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August 15, 2008

The Ludington Librarian
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:26 PM * 45 comments

On 23 June, 2008, a review was posted at Amazon by someone called “Speakthe truth.” It was Speakthe truth’s first and so-far only review at Amazon.

The five star review, labeling the book “insightful,” says:

A must read! New ways of thinking and looking at the world. You will not believe the funny, crazy & demented people at the library.

The book being reviewed was The Library Diaries by Ann Miketa. The Library Diaries had come out on 9 June, 2008, from PublishAmerica. The reader may be forgiven for suspecting that the review was written by the author herself. Few others would have known that it existed.

So far it’s an old story: Vanity press author fights hopeless odds to drum up publicity. Then things got interesting. Two days after that review appeared, on 25 July 2008, a librarian in the town of Ludington, Michigan, was fired.

Let’s turn now to Ludington, population 8,000. Here’s a bit from the Ludington Daily News, dated August 9, 2008:

Sometimes a pen name isn’t cover enough, Sally Stern-Hamilton has learned.

The publication of her controversial book, “The Library Diaries,” written under the pen name Ann Miketa, resulted in her termination as a Mason County District Library employee after 15 years on the job. She is appealing that firing.

Written in the first person and set in what she calls a fictitious Lake Michigan town of Denialville, “The Libraries Dairies” is a series of vignettes about mostly unsavory characters encountered daily at the library

Not that the pen-name was particularly obscure: “Miketa” was Ms. Stern-Hamilton’s maiden name, PublishAmerica had sent a letter announcing the book to Ms. Stern-Hamilton’s family and friends, she’d sent a copy to the newspaper for review, and, as one commenter on the newspaper story said, “I was able to pick out every character in this book.” In addition, a photo of the Ludington Library appeared on the book’s cover.

District Library Director Dickson, in a letter to Ms. Stern-Hamilton, said, “… Each chapter is devoted to a specific library patron or patrons. Your book portrays these people in a very unflattering manner. You describe individual patrons as mentally ill, mentally incompetent, unintelligent, and unattractive. You label several as ‘perverts.’ While you stop short of naming the individuals you targeted in your book, your detailed descriptions of their unique characteristics and mannerisms make them easily identifiable in our small community.”

That sort of thing does get attention in a small community, you betcha. Observe the book’s description at Amazon:

Open this book and you’ll meet the naked patron, the greedy, unenlightened patrons, destination hell, the masturbator, horny old men, Mr. Three Hats, and a menagerie of other characters you never dreamt were housed at your public library.

Let us turn now to a local forum, Ludington Talks (Photos, videos, blogs and more. Join in.) The same day the newspaper story ran, 9 August, a discussion started. The top post reads;

I can’t put this book down. This book is a cut to the quick, tell all about OUR little hamlet we call home. If you read this you don’t you in a whole new way, YOU do live in Denialville!!! Ms. Miketa, you did a great job! Thankyou

That forum is up to eight pages of comments now and still gaining steam. While many of the comments are questions on where one can get a copy of the book, others are … more heated.

The author herself hit the web to give her side of it on 11 August, over at iReport (Unedited. Unfiltered. News.):

Library worker fired from library job for writing a book. After working for fifteen years at a public library in the rural midwest, I wrote a fictionalized account of a woman’s experiences working in a public library. My director found the book offensive, probably because it doesn’t show the director in the book in such a bright light, but ostensibly I was fired because my little 150 page book might make, “some of our patrons uncomfortable” or “some patrons may not come to the library anymore because of my book.” Nevermind the fact that the particular patrons he is referring to would come to the library even if it were burning down to access their porn, terrorist groups, pedophile, or alien sightings sites.

Uh-oh. Alien sighting sites.

She laments that she is unable to find a lawyer to take her case. The comment thread there is only four posts long right now, with half of them from the author herself.

We’re up to 11 August now, when WorldNetDaily printed a condensed version of the Ludington Daily News story. Should the WorldNetDaily or Ludington Daily Press stories vanish from the web, they’ve both been reprinted at the SafeLibraries blog, “Educating people and politicians about public libraries and who controls them. Hint: local citizens should, not the American Library Association. If your local library is run by ALA acolytes applying ALA policy, this blog will provide examples of what can be done to reverse that.”

Interested in how The Library Diaries is doing saleswise? Here’s a graph of the book’s Amazon Sales Rank starting on 13 August.

I learned about this story from a thread, started on 13 August, called PA author, a librarian, gets fired from job because of book, in a forum where folks who think that PublishAmerica is the worst thing since mangel-wurtzel bread gather. PublishAmerica is well-known for not bothering to read submissions before they offer contracts. Possibly relevant: The $200K judgment against AuthorHouse

Like many places on line, if you don’t read the comments at the various sites you’re missing half the fun.

