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Uncommons -- Schadl, Nelson & Valencia. Journal of Learning Spaces 2(1), 2013

Research Article

Uncommons: Transforming Dusty Reading Rooms into Artefactual “Third Space” Library Learning Labs
Suzanne Michele Schadl
Assistant Professor, University Libraries, University of New Mexico

Molly Nelson
Latin American and Iberian Institute Library Graduate Fellow, University of New Mexico

Kristen S. Valencia
Center for Regional Studies Graduate Fellow, University of New Mexico

This article describes the implementation of two inexpensive social learning library laboratories for advanced students in Latin American and Chicana/o studies. Drawing on philosophical literature from these interdisciplinary areas and ethnic studies, these cases present a “third space” option for library learning called uncommons. This term denotes alternative book-laden spaces for student scholars practicing, rather than studying, their disciplinary crafts. As a “third space,” uncommons invite advanced students to resist the false dichotomy between technology and tradition and to present their work among peers engaging tangible and audible, as opposed to virtual, creative or academic texts.

Commons, commons—frankly, they are far too common. Large, open spaces with mobile furniture, dependable bandwidth and smart boards are welcome additions to university libraries, but they are not the only answer for integrative library learning. Academic libraries serve multiple learning and research interests and their spaces should do the same. Commons offer students social spaces for collaborative learning. However, creating these spaces in academic libraries requires a substantial architectural and financial commitment that can be prohibitive. Some librarians argue that commons imitate computer and learning laboratories found elsewhere on campus, thus undermining libraries’ distinctiveness (Matthews, 2011). Others rave about their success in creating new purposes for outdated spaces. This case study offers a low cost “third space” option, which builds on the benefits of social learning and on the importance of preserving and sharing academic production in order to present smaller under-utilized library spaces and texts as additional tools for active learning.

Library literature on space and learning overwhelmingly presents open mobile spaces for collaborative learning as the key to unlocking active learning in library spaces. These spaces enhance learning by facilitating group interactions that enable students to share ideas and information. For advanced students, active learning consists of applying works in their fields to the development and implementation of their own research processes and products. They test hypotheses or uncover information to answer questions left previously unanswered.  In order to contribute to their fields they share their work at conferences and round tables as well as in papers, articles and books. These students use libraries to engage with established disciplinary work and we propose that they should have the option of using library space to practice, rather than just study, their disciplines. Providing that “third space,” uncommons, invites advanced students to use library spaces in order to further contribute to their fields.


This case study employs analysis and criticism to offer a descriptive history of local problem solving as an intervention within the library literature on commons. Disproportionate attention to library commons contrives a false dichotomy that pits texts against technology. By playing on the term “commons” and delineating the creation of what we call uncommons, this case study exposes the diversity of academic library spaces and services, while also highlighting the absence of such variety in publications on social learning in libraries. It suggests that more specialized or rarefied uncommons spaces bringing learning and print sources together in active learning environments add equally to the academic library experience. By referencing the already existing polarization between books and technology, this case study critically engages the Taiga Forum 2011 Provocative Statements on books, collaboration and library collections. The intent is not to vilify technology but to present additional low cost options for social learning in smaller cloistered library spaces. This presentation of uncommons (as intervention) prioritizes texts over technology as a means for inserting them back into the discussion reflected in the library literature on social learning. As it currently stands texts are far too uncommon in these discussions.

The case studies presented here describe the implementation of small, inexpensive laboratories with tangible library resources or uncommons. This article outlines two collaborative projects in which the Inter American Studies library program (IAS) together with the Latin American and Iberian Institute (LAII) and the Center for Regional Studies (CRS) at the University of New Mexico (UNM) create spaces for experiential learning in book-laden environments. The first example recounts the conversion of a dusty, uncataloged departmental library into an exhibition of local Latin American scholarly production. The second follows the transformation of a donor-funded periodical reading room/gallery into a boutique environment where students can present their work against the backdrop of actual books as décor, media or special collections.

