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The Library and Education: Integrating Information Landscapes

Michael A. McRobbie

This paper sketches out some emerging visions for the twenty-first century library from the perspective of a university chief information officer. Universities play a central role in research and education, and they have a longstanding commitment to maintaining the scholarly record of civilization and to stimulating innovation. But the accelerating pace of technological change is transforming both the nature and the role of the university research library.

In the past few decades, advances in information technology (IT) have driven revolutionary changes in the ways we work, learn, and communicate. Progress in the development of microprocessors, networking, massive data storage, imaging, and software has created new infrastructures for business, academic research, health care, and social interaction and new opportunities for economic development. Internet technologies are helping us build global networks that provide wide access to distributed information. As these advances eliminate barriers of space and time, we gain increasingly more direct and immediate access to scholarly materials, to the world’s rarest historical artifacts, to visual art, to recorded music, and to broadcast archives. Such monumental change demands that we reconceive our models of the contemporary research library and the partnerships necessary to help it flourish. It also requires that we rethink the roles librarians play in this changing landscape.

Let me put this challenge in its starkest form with some examples. The Indiana University (IU) Bloomington main library counts five million volumes among its holdings. If all the library’s holdings were digitized, including all illustrations and graphics, this would amount to about five terabytes of information.

Until recently, this was a nearly inconceivably large amount of storage. But consider that the era of a 100-gigabyte hard drive on a laptop computer is rapidly approaching. Before long, laptops and PCs with a disk capacity approaching a terabyte will be readily available. Within our natural lifetimes laptops and PCs will, in principle, be able to hold the entire digitized contents of large university research libraries.

The change facing our libraries is analogous to the evolution of computing. In the early days, computing occurred on mainframes tended by technological priests who served as mediators between the user and the hallowed computational space. But when distributed computing emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, the need for mediation between the user and that holiest-of-holies was eliminated. As the desktop PC provided immediate access to computational capability, the staff of the university computing center no longer focused on tending the sacred flame of the mainframe. They facilitated distributed computing. By parity of reasoning, the role of the library as a physical repository of knowledge will also be utterly transformed when virtually all knowledge can readily be accessed electronically by anyone. The role of librarians will then be to facilitate distributed access to what an individual or organization really needs to find and know in this ocean of distributed information.

But there is an even more profound transformation under way. For centuries, libraries have been seen as the bastions of civilization. In the ancient world, the library at Alexandria, a prototype for the modern research library, was the place where philosophical, spiritual, and cosmological teachings came together to create a vital cultural environment. As the first universal library, with a cataloged collection of more than 500,000 scrolls, the Alexandrian library was the ancient world’s center of learning. It was where tributaries of knowledge converged, an intellectual magnet that drew the best scholars of the day. Euclid wrote geometry there. Archimedes studied math there and calculated the earth’s circumference with amazing accuracy. It is where the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek.

Suppose there was in ancient Alexandria a fast, low-cost duplicating service that copied the scrolls and compressed their size. This service could make the entire contents of the Alexandria library available to anyone for the equivalent of a few weeks’ salary. Imagine an ancient laptop computer with its hard drive loaded with image copies of all the Alexandrian scrolls, or a set of compact discs containing copies of the scrolls. Were that the case, we would today think of the library at Alexandria as a museum of scrolls. We would be thankful that the information in it had been passed down the millennia through multiple copies owned by many, many Romans.

I mention this fantastic scenario to illustrate that the digital age poses what may be the greatest challenge yet to the idea of the university research library as the citadel of civilization. In a world in which the digitized contents of whole libraries can be filed on the disk capacity of a laptop or PC, we must address critical questions about how this alters the nature and role of the modern university library and its librarians.

I would venture to say that the answer to this question is quite clear. The modern library has to become the central focus of the university’s digital library efforts, and the digital library must become a central focus of the university library’s priorities. We must not fund such developments on the margins of our budgets and treat them as annoying curiosities. Rather, building the digital library must be a central, core part of the library’s future with base-budget funding and of equal-or perhaps even more than equal-standing with the library’s more traditional mission and activities. We must encourage librarians to develop parallel skill sets that will enable them to serve users of physical as well as virtual collections. Rather than choose one world over another, librarians must have a foot in each, navigating equally well through the traditional and the digital library landscape. The name of the game is balance between the old and the new.

The twenty-first century university library can and should be a creator of new knowledge, an innovator in developing collaboratively built and collectively held digitized collections. University librarians can and must take a leadership role in today’s distributed information environment, becoming increasingly more engaged in the creation, organization, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge and building affiliations with other stakeholders also involved in these activities, both within and without their institutions. The key point is this: If we are to fully exploit the promise of technology, the university itself must break down the barriers that divide its traditional decentralized units and commit to a new way of doing business. Strong partnerships between IT and the library are essential aspects of our ability to create the most productive balance between the old and the new. Digital technology can be our greatest tool in this effort. But realizing the promise digital libraries hold for our universities, and for our culture as a whole, requires us to radically rethink our model of the research library and to live and work in a new landscape of highly integrated technology and human capital.