The Library Diaries by Ann Miketa.

Comments on The Ludington Librarian:
#1 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 08:51 PM:

It does sound as though the writer in question never thought about the possibility that some of the people she described in detail would dislike the accurate descriptions connected to unkind (if not necessarily libelous--IANAL and have not read her book) remarks. Did she think the book would be read by only the people in town who she likes?

As for her post-firing comments, someone should remind her of the first rule of holes.

#2 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 08:59 PM:

Sometimes I wonder about the peole we let into my profession. Sigh. No sympathy, no empathy, no professional ethics, no freaking brains.

#3 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 09:16 PM:

This is a small-town thing. Seriously. If you live in a small town, sometimes it's either write scathingly about it and become an outcaste, or go up the nearest bell tower.

There was a lady in Mooreland, IN -- a town of about 500! -- who did this. She gained some serious notoriety around town. I'm not saying the library was wrong to fire Ms. Miketa, but ... that's the way small towns can be.

One reason I don't live in one now, actually. I rather like the anonymity of a larger city.

#4 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 09:19 PM:

...SafeLibraries blog, “Educating people and politicians about public libraries and who controls them. Hint: local citizens should, not the American Library Association. If your local library is run by ALA acolytes applying ALA policy, this blog will provide examples of what can be done to reverse that.”

...I wasn't aware there was controversy surrounding the ALA. Can someone more in-the-know than I elucidate?

(Thus far, the inflammatory rhetoric at SafeLibraries--FUD-mongering, words like "acolytes", and that charming "here's a hint" thing--makes me less likely to buy their side of the story. Whatever the story is.)

#5 ::: whump ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 09:23 PM:

Someone hoisted by the self-publishing petard has been championed by a pro-censorship group. Owch.

#6 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 09:36 PM:

Nicole, I suspect they want to control the contents of libraries and their computers that access the Web. A lot of people are afraid of what other people, especially kids, might learn if the materials they can get to aren't censored. (This attitude is maybe more common in small towns.)

#7 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 09:48 PM:

ALA has a reputation as left-learning, which is not entirely undeserved. My library school classes were maybe 80% liberals and 20% left-of-liberals.

ALA issued a statement against the Iraq War, which some people thought was political and none of the ALA's business, while others thought that the cultural looting absolutely was ALA's business.

ALA comes in for a lot of criticism for being so anti-censorship. Safe Libraries called them "porn pushers" for giving the Printz award to the YA novel "Looking for Alaska", which is not porn because all the sexual parts are exactly as awkward and uncomfortable as they are when one is a teenager.

It kind of reminds me of the criticism that the ACLU gets. The ACLU ends up defending some absolutely terrible people because civil liberties aren't just for the people who aren't terrible, and people will wave their arms and shout about the terrible people the ACLU is defending, when... that isn't even the point.

(I'm a librarian, though not an ALA member. Nothing against ALA, but it's expensive, and I can't afford the conferences.)

#8 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 09:50 PM:

As a librarian, you get to know your patrons, sometimes too well. It is not right and not fair to publicize them in a book. As far as I am concerned, this is as bad as freely giving peoples' check-out records to law enforcement. What people read should be no one else's business.

I'd be a bit surprised if the 'wronged' librarian does not get her ass sued off.

When I was a circulation supervisor at a medical library, I did my best to fire an employee who was always prying into why patrons, especially non-student/non-MD were looking up stuff. Loudly. (it was a state university library and as such was (not sure about current laws) considered to be free and open to state citizens.)

Worse, her idea of a 'quiet voice' could be heard just about all over the first floor of the library. I still feel badly about the young man looking up genital warts. He ended up slinking out of the library, probably without getting the info he needed.

#9 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 11:09 PM:

Thanks for the info about why a small town might resent the ALA. I shouldn't have been surprised. The rights I would imagine a library should stand for, much like reality, have a bit of a liberal bias, don't they?

Someone posted the codes of the ALA to that Ludington forum. I note one of them is about protecting and preserving patrons' privacy/confidentiality. I expect if a librarian violated patrons' privacy and then got fired for it, she'd support anyone pushing back against the ALA.

#10 ::: Peter Burd ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 11:29 PM:

"Naked patron?" That's right out of the strip "Unshelved!"

It's appalling that this woman would write about specific patrons, no matter what they are like. Quite simply, it violates their privacy. I've been running a reference desk blog for years and one of my most important rules is to never mock the patron, only their questions.