Defining Uncommons

As a post-colonialist concept, uncommons is “third space” and presents the intersection of separate but interconnected cultures as new identities and meanings that interrupt the very stories they occupy. These spaces force new questions, ideas and conclusions. Like shape shifters, these different values require those who are engaged with them to relocate their understandings or think differently, often against the grain (Bhabha, 1990 and 1994). Engaging the vast literature on library as place, Elmborg (2010) specifies “third space” in libraries as the place between “settled” ordered edifices for quiet reflection and adventurous horizons for crossing thresholds (345). Kapitzke (2003) situates information or library literacy in a “third space” as well, suggesting that it is not technology that transforms libraries, but rather the “disjunctures and dissonances between traditional library values and practices and the new social conditions, textualities, and literacies (53).”

As a “third space,” uncommons is social for some and communal for others (Gayton, 2008). In this way they may be very similar to commons. Unlike their more popular other, however, the resources in uncommons are what we call artefactual, physical artifact and art in Spanish and Portuguese (arte). This term means that they are tangible pieces of creative or academic production to be manipulated and engaged with academically in social and communal settings. Because of this focus on tangible rather than online resources, uncommons appeal to advanced undergraduate and graduate students, working within the documentation of their respective academic crafts and disciplines rather than from textbook-like lessons delivered in class or online.

Uncommons engages students in the discord between tradition and innovation. As “third space” uncommons is not the antithesis of their more popular other. It is an alternative form of laboratory in which scholars practice their disciplinary crafts between established academic authority - or hegemony in this context - and less recognized, emerging scholarship. The focus within uncommons is on research and learning rather than space. Nonetheless, uncommons are physical spaces, generally located in niches, where scholars can work individually or with small groups connecting to the internet with portable devices. It is space that accommodates intellectual exchange through presentations and exhibitions. Uncommons enable aspiring academics to interact with established specialists and learn by example and engagement, socially with other scholars and academically with texts.

Literature Review

Taiga’s proclamation (2011) suggests that flattening organizational structures inspires radical cooperation and collaborative space partnerships as well as new models for liaison librarianship. The indication is that, because scholars meet their research needs online, librarians no longer build collections or offer boutique services. Taiga suggests scholars will ultimately demand the look and feel of book-laden shelves and quiet reading rooms forcing libraries to respond by displaying books as décor. The implied assumption here is that these decorative books cannot double as media, information or knowledge. That notion is categorically false.

Documentation of library spaces and services changing to accommodate new technologies and responsibilities is omnipresent in academic library literature. One of the leading voices in the literature on libraries as learning spaces, Bennett (2003 and 2005), suggests that libraries must designate open spaces for collaborative learning and transition from a service to a learning culture. He claims this move is the most appropriate means for libraries to remain relevant in a fast-changing, electronically-stimulated learning environment. Shill and Tonner (2003) demonstrate the incorporation of these kinds of spaces, generally called commons areas, in extensive new library construction and renovation, noting more than 500 major projects. Lippencott (2010) underscores how these high-profile projects meet student needs. Numerous case studies reiterate massive interest and varying experiences in library commons design (Oblinger, 2006).

Understandably, because undergraduates are the largest population in higher education, contemporary scholarship on learning spaces in college and university environments caters to discussions of what best serves undergraduate students. Gardner and Eng (2005), for example, conclude that “Generation Y” demands space for learning from peers and for integrating technology. Given the importance of enhancing the first-year experience and retaining undergraduate students these studies are essential. Nonetheless, their emphasis on a Net, Digital Boom or Millennial generation is problematic, especially in large research institutions. As Black and Roberts note (2006), the idea of a “Netgeneration” oversimplifies students by presenting a homogeneous type with identifiable needs, such as access to social and electronic networks (90). Lippencott (2010) also cautions that some students lack the skills or resources to take advantage of technology (35). What is clear is that typical is elusive.

While some students prefer the learning commons in their libraries (Jackson and Hahn, 2011), others recount spiritual connections with library quiet spaces and resources (Engel and Antell, 2006 and Dowler, 1996). Similarly, some librarians argue that social learning is useful for some students, while others seek out quiet spaces in which they can see and be seen by others in serious study (Gayton, 2008). Learning commons serve each of these extremes by providing group-friendly furniture and laptops for collaborative learning as well as fixed computer terminals for individual study amidst the social scene (Bryant, Matthews, & Walton, 2009).