In February 2001, the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) submitted a report titled Digital Libraries: Universal Access to Human Knowledge. The first conclusion of this report is that “the full potential of today’s digital libraries to support the national challenge transformations in research, education, health care, and commerce has not been realized.” While the report recognizes that “the federal government has exercised early and significant leadership in developing digital library technologies,” with specific reference to the multiagency Digital Libraries Initiative, headed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), its second finding is that “the government can and should do much more to further the science, technology, and creation of digital libraries.” The recommendations of the PITAC report on digital libraries are directed, appropriately, to actions that the government should take to realize the potential of digital libraries. In addition to those already mentioned, the PITAC report’s recommendations include the expansion of research in new “systems for organizing online content and addressing issues related to system scalability, interoperability, archival storage and preservation, intellectual property rights, privacy and security, and human usability.” The committee urges “the creation of several federally funded, large-scale digital library testbeds.” It enjoins the government to “provide funding to make all public federal content persistently available in digital form on the Internet.” Finally, it asks the federal government to “play a leadership role in evolving policy to fairly address intellectual property rights in the digital age.”

What role can universities play in advancing these national priorities for digital library development? Universities are among the nation’s leaders in IT research and development. As such they can make especially important contributions to establishing digital libraries as reliable and persistent institutions offering sustainable information resources. They are one of the nation’s major innovation sectors in information technology and crucial contributors in the effort to build the IT infrastructure and services required for digital libraries to realize their promise.

What is necessary for us to accomplish that? I believe we need to address the following questions:
1. What IT infrastructure is required to underpin successful digital library     development?
2. How can universities plan strategically to create digital libraries and     operate them as persistent and robust infrastructure, on an institution-     wide basis, in support of research and education?
3. What institutional arrangements-intrainstitutional partnerships,     interinstitutional collaborations, or extrainstitutional affiliations-can     most productively contribute to or benefit from successful digital     library implementations?
4. In what ways will the role of the librarian and the very nature of the     university library need to change?

1. Leveraging the IT Infrastructure

IU’s digital library program, which has a strong arts and humanities focus, has productively built on and taken advantage of institutional IT investment normally associated with so-called big science. Here are three brief examples, based on our experiences at IU, in leveraging what is usually considered information technology infrastructure specific to scientific research to provide IT resources to scholars in all disciplines and to digital libraries.

High-performance storage systems, capable of holding hundreds of terabytes of data, were first developed for use in supercomputing centers and national laboratories, such as those operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. The primary users of these massive data storage systems have been scientists in physics and astronomy, climatology, geology, and-increasingly-in chemistry, biology, and the life sciences. At Indiana University, we have implemented a high-performance storage system with a total capacity of more than 500 terabytes with a simple, Web-based front end. This system uses a combination of disk storage and high-capacity, high-performance automated magnetic tape systems and has the capability to mirror data between our Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses over our I-Light optical fiber infrastructure. We took deliberate steps to make this same high-performance storage system available to scholars in all disciplines and in so doing have begun providing high-performance data storage facilities to researchers for projects as diverse as conservation of endangered American Indian languages, such as the Lakota and Dakota Sioux languages; compiling digital images and other archives for a study of North American and biblical slavery; and building digital sound archives from a phonetics laboratory in the field of linguistics.

This storage facility is providing the basis for development of a digital library repository to support preservation and archiving of both born-digital and digitized content. By leveraging this resource, IU’s digital library is focusing on developmental issues: metadata and file format standards, submission processes and policies, and development of the repository management layer, rather than also having to deal with providing underlying, low-level storage technology.

The availability of a massive data storage facility, coupled with the development of a digital library repository, is an important element of a project being undertaken by Indiana University and the University of Michigan to develop a digital video archive for the study of ethnomusicology. The EVIA Digital Archive will preserve video recordings in digital form at very high quality and make them easily accessible for teaching and research. EVIA stands for Ethnomusicological Video for Instruction and Analysis. This project has been funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with the IU Digital Library Program as a key partner.

IU is the first site in the United States, and probably the first anywhere in the world, that has succeeded in building a massive data storage system that serves the entire research community, offering high-end storage services to faculty and students in all disciplines. Recently we became the largest massive data storage site of any university in the country, exceeding the data stored at Cal Tech.

