I’m so glad to be back here in front of so many friendly and familiar faces. The Kentucky Chapter of SLA has a reputation for being friendly and, shall we say, fun-loving, so when I was asked to speak, I didn’t even consider saying no. And I insisted on staying for the full conference so I can renew old acquaintances, make new friends, attend some presentations, and hear what’s on everyone’s minds. Opportunities like this are invaluable for me.
Before I begin speaking, I want to take a couple of minutes to recognize my hosts, especially the Kentucky SLA Chapter. SLA has 50 chapters, some of them with hundreds of members, but none more influential than the Kentucky Chapter. Within SLA, the Kentucky Chapter has always punched above its weight, producing more ideas and more leaders than many chapters twice its size. For example, Leoma Dunn of Thomas More College was named an SLA Fellow in 2011; Leoma followed in the footsteps of James Manasco of the University of Louisville, who was named a Fellow in 2010. Stacey Greenwell received the Dow Jones Leadership Award in 2010 and was a member of our Centennial Commission in 2009. Alex Grigg also assisted with our centennial celebration by serving on the Website sub-commission.
One thing that always strikes me about James and Stacey and Leoma and their fellow chapter members is that, when I read their bios on Websites and Facebook pages and LinkedIn, I frequently see the words “Proud member of the SLA Kentucky Chapter.” I always knew that people in Kentucky were passionate about their horses and their basketball—and you’ll note that I’m not wearing either red or blue today, so as not to take sides or offend anyone! But it seems the information professionals in this state are also passionate about SLA, and the Kentucky Chapter deserves the credit for this. The chapter is vibrant, active, engaged, and welcoming, and I often sing its praises when I speak to leaders of other SLA chapters who are looking for ideas or inspiration.
To the many Kentucky Chapter members who are here this morning, I can only say, keep up the good work. And to the leaders of the Kentucky Chapter, the KLA Academic Library Section, and the KLA Special Library Section, I say, thank you for inviting me to your conference and allowing me to speak to you. It is an honor and a privilege.
It’s always great to get out of the office, and it’s even better when I can visit a library or information center. And that’s what this is, isn’t it?
As I look around this room, I see professionals who are engaged in the pursuit and sharing of knowledge. The early libraries were also gathering places for such people—the teachers and scientists and philosophers of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Granted, there aren’t any scrolls or books lining the walls of this room, but that’s not so remarkable these days.
What is remarkable, and what I’d like to speak about today, is how the relationship between libraries and people has evolved over time, and how taking steps to strengthen and reinforce the role of librarians and information professionals can revitalize their relationships with users and help create a library that users need and want. Each individual library or information center will enjoy unique opportunities, but every one of them can put the same concepts to use.
To begin, let’s review the history of our profession. The very first libraries were tributes to the people who created them. They were either private collections compiled by scholars—Aristotle comes to mind—or royal libraries created by rulers such as the Ptolemies in Egypt, who founded the Great Library of Alexandrina and tried to fill it with all of the texts that existed. When visitors from other parts of the world arrived in Alexandria, the Ptolemies would confiscate their manuscripts and put them in the library. Ptolemy III even went so far as to bribe Greek leaders into sharing original manuscripts by Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, giving them silver coins as collateral. He would then put the originals in the library, send copies back to Athens, and tell the Greeks to keep the silver. The Egyptians eventually amassed a collection of roughly 750,000 scrolls, by far the largest in the world.
The privileged users of these early libraries were the learned classes, the best and brightest minds of the Mediterranean world. Not until after the death of Julius Caesar did public libraries come into being, and some of them were constructed in places we wouldn’t necessarily associate with learning—in bath houses, for example. In Rome, libraries were added to the imperial baths in the second and third centuries A.D., allowing citizens from all strata of society to read books and expand their knowledge.
But as Rome fell apart, so, too, did its libraries. Fortunately, religious orders stepped in to fill the void. Monastic communities, fueled by the spread of Christianity, proliferated throughout Europe, and each maintained its own collection, often devoted to theological works. Soon, monasteries began sharing their manuscripts with other monasteries, which laid the foundation for modern inter-library loan programs.