Often what are conspicuously missing in these commons are books. The implication is that the netgeneration does not read them because they prefer technology. The results of a recently published Pew Research Center (2012) survey underscore the error in this assumption. Pew reports that eight in ten Americans between ages 16 and 29 indicated that they had read at least one book in 2011 and that 60 percent used their public libraries. Pew noted that even the youngest, 16 and 17 year-olds, in their sample used the library. They specified that young adults between 18 and 24 were “especially likely to have read a book or used the library in the past 12 months.”

The extent to which social learning spaces in libraries enhance student interactions with books or databases remains unclear (Lippencott, 2010). While more current work suggests some correlation in physical enhancements and increased usage, results are inconclusive. Applegate (2009) demonstrates increased physical and database usage in both commons and other spaces after new library construction and remodeling. Hughes (2011) identifies multiple types of library spaces as prime real estate for studying. Our contention is that, regardless, library spaces must also lend themselves to advanced undergraduate and graduate student success by inviting them to share their ideas and research.

Authority and Local Specialization at UNM

Latin and Hispanic American research and teaching has long occupied a principal focus across academic disciplines at The University of New Mexico (UNM), a state-funded university. In the 1930s, then-UNM President James F. Zimmerman advocated for Latin American programs because, as he stated, “the bonds which exist between us [New Mexico] and our neighbors to the south are not only geographic, but linguistic and cultural …” (Davidson, 2004, 8). Subsequent UNM presidents upheld this programming, offering research support for Latin and Hispanic American initiatives. The 1979 inauguration of the Latin American and Iberian Institute (LAII) is one notable example. Since then, the LAII has administered academic degrees and supported the research of faculty, students and visiting scholars on Latin America. UNM’s current designation as a United States Department of Education (USDE) Title VI recipient and National Resource Center (NRC) for the study of Latin America sets the institution apart as a major US resource for Latin American studies.

UNM also excels in research on the Hispanic Southwest. The Center for Regional Studies (CRS) works with multiple community organizations, UNM departments and colleges to advance knowledge of New Mexico and the United States-Mexico Borderlands. Many of the projects CRS has sponsored are archival in nature while others encourage teaching, learning and service focused on Southwest studies. Many of these studies address the very connections that President Zimmerman identified between New Mexicans and our neighbors to the south, but from diversified disciplinary interests managed in part by the Southwest Hispanic Research Institute (SHRI). Like the LAII, SHRI unites scholars from across disciplines around interdisciplinary projects.

IAS in Zimmerman Library offers specialized collection development in studies of Spanish and Portuguese America as well as advanced bibliographic instruction, collaborative research and project development to scholars affiliated with the LAII, CRS and SHRI. IAS faculty and staff not only engage within the classroom and with the curriculum at UNM but also within student and community organizations (Aguilar, Keating, Schadl, Van Reenen, 2010). This integration offers ample opportunity for collaborative lecture series, exhibits, workshops, brown bag presentations, campus-wide reading, research initiatives and conferences or colloquia weaving specialized library resources throughout learning and teaching environments.

Flattened But Not Radical

Current budgetary pressures are flattening organizational structures at UNM and, as a result, facilitating cooperation and collaborative space partnerships. Because the collaborative partnerships between IAS, the LAII and CRS predate any institutional flattening it would be an overstatement to suggest that anything radical is developing. For many years the LAII has provided a graduate student fellow to work with the Latin American Collections Curator in IAS. The curator also serves on the Operations Committee at the LAII. This committee deliberates on funding requests for programs, public events, lectures and conferences as well as submissions for the LAII Research Paper Series and the Greenleaf Visiting Researcher Scholarships. Similarly, CRS - with offices also located in Zimmerman Library - provides student fellowships for archival projects and funds countless local research initiatives utilizing special collections in the University Libraries (UL). These relationships are direct results of time-honored interdisciplinary area studies that tend to address “third space” both philosophically and pragmatically because of their attention to colonial relationships between different cultures in the American Southwest and Latin America.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that students who focus on Latin American and Chicana/o studies at UNM overlook simple tools for successfully mastering research. New graduate students verbally lament not knowing how to proceed with their research and often ask subject specialists how to identify resources in appropriate fields. The common refrain “Why didn’t I think of that?” follows the simple suggestion that using the bibliographies in their course readings could help them identify key resources and authors that they could then search in databases and online. No doubt procedural attention to database and web searching has so obscured recognition of this tried-and-true method that libraries may fail to teach it. This lesson is even more useful now that actual titles and citations are easier to locate and link to online. Such mingling of tradition and technology challenges librarians to resist the false dichotomy between technology and tradition and to allow for a “third space” where subject specialists can learn and teach in uncommons.