My second example of leveraging investments in IT infrastructure for use by humanities scholars focuses on adapting technologies developed for scientific visualization and virtual reality to the needs of the humanities and the arts. Advanced technologies for scientific visualization and virtual reality, based on high-performance graphics computers and computer displays, have been applied to science problems ranging from the three-dimensional visualization of molecular structures to the use of virtual reality tools to display the astrophysical properties of the sun’s journey through space and time. At Indiana University, the Advanced Visualization Laboratory supports both these projects, as well as many others in the physical sciences and life sciences. The university has also facilitated research in innovative interfaces to digital libraries, allowing users to navigate through a virtual space to explore collections of digital art images or other resources. IU has made a point of extending the reach of these advanced technologies and making them available to scholars in other disciplines who are not typically thought of as users of virtual reality technology. These efforts include the use of visualization and virtual reality technologies as a medium for artistic creation, thus enabling faculty and students in fine arts to combine computer technology and art in innovative ways with the goal of creating new forms of visual expression. Indiana University has installed one of the few CAVE (Computer Automatic Virtual Environment) sites in the nation. The CAVE allows researchers to explore the world of virtual reality in an eight-foot cube. The most exciting aspects of virtual reality technologies include the unique ability to generate imagery, view it in three dimensions, and manipulate it in real time. As a result, medical professionals and students use the technology to project three-dimensional radiological data as they plan intricate surgical procedures. A faculty member at IU with dual appointments in computer science and fine arts uses it to create projects such as “Syn.aesthetic,” an environment where the sonic input/traces of participants create a three-dimensional score/recording of all sound created in the room. Each sound manifests itself as a virtual physical object based on the characteristics of the sound, such as volume, duration, position, direction, as though the sound had been made visible at its point of creation.

Third, IU has worked to adapt IT infrastructure to the needs of scholars using high-performance networking. Indiana University is known as a national and international leader in the field of high-performance networking. We operate the network operations center for the Internet2 Abilene Network and the Global Network Operations Center, which supports international network links to advanced research and education networks in the Asia/Pacific area, Europe, Russia, and South America. This network serves as the backbone for distributed scientific experiments that are being conducted on a scale never before possible. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey offers a case in point. The survey will map in detail one-quarter of the entire sky. It will determine the positions and absolute brightness of more than 100 million celestial objects. It will also measure the distances to more than a million galaxies and quasars. It is the most ambitious astronomical survey project ever undertaken.

In 1999 we initiated a High-Performance Network Applications Program that has provided funding for IU faculty and graduate students to develop new research and teaching applications that require high-performance local, regional, or national networks. A number of these awards went to applications in the arts and humanities. One such application is the archaeological reconstruction and rendering of ruins such as the Mayan sites in Chichen Itza and delivery of high-resolution virtual tours of these sites over computer networks. These archaeological reconstructions form the basis of the Cultural Digital Library Indexing Our Heritage (CLIOH) project, which is creating a digital archive of cultural heritage sites from around the world. Another high-performance network application in the arts and humanities is the use of networks to create shared virtual spaces for collaborative performance of musical works by musicians in diverse or remote locations. All of these applications further the development and evaluation of network-based collaborative environments for information sharing and information seeking, from virtual reality interfaces to digital libraries.

2. Planning Strategically for the Development and Operation of Digital Library Programs

Indiana University began rethinking its IT strategy in 1996, when then-IU President Myles Brand set the goal of making IU a national leader in absolute terms in the use and application of information technology. As the first step toward this goal, in 1997 IU formed University Information Technology Services (UITS)-IU’s technology organization, which provides integrated information technology services and infrastructure across Indiana University’s two research campuses and six regional campuses. That same year, the Digital Library Program was formed as a partnership between the university libraries, UITS, and the School of Library and Information Science. IU’s new School of Informatics became a fourth partner last year.

More than 200 faculty, staff, and students worked energetically to develop our first IT strategic plan. Librarians and technology professionals had, at that point, been meeting for some time in informal discussion groups that enabled their two cultures to explore matters of mutual interest. Faculty provided substantial input from the beginning of the planning process.

Now, five years after the initiation of the strategic plan, faculty, staff, and students on all of IU’s campuses enjoy IT infrastructure and services of the highest quality. They work on common platforms, use the latest software, and are networked as well as any university in the world. UITS provides uniform, integrated services throughout the university, and it is staffed by individuals with high levels of expertise. IU’s life-cycle replacement program, rare among universities and a central part of the strategic plan, ensures that students, staff, and faculty have the computing power they need and minimizes maintenance costs. It allows digital library developers to assume current technology at the user’s end, which enables the use of new and emerging technologies. Life-cycle replacement also extends to digital library-specific infrastructure (for example, servers, digitization equipment, and software) that is essential for creating sustainable persistent digital libraries. The strategic plan worked, in part, because it had funding attached to it. Funding provided a major incentive for buy-in and for our ability to realize the president’s vision and to implement the plan successfully, but equally important was the commitment of the whole university community.