When Europe finally emerged from the Dark Ages, it picked up from where the ancient Greeks and Romans had left off. Wealthy citizens began establishing their own private libraries, and rulers put together collections as well—the Vatican, for example, opened a library in the 1400s that is still one of the most remarkable depositories of information in the world. But the early Renaissance also marked a dramatic departure from the past, largely because of two developments that changed the relationship between libraries and people. The first was the rise and spread of universities, which continue to thrive today and where many of you are employed. The second was the invention of movable type, which made it easier and cheaper to bring books to the masses.
Thanks to these two developments, libraries became not only more common, but also more diverse. University libraries, some of which were formed from personal collections, were intended to meet the needs of rising scholars—mostly young men—learning about everything from biology to math to poetry. National libraries, similar to those of Egypt and Rome, sprang up throughout Europe and soon spread to North America. Public libraries began to appear in cities and towns across England and the United States; a few of the earliest ones in both countries were started by a 17th-century clergyman, Thomas Bray, who conceived of a network of theological libraries funded by booksellers and filled with books donated by authors. School libraries debuted in the United States in the second half of the 19th century, with the librarian playing primarily a clerical role at first but assuming a more important role over time.
These libraries differed from their ancestors because their collections were primarily for the benefit of the people who used them, not those who amassed them. And that benefit was mostly educational in nature. The libraries not only provided books and other information resources, they also taught people how to find and use these materials.
This was not the case in early specialized libraries, where the relationship between library and people hearkened back to the days of Alexandria and Rome. The specialized library existed to support the needs of the parent organization, and the librarian’s duty was to provide the information that the organization’s employees needed. There was no expectation that the employees would be interested in finding, or have the time to learn how to find, the information resources the library housed.
Common to all of these different types of libraries, however, was the librarian. Even in specialized libraries—in fact, especially in specialized libraries—the librarian or information professional was more than just a link between users and information resources. The librarian was expected to develop collaborative relationships with users, to understand and analyze their information needs and interpret and organize the material for their benefit. These collaborative relationships between information professionals and information users bound students, faculty, schools, workers, and even entire communities to their libraries, and our profession flourished accordingly.
In recent years, however, the relationship between libraries and people has shifted again—this time, I fear, to the detriment of librarians and info pros. With the development of the Internet and communication technologies such as computers, smartphones, and tablets, the information balance has tilted toward users. No longer do users feel connected to libraries as they once did. Today, the library is a Website to be accessed rather than a building to be visited and stacks to be browsed; the librarian, meanwhile, has become a search engine.
With fewer people walking through library doors, information professionals are finding it harder to develop collaborative relationships with users. In some specialized libraries, the library as a place has ceased to exist, though information professionals in these environments have been able to use their extensive skill sets and vast knowledge to help their organizations in other capacities.
In response to this development, librarians have focused on providing information services to users when and where they need them. Many of you here today do this, and do it well. And some of you have been remarkably successful in luring users back into your libraries. The Hub@WT’s, the Information Commons Center at the University of Kentucky, is a vibrant and dynamic setting that caters to hundreds and even thousands of students daily, and the information professionals who work there deserve to be recognized for its success.
A question we all ought to consider, however, is whether the emphasis on users and meeting their needs may have the unintended consequence of devaluing our libraries and information centers. I know this thinking runs counter to conventional wisdom; as one librarian blogged recently, “We do not define our libraries, our users do.” I agree that people do define libraries and information centers, but users are not the only ones who do, and they are not always the most important people in the equation. In my opinion, you are.
This is not to say that users don’t matter. They do matter—a lot—and this conference speaks to their importance. There are presentations today and tomorrow about information literacy workshops for ESL students and identifying faculty preferences and improving chat reference services and several other topics, and I look forward to attending some of these sessions so I can hear more about new developments in these areas.
Looking at this agenda, however, I’m struck by the thought that no amount of focus groups and surveys and other common information-gathering techniques can guarantee “the library users need.” Change is occurring so quickly that we must find some other way to provide a user experience that transcends what our customers expect. While surveys and focus groups certainly add depth and nuance to library services, they are only a springboard for imagining and creating a transformational library that inspires users and challenges their assumptions.