#11 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2008, 11:49 PM:

I don't know if I'm reading behind the right lines here. It sounds to me like the author was either
(a) offended by patrons whose behavior warranted a little scotch after work and a good confidential mocking, or
(b) offended by patrons whose behavior warranted a police officer and maybe a restraining order.

Either way she felt like her boss wasn't backing her up on the issue - because her boss was more liberal, or had a higher tolerance for crazy, or failed to understand the difference between an annoyance issue and a security issue. Or because librarians who make a big deal out of public library ethics make a big deal out of the public libraries being for everyone, even smelly everyones. This is where the ALA comes in as a villain.

The idea of the library as "safe" is one of those that seems appealing on the surface, but it gets more troubling the more layers you peel off. Safe from physical violence, sure, fine, but safe from dangerous ideas? It seems like it should be easy to draw a clear line there, but then you realize that the guy looking at porn on computer #3 is the same guy who's harrassing you as he's asking you to help him print out his porn.

#12 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2008, 12:58 AM:

Rather than labeling the supposedly fictional town "Denialville", perhaps she should have taken a more subtle route and named it, oh, "Peyton Place", perhaps.

(I will admit to writing a pretty accurate version of a next-door neighbor into a story once, when the story needed a Flaming Asshole character.)

#13 ::: Jenett ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2008, 01:11 AM:

Library Bill of Rights to save people Googling.

What's fascinating to me about it is how progressive some of it was at the time (one of my MLIS papers was on the first 25 years or so it was in use, and some of the challenges to it.)

I really sympathise with people dealing with the really kooky/unsafe stuff (and I've heard some horror stories). But at the same time, if you're going to have a public library - not all of the public has your behavior expectations, your values - or frankly, your social skills.

Expecting that to be true is like expecting the teenagers at the high school library I work at to be sitting diligently at their tables silently working and asking only the smartest questions. Which is to say: unrealistic in the extreme.

Your unrealistic expectations don't give you grounds to mock other in identifiable ways in public without consequence.

I find it interesting in the comments, too, that people keep saying "We have pedophiles! They have library cards!". Honestly, I don't know about anyone else, but I'd almost rather such people use a library computer - at least there's a better chance they'll be noticed/caught. Far better, anyway, than if they were doing it at home by themselves. Of course, you also need clear policies about what happens next.

#14 ::: BuffySquirrel ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2008, 09:22 AM:

So I had to send another email today to a PA author telling them we will not be reviewing their book.

Why do *I* feel like the shit?

#15 ::: Barbara Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2008, 10:44 PM:

This was bothering me, because I was sure I'd seen a similar book mentioned (maybe on the SCA-Librarians list) but definitely not one published by PA, because I would have noticed that detail.
In case anyone else is wondering, it's Free for All: oddballs, geeks and gangstas in the public library, by Don Borchert, Virgin Books 2007.
Powells listing and reviews here. So it can be done without lawsuits and firings. (Apologies if this has already been mentioned elsewhere.)

#16 ::: John Peacock ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 09:13 AM:

My wife, the Librarian in the family, points out that there is also another current title on the subject by a mainstream publisher (and reviewed favorably in the mainstream press), called Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian.

#17 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 12:34 PM:

I've read both Free for All and Quiet, Please*. I believe that both authors made at least some effort to anonymize their descriptions. And they're both set in larger libraries/systems, which makes it harder for any individual to be sure that they're the one being talked about.

*I recommend the former, but not the latter.

#18 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 02:53 PM:

Glancing at those reviews just sparked me to remember one of my dreams last night:

I had just discovered, misshelved under some books, two CDs which we had checked out from the public library several years ago, and I was frantically trying to figure out what the fines would amount to after three years.

Clearly I am actually Opus from Bloom County.

#19 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 03:03 PM:

It was Binkley who had Mrs. McGreevy, the librarian, in his Anxiety Closet, wasn't it?

#20 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 04:27 PM:

Opus had his own anxiety closet, as I recall, and Mrs. McGreeble was a reliable standby.

#21 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 06:04 PM:

At an admittedly very quick glance it appears the author's got at least as much support from her community as opprobrium.

Anyone who works or has worked in a public library during these decades of never-ending budget cuts, with ever increasing user traffic, ever-increasing responsibilities for things that have nothing to do with books and materials knows what a difficult and sometimes even dangerous working situation it is. As well, the library is now the primary child care center for many communities.

Writing a novel to vent one's frustrations and even self-publishing seems little enough to do to save one's sanity.

I like that so many think she shouldn't be fired for this.