Uncommons #1: Herzstein Latin American Reading Room
Image 1 [Floor Plan Herzstein Latin American Reading Room surrounding the Zimmerman Library 2nd Floor Stairwell, Zimmerman Library Facilities]

The Herzstein Latin American Reading Room (The Herzstein) is a U-shaped space surrounding a stairwell in Zimmerman Library (Image 1). It has three areas: an actual reading room, an exhibit gallery and a conference room. These spaces are hidden in plain sight because they remain behind glass doors (Image 2). Users have to enter the gallery or the conference room in order to access the reading room, making it particularly difficult to find. Since its opening in 1999 this space has been intended as a communal place for Latin Americanists. The idea was to foster a library space for interested local and visiting scholars to converge around Latin American resources. At that time, exhibiting newspapers, magazines and journals made perfect sense because the materials were interdisciplinary and they appealed to all levels of scholarship. In the years since the Herzstein’s inauguration, however, rapid development in online news, magazines and journal platforms have led to emptied shelves. The original purpose of the space faded such that students recommended it as a quaint library-like place to study and plug in laptops. While it is important in any library to offer quiet, wired spaces, honoring the Herzstein’s intended purpose was imperative, especially considering its genesis from designated donor funds.

Image 2: Glass doors from stairwell to Herzstein Gallery
Image 2: Glass doors from stairwell to Herzstein Gallery

IAS staff began restoring the integrity of the Herzstein in 2008 with a multi-tiered approach. The first step involved hosting cross-departmental lectures and exhibits to get the Latin American and Chicana/o studies communities back into the space (Appendix A). Some notable examples included: developing a photography exhibit from special collections to interact with the book chosen by the UNM Provost for the 2009 freshman reading (103 Herzstein participants), hosting the acclaimed Yuyanapaq: Para Recordar exhibit curated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru (126 Herzstein participants) and co-sponsoring the Latina/o Faculty Brown Bags (61 Herzstein participants). A final example was curating Illustrated Identities: The Book in the Latino Imaginary (77 Herzstein participants) as part of an Albuquerque-wide celebration that involved participation of a local art gallery, the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), organizers of the (Northeast/Southwest) conference entitled Latino Literary Imagination: East Coast/South West Dialog on Narrative Voices and the Spoken Word and hosted jointly by Rutgers University and UNM, with involvement from Art History, Theatre, English and Spanish (Image 3). These events brought at least 367 people into the space.

Image 3: Captured in Illustrated Identities
Image 3: Captured in Illustrated Identities

Another piece of the approach required filling the shelves in the reading room with stimulating, interdisciplinary books. Comics and cookbooks were perfect for this second task because of their easy accessibility and visual intrigue (Image 4). They also had the potential to pull scholars deeper into other resources housed elsewhere in the libraries and special collections. Both cookbooks and comics embody interdisciplinarity by cutting across Library of Congress call numbers. They also illustrate multiple textures with recipes and photographs in theformer and drawings or caricatures and narrative in the latter. These resources embody a “third space” quality by allowing a beginning student to enjoy their face value while more experienced scholars critically engage with them (Image 5). Comics, inspire visual and textual learning simultaneously, functioning as art and as documents. Moreover, these circulating sources emphasize UNM’s special collections. Designed around pictorial storytelling, they epitomize an established emphasis on Latin American popular art and ephemera. Over the last six months, IAS staff has documented shelving 98 cookbooks and 102 comics left on tables. Another 39 titles from this location have circulated. With 1523 total texts in the space, these numbers suggest that documentable usage is almost 16 percent. This is particularly good considering all of these titles are foreign language materials.