I submit to you that what we need is a new relationship between libraries and the people who use them, and the key to that relationship is you—the people who develop and deliver library services. By empowering information professionals and librarians, we can revitalize the connection between users and libraries and enable new collaborative relationships to be forged. Building on the passion and commitment of dedicated librarians and information professionals, we can transcend the experience of a mere Google search and enable libraries to not just meet users’ needs, but take steps to anticipate them and create new services that users value.
To help you imagine what such a library might look like, think about Apple for a second. Many of you have an iPhone or an iPad or a Mac, and you’ve probably downloaded songs from iTunes. Apple has been one of the truly revolutionary businesses in commercial history, and its co-founder and longtime CEO, Steve Jobs, was mourned by millions when he died late last year.
But Steve Jobs would have been the first to tell you that Apple’s success was the result of its people, not its products. In an interview with Fortune magazine in 1998, he made clear that Apple’s reputation for innovation rested entirely on its workers and managers. “It’s about the people you have,” he said, “how they’re led, and how much you get it.”
The same is true of libraries and information centers. Those of you who lead libraries and information centers must instill a culture that encourages your staff to be creative and curious, to take risks, to innovate, to imagine.
One approach to developing such a culture was suggested by Anne-Marie Slaughter in an article in the Harvard Business Review late last year. Anne-Marie is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and formerly worked at the State Department, so she’s not someone you would expect to write a piece about technological advances and their impact on the workforce. But the fact that she did, and also had some interesting ideas to share, is evidence that fresh insights can come from the most unlikely sources.
In her article, Anne-Marie noted that many traditional jobs and job titles are disappearing, but there are new jobs waiting to be claimed by people who formerly held the old ones. For example, reporters used to find information and write stories, but with that function being filled by bloggers, crowd-sourcers, and others, reporters can now fill different roles, such as protecting human rights on the ground and evaluating the credibility of information flowing from different parts of the world. News outlets like the New York Times, she wrote, should be looking for curators and verifiers, and enterprising information professionals should go ahead and apply for those roles.
“Forget the titles on the org charts and the advertised positions,” she wrote. “Design your own profession and convince employers that you are exactly what they need. Define the functions you think they need and you can supply, and then apply for a corresponding position, whether or not they’ve created it yet.”
Are there new jobs waiting to be claimed in your library? Does the culture at your library encourage you and your staff to design your own profession? Can you imagine a library without an org chart, and perhaps even without formal titles?
Again, consider Apple. The keynote speaker at our 2012 Annual Conference will be Guy Kawasaki, who worked at Apple in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. His first title was software evangelist; when he returned in the 1990s, he became Apple’s chief evangelist. Those really sound more like descriptions than titles, but they matched the skills that he possessed and the functions Apple needed. In essence, he designed his own profession.
What Guy found at Apple was not just a culture but a cause, which is another thing that your library must have. Every library and information center must articulate a cause or purpose that resonates with librarians as well as users.
Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why, says that organizations must give people a bigger reason to work for them, a cause rather than simply a product or service. Products and services produce paychecks, he says, but causes inspire passion. “The more people you inspire,” Simon writes, “the more people will inspire you.”
An OCLC research report published in 2008 said much the same thing. The report addressed the factors that drive and inhibit funding of local libraries, but its conclusions apply to all types of libraries and information centers. Two conclusions are worth noting here: first, that perceptions of librarians are strong predictors of library support, and second, that people who see the library as transformational rather than just informational are more likely to support it.
By articulating a transformational cause and adopting a culture that rewards risk and encourages innovation, libraries can inspire passion and commitment among their information professionals. They can motivate them to go beyond providing everyday services and begin imagining what the library can become. They can create evangelists, first among the library staff and then, over time, among the library’s users.
Guy Kawasaki, for example, is still an evangelist of sorts for Apple, even though he left the company more than a decade ago. He recalls being “enchanted” when he first saw a Macintosh computer, and his latest book, Enchantment, contains many fond references to that moment and to Apple. Imagine if you and your fellow information professionals felt this way about your library. Then, imagine how your users would feel.
I recognize that cause, passion, culture, and transformation are not words and concepts that people typically associate with libraries. I also understand that empowering librarians to anticipate users’ needs and expectations, rather than simply asking users what they want, seems like taking two steps where one will suffice.