But then, I would, wouldn't I.

Love, C.

#22 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 07:55 AM:

Constance, I work in a public library across the street from a housing project. I know having to vent frustrations. That is what my friends and family and a private internet forum are for, where people are still careful to stay away from identifying details.

Confidentiality is a huge ethical issue. In my mind this is like a lawyer writing a book called "My Client Totally Killed That Guy."

#23 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 08:34 AM:

...SafeLibraries blog, “Educating people and politicians about public libraries and who controls them. Hint: local citizens should, not the American Library Association. If your local library is run by ALA acolytes applying ALA policy, this blog will provide examples of what can be done to reverse that.”

...I wasn't aware there was controversy surrounding the ALA. Can someone more in-the-know than I elucidate?

Ten gets you one that this is about books about evolution, homesexuality and/or the dangerous subversive teachings that all races are equal being available through whatever nut runs that blog's local library.

#24 ::: Eirin ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 09:38 AM:

From reading the Ludington Talks boards, it appears that several posters believe the book cannot be found in local stores because of its controversial nature.
It's far more probable that Ms. Miketa can thank her publisher, PublishAmerica, for the lack of brick-and-mortar placing. By all accounts, PA does not like to sell books to bookstores.

#25 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 09:53 AM:

PA is happy to sell to bookstores. Bookstores don't like buying from PA, because of high prices and non-returnability of merchandise.

#26 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 09:56 AM:

(On the other hand, PA doesn't make any effort to sell to bookstores, or to anybody else. From their point of view, marketing is the author's responsibility.)

#27 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 10:20 AM:

Bookstores don't like buying from PA, because of high prices and non-returnability of merchandise.

Some PA books are returnable, if the author requested it and the store orders through Ingram. But, on those returnable copies, the bookstore discount is only an abysmal 5%.

If the bookstore wants a 40% discount, they have to call PA direct (long distance -- no 800-number order line), pay in advance with a credit card, and get non-returnable books (if they can find a time when PA is actually answering their phones).

#28 ::: Eirin ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 10:52 AM:

The reason I think PA actively discourages selling to stores is that, IIRC, in the few instances PA authors actually managed to set up deals with stores for more than a few books, they were promptly released from their contracts with PA.
My theory is that PA doesn't want their shoddy product on display, thus risking becoming a household name for poor quality books.
Holding a run-of-the-mill PA book in your hand may actually be a far better deterent to unwary writers than all the warning sites put together.

Also, I may have been overthinking this :)

#29 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 11:03 AM:

PA's entire business model is based around selling cartons of books to their own authors. Anything else -- selling to bookstores, for example -- is harder, less profitable, and takes time and expertise that they just don't have.

#30 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 11:17 AM:

I like that so many think she shouldn't be fired for this.

But then, I would, wouldn't I.

I don't know. Would you? And does your arm get sore from reaching around to pat yourself on the back all the time?

Maybe you saw it differently, but all those supporting posts looked like the second-string bullies rallying around the alpha bully. None of them saw fit to stand up for library patrons' confidentiality because the patrons being written about were weird. They were gross. They might even be sexual perverts! (Not that we need proof, but who needs proof? You know the type when you see them!) Privacy and confidentiality in the library is for the well-groomed, the well-dressed, those with homes to go home to and money in the bank account. It's isn't for the creeps.

(Just a moment - gotta wash all this nasty sarcasm outta my mouth.)

It was obvious to me that none of the supporting crowd at the Luddington forums could possibly imagine that they might ever be the person the librarian goes home and gripes about to their spouse over a glass of scotch. None of them had any fear of being the people "outed" in such a novel. Why should they? That only happens to homeless bums and weirdors, not to nice people like them.

And then there's the "If you're well-behaved you have nothing to fear." Posts like this really made me feel ill:

magnolia on August 11, 2008 at 9:12pm: Maybe if we all thought about how we might look if someone wrote a book about our behaviour, we would all behave decently. Transparency is healthy.

The corollary, of course, is "If you have a problem with this book, you must have something to hide--are you a drug addict or a sexual predator yourself?" That can't be far behind.

It is not true that only the guilty need fear accusations and that if you're squeaky-clean you needn't be concerned about libel. A lie can wreck a life quite easily even if a life-wrecking truth isn't available.

You know, it's fairly easy to make life difficult for innocent "weirdos" by spreading rumors around. Humiliate them enough, maybe they won't come by the library anymore, and the librarian will have one less "weirdo" to gripe about. Bully for her; too bad for the "weirdo."

We're many of us SF geeks. We know what it's like to be the weirdo.