Image 4: Cook Books in the Herzstein Reading Room
Image 4: Cook Books in the Herzstein Reading Room

Local discovery of special collections often requires that tangible pieces obviously present themselves for passersby. Internet searching is a looking out process but studies suggest researchers still work initially out of their communities and their peers’ references. Putting local collections in their field of vision is as essential as creating social space for shared learning. The final step in transforming the Herzstein is encouraging Latin American and Chicana/o studies scholars to engage each other and library materials in their own academic work. The gallery currently almost exclusively hosts UNM student exhibits and the reading room doubles during exhibitions as a space for opening receptions and related academic presentations, also by UNM students. Five of the last six exhibits in the Herzstein gallery featured student research from diverse academic disciplines including: Latin American studies, Art History, American Studies, Anthropology and Communications (Appendix A). According to attendance statistics and commentary in guest books, these exhibits and related student presentations engaged at least 268 students and professors with their peers’ or mentees’ work. Students continue to propose exhibits for the space as a means of enhancing their experience.

Image 5: Students with Comics in Herzstein Reading Room
Image 5: Students with Comics in Herzstein Reading Room

An illustrative example of pragmatic learning and teaching in uncommons is Valencia’s exhibit and lecture series, On the Line: Living the US-Mexico Border (2012). This exhibit and its related presentations invite other UNM students to present their own creative works and scholarship in an academic environment for experiential learning and teaching (Image 6). Participants get important curriculum vitae building experience as well as feedback from other students and faculty. In this comfortable setting, exhibitors, presenters and attendees have opportunities to collaborate with each other and see a singular topic from multiple disciplinary perspectives (Image 7). It is an exercise in interdisciplinarity and resource sharing.

Image 6: On the Line Exhibit Window viewed from corridor to Zimmerman Stacks
Image 6: On the Line Exhibit Window viewed from corridor to Zimmerman Stacks

The exhibit draws on Valencia’s doctoral research while displaying the creative work of other UNM students alongside images drawn from special collections. Her ideas and presentation of these artifacts encourage others to think critically about representations of the US-Mexico Border. This work challenges students, in true postcolonial fashion, to relocate their attention from the common rhetoric presenting the communities that exist along this horizontal boundary as one-dimensional extensions of politics in Washington D.C. and Mexico City. Using images of the landscape and of political events - such as the Mexican-American War in 1848, Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s raid of Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, the Bracero program in 1942 and depictions of current violence in Juarez, Mexico - the exhibit reflects people living in the region together in communities - not divided - as Washington DC and Mexico City politics suggest. This exhibit with its related presentations and screenings brought at least 74 students together around library resources and peer reviewed research.

Image 7
Image 7
Uncommons #2: Latin American and Iberian Institute Library

The LAII Library located just off the reception area of the LAII (Image 8) serves as the primary location for receptions, presentations, meetings and educational workshops organized and sponsored by the LAII. In any given week, a broad array of students, faculty, staff and community members pass through this space. At least once every week it hosts a brown bag lecture featuring the research of local or visiting scholars. Multiple times a week this space serves as a meeting place in which faculty, students, campus administrators and staff discuss and plan community and academic events designed to promote interdisciplinary studies of Latin America. Several times a semester, this room welcomes secondary teachers from the local Albuquerque community, dignitaries from Latin America and community organizers. Generally speaking, very few of these individuals would describe the space as a library, even though its shelves are full – so much so that it is difficult to see them as usable resources.

Since 1979, the LAII library has accumulated reading copies of books, newsletters, magazines, academic journals, conference proceedings and paper series published in the US and Latin America, some as faculty donations. None of these items have ever been formally cataloged, so students, faculty and visitors have never been able to search these holdings online or in paper. Historically, researchers had to go directly to the shelves and wrestle with over-crowded shelves, not to mention dust and spider webs, to discover available resources. Years of squeezing in numerous works without cataloging has made this process so arduous that most people simply overlook the shelves. It had become an overwhelming catch-all with no identifying marks to encourage scholars to use the texts.

Image 8 [LAII Entry Level Floor Plan: LAII Library Room 107]
Image 8 [LAII Entry Level Floor Plan: LAII Library Room 107]

Increased engagement between the LAII and IAS culminated in 2012 with a project to remodel the LAII library with a new multi-tiered approach. The first part of this project involved determining what was on the shelves and whether titles available in the library or through online databases were duplicated. With the exception of a substantial faculty donation that occupied one of the three walls of shelves in this library, all titles already available through the libraries were removed and placed in storage (Image 9). Titles not available were integrated into the University Libraries (UL) holdings with complete online cataloging. The large faculty donation was presented as an example of a body of literature that could be used to develop a clear understanding of a topic and provide new questions for additional research.