History tells us, however, that the most successful products, services and organizations are proactive rather than reactive. They look forward and anticipate rather than simply meet current needs and expectations.
Anticipating what customers want or expect is risky, I’ll admit. I read an article recently in the Wall Street Journal about White Castle serving wine with its hamburgers. It’s only happening at one location, and it’s being done on a trial basis. But someone within White Castle pushed for it, and the company decided to give it a try.
Will it work? White Castle customers don’t strike me as the type to wash down their fries with a glass of merlot, but perhaps I‘m misjudging them. Still, even if the experiment fails, the point is that White Castle tried to anticipate a customer need and meet it.
That’s what you and your fellow librarians should be empowered to do. No, I don’t mean you should serve wine at your library, though that would probably draw a crowd of customers. What I mean is that you should be empowered to anticipate a need and try to meet it. Gathering data through surveys and focus groups reveals what users want now, but it doesn’t necessarily point toward what they’ll want tomorrow. Steve Jobs said it well: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” he told an interviewer. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
That’s where the cause, passion, culture, and transformation come in handy. They inspire librarians and information professionals to do things they might not do otherwise, such as look beyond their own profession and borrow ideas and tools from other disciplines. This isn’t a new concept—we’ve been adapting technology from other areas for many years—but the inspiration for new programs and services can come from the most unlikely sources.
For example, some career offices at universities are reaching out to high school students who have expressed an interest in enrolling. They review the students’ applications and sometimes even interview them to find out more about their interests, skills, and aspirations. They use this information to help design possible courses of study for students and identify potential careers and employers that might interest them. And all of this happens before the students even set foot on campus!
Could your library do something like this—reach out to prospective students, learn more about them, begin to build personal relationships with them, and perhaps tailor existing services to meet their needs or even create new services that might interest them? Granted, if you work at a large college or university, it probably would not be feasible to do this with each individual student. But students could be aggregated into categories that correlate with their interests and skills, and certain students with unique backgrounds and accomplishments could be matched with librarians on a personal basis.
You might also look to the business school at your university for inspiration. Many business schools require their students to create proposals for new ventures, and these proposals sometimes become the blueprints for successful enterprises. FedEx, for example, has its origins in a paper that Fred Smith, the founder and CEO, wrote for an economics class at Yale. And who can forget the film “The Social Network,” which told the story of the founding of Facebook by students at Harvard?
The James J. Hill Reference Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, has built on this concept by creating a “business incubator” to help entrepreneurs start new businesses. Could your library become an incubator as well—an incubator of new services to help students, say, find and use information, develop new research and communication skills, or participate in projects with other students and faculty?
Or how about internships? Some libraries offer them to MLS students, but why not expand the program to include internships for students who agree to partner with library staff to conceive of, develop, and “test drive” new services? Some of your librarians would probably love to brainstorm with students about new technologies, and the results could be truly innovative. Anyone up for a game of “Call of Duty: Modern Librarian III” or “Stackman: Origins of the Knowledge Culture?”
There’s a tool I read about recently from Thompson Reuters that a library or information center might be able to apply to this sort of situation. It’s called Research in View, and it is designed to track the teaching and research activities of faculty across an entire academic community. I wonder if perhaps Research in View—or some tool similar to it—could be used to provide information professionals with a view of the many activities taking place in their libraries and information centers. Such a tool could allow info pros to assess the value of their library’s activities and provide insights into where new service opportunities may lie. Librarians and information professionals could collaborate with users to develop services to take advantage of these opportunities.
With committed, passionate information professionals who feel empowered to take risks, anything is possible. You never know what might happen. But you can be sure of one thing: your library, and thus your users, will be better for it. If nothing else, an empowered librarian can find new ways to “connect the dots,” to take what you’re already doing and inject some synergy into it. As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, “Today, the best advice is likely to be, Don’t just do something, stand there. Look around, find out what is already being done, and then connect existing initiatives, programs, projects, and organizations to one another in ways that allow them to be more than the sum of their parts.”