#32 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 01:11 PM:


"And does your arm get sore from reaching around to pat yourself on the back all the time?"

The arthritis in my shoulders and the damaged vertebrae in my neck and spinal column make such an action impossible.

But yes, my arms do hurt -- all the time -- because of my condition.

Thank you for asking.

Love, C.

#33 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 01:24 PM:

Now how'd that happen? I didn't TYPE it twice.

#34 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 02:14 PM:

Nicole, #30: Hear, hear! The argument "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" has a corollary which is never spoken: "...except a false accusation".

#35 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:48 PM:

If you have nothing to hide, give me your driver's license number and SSN.

I have something to hide - probably many things, and different things depending on who "you" are. I have everything to fear. I lived for several years in an environment(*) where everything I did or said I had to assume would be public knowledge, and get to the worst possible person by the worst possible route. Now, they didn't have knives or guns, but they didn't need them; neither did I, and the beatings were just as much fun (and almost as fatal; I was lucky) without the blood. I'm Much Better Now, but I don't want to go back, thanks.

I do my best to remain in control of who knows what about me, and I think that's not unreasonable. Oh, yeah, I know about the false accusation bit, too. Of course, that would never happen in real life.

(*) I have read Graves' Goodbye To All That, and I am not surprised that, for all that most reviews I have read discuss it's anti-war stance, you can feel the relief he has when he trades for the Army uniform the School one.

#36 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 09:56 PM:

I read #35 and remembered high school. I was one of the people who got bullied--almost never physically, but the emotional abuse was bad enough. To this day I'm a little paranoid about revealing too much of myself to people I meet; it's a habit I developed in my teens, when anything I said or did, no matter how innocuous, might become another little spot for certain kids to drive in their metaphorical needles.

Here's the thing: everybody has things to hide. Not criminal or even just disgusting behavior: merely the things you talk to your friends and family about, but don't want broadcast to strangers. Sometimes they're sensitive things--personal relationships, medical information. Sometimes they just make you look silly when ripped out of context--odd habits, unusual hobbies or interests. (Or even not-so-unusual hobbies--there are plenty of Trekkies and trainspotters in the world, but just look at their reputations.) And then there are our Inspector Clouseau moments of transient awkwardness, when we trip over the furniture or slip on a banana peel. (Think Michael Dukakis in the tank helmet. Then think about what that photo did to his campaign.)

Spreading this stuff around is what bullies do. I'm not sure what's in this woman's book. Maybe some of the people she wrote about really are genuine creeps... but if so, she'd be better off talking to the police or social services. If I had to bet in the absence of additional evidence, I'd wager this librarian's emotional maturity did not far exceed the average teenage knuckle-dragger's.

#37 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 01:56 AM:

Wesley, #36, never read my LJ -- I talk about what happens with my medical stuff, my hobbies, my cats, what I did that day, and yes, even about falling down.

#38 ::: Jan S ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 01:36 PM:

How amusing, to see a town just 35 miles from mine embroiled in a brouhaha that gets noticed by Making Light. The Internet truly does make this a small world. :)

#39 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 03:32 PM:

Marilee, #37: I think your comment to Wesley is comparing apples and oranges. You blog about your issues, which is absolutely your right to do. This woman's book was about other people, not about herself. That's an entirely different thing, and (given that the subjects in it were easily identifiable) well over the line into violation of privacy. It's a less-lethal version of the outing of Valerie Plame.

#40 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 09:56 PM:

Lee, #39, I surely could have been wrong, but I read Wesley as saying everybody has things they want to hide and I post pretty much everything on my LJ.

#42 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2008, 12:26 PM:

Stern-Hamilton said what happened to her goes against the spirit a library is supposed to represent. "The absolute irony is that the public library is a pillar of free speech, and leads me to wonder why the administration is so upset. It's fiction," she said.

Troll bingo! There's the free-speech argument, and "it wasn't directed at you personally"; how many more will she get in as this goes on?

#44 ::: Cassie ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2008, 04:30 PM:

Marilee @40: I think you're still missing the point of what Wesley is saying. It is your right to talk about those parts of your own life, but I can no more do that than I can publish your Social Security and bank account numbers without being a bully, save with your permission or in discussion with you after you've brought those things up. What parts of your life you want to talk about aren't at issue here; what parts others get to talk about (and make money from, and quite possibly use to hurt you) are the problem.

#45 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 08:03 AM:

And time rolled on.

The Ludington Librarian sued PublishAmerica, and the court agreed with her.

PublishAmerica has to pay her $10,880.00 and return her publishing rights. Case # 10C09003264

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