Image 9: LAII Library Weeding in Progress
Image 9: LAII Library Weeding in Progress

Another piece of the project required filling the emptied shelves in the LAII library with works that better showcased the scholarship of LAII-affiliated faculty, alumni and scholars. The idea was to reflect the institution’s academic breadth and depth by displaying tangible copies of works produced by people teaching, learning and researching in collaboration with the LAII (Image 10). IAS has noted that displaying faculty’s collected works helped people outside of UNM recognize important scholarship while it enabled people inside the institution to engage with colleagues’ texts. Because they come from faculty, students and scholars affiliated with multiple disciplines, these works also illustrate a vast array of resources. Together they epitomize a body of scholarship that supports the LAII’s understanding of area studies as a means for engaging multiple methodologies in efforts to capture and convey understandings of other societies’ assumptions, structures and dynamics (Szanton, 2003). As is in the Herzstein, broad-scale local discovery of these works requires that tangible pieces present themselves so that like-minded researchers can share their references across disciplines. Students are picking them up and asking questions.

The final step in transforming the LAII library involves encouraging visiting Latin American scholars and those representing UNM to engage with each other’s materials. Plans are currently underway to use additional exhibit cases within this space to tie local scholars’ works to sponsored events. These exhibits and related events draw important connections between local and national, as well as international, scholarship. As such, they exhibit resource-sharing and invite all passersby to think more critically about how to meet the important “third space” challenge to seize the discord between tradition and innovation, between settled, ordered edifices for quiet reflection and adventurous horizons for crossing thresholds between traditional disciplinary values and new social conditions, textualities and literacies.

Image 10: Visiting Scholar Presenting to Students in the LAII Library
Image 10: Visiting Scholar Presenting to Students in the LAII Library

Libraries have always provided opportunities for students to engage with established disciplinary work. Facilitating disciplinary practice in library spaces is thus the logical next step for promoting active and social learning in libraries. While learning commons are useful, particularly because of their service to beginning undergraduate success, they do not serve all students. Providing a “third space” uncommons where advanced students can use library space to create information and participate as scholars in their fields is essential. The two uncommons spaces presented here bring artefactual pieces into social learning to promote the manipulation of tangible creative or academic production. In other words, they make engaging library resources an active process. This process has been facilitated at UNM and elsewhere by flattening organizational structures which seem to corroborate some of Taiga’s predications while categorically refuting others. Indeed, cooperation and collaborative space partnerships help reveal new methods for using old resources and new models for liaison librarianship but they are hardly radical. By creating alternative environments rich in touchable academic sources and opportunities for social learning, uncommons invite student scholars to resist the false dichotomy between technology and tradition. They also give these students opportunities to demonstrate their engagement of books, reading and libraries while also offering opportunities to be active partners in the production and dissemination of information and knowledge. In no way does this eliminate the role of technology and/or mobile learning spaces but it does provide an alternative. It introduces tactile learning resources back into the mix, while making the library a new kind of host for disciplinary production. These spaces prove that scholars have research needs offline, in artefactual materials such as those discussed here, and that special collections and boutique services, including the spaces in which they are housed, have important roles in libraries. It is not the look and feel of book-laden shelves and quiet reading rooms that scholars desire from libraries. If so, commons would be far less common. What advanced students want are additional references and resources for practicing, rather than just studying their disciplines. It is about references and information sharing rather than décor. The library is more than a backdrop for learning tools that can be accessed anywhere on campus. As Elmborg (2011) suggests, it is a “third space” in which scholars come together and share information with each another and with other specialists in their fields.


Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks go to the Latin American and Iberian Institute (LAII) and the Center for Regional Studies (CRS) at the University of New Mexico (UNM) for funding the fellowships to design and implement these projects. Thanks also go to the following individuals for helping implement these projects: Pauline Heffern, Anthony Pomo, Sara Tuzel, Tarah Kesse Johnson, Wendy Pedersen, Deborah Cole, Ed Padilla, Louis Padilla, Bonifacio Anglada, Vickie Madrid Nelson, Francis Rico and Aurora Cruz.


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