One place to look is the communications office in your university or business, because odds are they’re involved in social media. Their concern is primarily to protect the brand, to monitor conversations and identify potential public relations problems. But this is a role that begs for adult supervision by someone who recognizes that social media can be a treasure trove of potential information for people throughout the enterprise—students, faculty, administrators, partners, product developers, lawyers, you name it. Don’t wait to be asked to help make sense of social data—jump in and get your feet wet. You’re almost assured of finding some new way to make your library or information center more useful to your users.
Associations are another place to look for ideas, because inspired librarians and info pros are much more likely to join associations and to encourage their colleagues to do so as well. If you’re attending SLA 2012, you’ll have your pick of dozens of presentations on topics such as reinventing library skills, using data curation profiles to engage researchers, and building a greener library. I’m confident that you can glean some ideas from these presentations that will lead to innovations your users will appreciate.
I hope these examples illustrate my point that creating a library users need starts with articulating a cause that inspires librarians and instilling a culture that encourages and empowers them to innovate, take risks, and adopt new ideas. But even the most forward-looking libraries won’t succeed without getting buy-in from users and decision makers. I recommend taking three steps, beginning with this: Be visible.
Geoffrey Freeman, in The Library as Place, noted that academic libraries typically occupy prime real estate on college and university campuses, and they frequently have been designed to draw attention and attract crowds. “Pre-eminently sited and often heroic in scale and character,” he wrote, “the library has served as a visual anchor for the surrounding buildings on campus.”
Some libraries take the “visual anchor” metaphor literally. The Geisel Library at the University of California San Diego is called the “spaceship” or “mother ship” by students because of its futuristic appearance, which includes glass panels that allow people standing outside to view the patrons and collection inside. It’s a striking building, and it is considered the flagship structure on the UCSD campus.
Today, however, being an anchor means being a static, bricks-and-mortar edifice in a mobile, virtual world. Libraries have tried to compensate by going online and creating mobile-friendly interfaces, but on the ever-more-crowded Internet, libraries are competing for attention rather than drawing it. So how can your library make a visual connection with users and other stakeholders?
I believe librarians and information professionals must become “visual anchors” for their library and serve as ambassadors of their cause and culture. This doesn’t mean they should be static—far from it. To help kick-start relationships with users, librarians and info pros should reach out to them, physically as well as virtually. Let me cite one example to suggest how this might work.
At Stanford University, the shuttle bus system that ferries students around campus and into town is called Marguerite, after the name of a horse that used to pull a carriage from Palo Alto to Stanford in the late 1800s. Librarians ride the bus and engage in “Marguerite minutes,” which are one-minute discussions with students. The librarians sit next to a student they don’t know, introduce themselves, and tell them what they do at the library. The purpose is to spark a conversation that will lead to something bigger—greater awareness and use of library services and, ideally, a relationship between student and librarian that translates into increased support for the library and its mission.
Outreach efforts can happen within a library or information center as well, and that leads me to the second step I recommend you take: Be communal. Communal is another word we don’t often hear in libraries; we’re much more familiar with social, but that word means something quite different. Many libraries are social, and proud of it. They’re on Facebook and Twitter, they have coffee bars and lounges and group study spaces, and they are trying very hard to ride the social wave that has washed over our society and seeped into every crevice of our personal and professional lives.
The irony of social groups is that they can be as exclusionary as they are inclusionary. Social groups tend to form around commonalities—shared backgrounds, beliefs, and so on. Communal networks, on the other hand, encourage interaction across groups rather than within them. A group of students hanging out in the snack bar of your library are being social; a librarian, a couple of students, and a chemistry professor sharing coffee and conversation are being communal.
The good news is that many of the same steps libraries have taken to be social, such as installing coffee bars, can be extended to encourage community. What’s needed is a catalyst—someone to reach out to various user groups and be a conduit for connection and, ultimately, collaboration. A passionate, persuasive librarian would be just the right person for this job.
Some libraries have established hackerspaces, also known as hacklabs or makerspaces. These are rooms or open spaces where people interested in technology or art or even literature can come together and share resources and ideas to create things. These spaces draw mostly young crowds, such as students, but there’s no reason why an enterprising librarian couldn’t stimulate interest among faculty, local employers, administrators, and even the surrounding community.
By being communal and visible, librarians will, over time, foster relationships with a library’s users and the decision makers who fund it. This points to the third step, which is to create evangelists. Like many of the terms I’ve used this morning, evangelist isn’t something typically associated with a library, but research shows that there is no better way to engage people in your library, its services and its mission than to create evangelists.
A recent survey by MetLife, a leading insurance company, found that people affiliate with organizations for a wide variety of reasons, but recommendations from friends, family and colleagues appear to have the greatest influence over such decisions. So if you can turn a few of your users into evangelists, you can—especially in this era of social media—create a favorable impression of your library among your user base and pique additional interest in engaging directly with your librarians. This will allow you to develop more of the rich collaborations between librarians and users that ultimately lead to ideas for new library services.
Within SLA, we’ve been studying how to create evangelists, though we haven’t been using that term per se. We call it the Loyalty Project, and we asked an expert on this topic, James Kane, to lead us in this endeavor. He’s been working with several of our chapters over the past year, and at our annual Leadership Summit in January, we began to receive feedback from those chapters about what they’ve learned so far.
If you visit our Website and check out the Leadership Summit section, you’ll see links to the loyalty presentations that were delivered at the summit. Three presentations are posted: one on member relations, another on vendor relations, and the third on community relations. The presentation about member relations probably correlates best with libraries and their users, and as you scroll through the slides you’ll come to one with three words on it—trust, belonging and purpose. Continue scrolling, and you’ll see another slide that says, “What do your members care about?”
Substitute users for members in that question and you’ll get to the essence of how to create the library that your customers expect. But as I’ve tried to make clear in this speech, I think you’ll be served equally well or even better by substituting the word librarians for members.
By empowering your librarians to take risks, and by giving them a higher purpose with which to affiliate, you provide them with a sense of belonging—to the library and to the community of users it serves. And by getting to know your librarians and learning what matters to them, you’ll be better able to identify how they can best use their skills to meet your library’s needs, including the need to cultivate relationships with users.
As I said earlier, I think we need a new relationship between libraries and the people who develop and deliver their services. This relationship holds the key to creating a library that users want—a library that anticipates needs rather than just responding to them, a library that is communal as well as social, a library that has ambassadors and evangelists and cultivates loyalty. I know I’m speaking to the choir when I say that librarians need a supportive culture and higher purpose, and I recognize that those ideals often wilt and die in the stifling heat of a lifeless economy. But I truly believe that libraries without passionate, engaged librarians will never truly become libraries that users want, no matter how hard they try to discern users’ needs.
I hope I’ve stimulated some fresh thinking today with my remarks, and I encourage you to share your own ideas and experiences amongst yourselves to continue this process. I know Catherine Lavallee-Welch is speaking tomorrow about library construction and renovation projects and how they offer opportunities to better meet the needs and wants of users, and I’m sure she’ll encourage a lot of thinking and discussion as well.
I know that if I walked around this room and asked each of you to share your thoughts about improving the user experience, I would get as many different perspectives as there are people. That speaks well of us. We are an inquisitive profession, always looking for new ideas, and conferences like this will ensure that we never lack for them. And there are dozens of success stories represented here, not only among the many fine academic libraries in this state but also among corporate information centers and law firm libraries. If the early Roman and Greek scholars could come back to life and visit a library or information center here in Kentucky, they would think they had died and gone to heaven.
Speaking of heaven, we’re in one of the most beautiful settings in one of the most beautiful states in the country, so beautiful that I actually looked forward to getting out of bed this morning. Thanks to the warm weather that has blessed much of the country the past few months—or cursed much of the country, depending on your point of view—the trees and flowers are blooming earlier than usual. (I’m also told that the mint has already sprung up as well, so I suspect that many of you probably are tempted to jump the gun on the Kentucky Derby and start drinking your juleps before May arrives.)
The lovely surroundings and relaxing environment here at Lake Cumberland State Park should certainly stimulate ideas and discussion above and beyond those generated by the presentations. I encourage you to get outside during your free time and reflect on what you’ve heard, then share your thoughts with your colleagues during the networking session this afternoon. And please say hello to me if you have the chance. I’ll be here through the end of the conference and welcome your thoughts and suggestions.
I’ve been talking for the past 40 minutes or so, and I promised I would leave some time for questions and comments. Does anyone have a question or comment?
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