The IU library system and digital library program have capitalized on the strong, centralized IT structure that the IT strategic plan helped us develop. Activities such as archiving and system management-often the responsibility of the library automation specialists-are performed by UITS. The libraries have complete trust in the university’s central IT infrastructure. Moreover, this centralization frees librarians, and particularly those in the Digital Library Program, to respond to critical changes taking place in teaching, learning, and research.

Development of digital resources, such as course management tools, emphasizes the need for a coordinated approach to networked information services. Many believe that integration is the most vital key to present success and dramatic growth in the future. Digital libraries will flourish in an integrated information landscape that maximizes resources, offers intersections that facilitate dialogue, deliberately promotes collaborative strategic planning, and enables more agile responsiveness to evolving trends in learning and research.

3. Forging Partnerships Is Essential to Realizing the Full Promise of Digital Library Development

The decentralized organization common to academic culture poses obstacles to the development of digital libraries as strategic aspects of the university enterprise. Suzanne Thorin and Daniel Greenstein, who have developed a collective biography of digital university libraries, note that one of the attributes that “distinguishes a digital library program is the library’s relationship with surrounding academic departments and information services, such as computing and IT.” They go on to say that “while it is not easily quantifiable, closeness may be measured by such factors as the facility and experience of collaboration between the library and these surrounding departments, and the extent to which strategic planning in one department includes representatives from and takes substantive account of other departments” (Greenstein and Thorin 2002).

Indiana University is among a fairly small group of libraries that have a strong relationship between their IT organization and their library-some others are the University of Southern California, Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Virginia. At many institutions, IT infrastructure is not centralized. Frequently, support and funding for libraries, including digital library development, are separate from support and funding for other IT activities in the university, thus creating silos of development and duplication of technology infrastructure. Such separation and duplication are especially problematic in this era of constrained resources. And they can slow the pace of change.

It is extremely difficult to build an integrated digital library program using existing resources and to fund program staffing and development on the margins of one’s budget. Partnerships are essential in this regard. In fact, I would venture to say that such partnerships are no longer optional. They are critical. IU’s Digital Library Program’s joint funding arrangement maximizes dollars and reduces redundancy. We have jointly funded library appointments. The director of IU’s Digital Library Program, the DLP’s assistant director for technology, the library’s director of IT-all are funded jointly by the two university units. This arrangement benefits the organizational structure by establishing formal lines of communication and ensuring that staff members work toward shared goals.

Partnerships outside of one’s own university are also essential to digital library development. Only by working collaboratively, for example, can we find ways to share metadata across institutions and create search capabilities. The Open Archives Initiative (OAI) is one effort to address these challenges. A three-way partnership among Johns Hopkins University, Indiana University, and the UCLA Digital Library Program, the OAI-compliant Sheet Music Consortium aims to create a virtual catalog of sheet music in the United States. The Sheet Music Consortium is gathering data from large collections of American music to create a central searchable repository of descriptive metadata about the holdings in those collections and at the Library of Congress. While consortium member institutions catalog their sheet music in different ways, a large proportion of these materials have been digitized, thus providing users direct access to the music and, in some instances, to the covers and advertisements, which offer insight into the cultural context in which the songs were published. Partnerships such as these bring us a few steps closer to developing reliable principles for metadata and to creating transparent standards that will enable interinstitutional access to shared bodies of digitized and analog materials.

The evolving role of library information technology and the new emphasis on partnerships are leading to the creation of a digital repository accessible across all schools and campuses that would centralize the management, preservation, and distribution of currently localized digital collections and would address issues of licensed content and faculty research. As part of these explorations, IU is participating in FEDORA (Flexible and Extensive Digital Object and Repository Architecture), a project led by the University of Virginia Libraries and Cornell University’s computer science department and designed to investigate issues raised by interinstitutional access to collaborative digital holdings. While undertaking these and other activities, we remain mindful that of equal importance to the development of centralized access and management of digital information is a shared vision of the library’s digital future and the roles IT and other constituents can most strategically play in creating that future.

Research conducted as part of IU’s Variations2 Digital Music Library project offers a case in point. Variations2 is a four-year project funded by an NSF grant that involves researchers and staff from UITS, the Digital Library Program, and IU’s Schools of Music, Informatics, and Library and Information Sciences and our library. It is clearly in line with the PITAC recommendations to create several large-scale, federally funded digital library testbeds. Our testbeds are being implemented at IU’s two research campuses in Bloomington and Indianapolis and at additional national and international partner or “satellite sites.” The project’s goals include providing users access to a collection of music in a range of styles and media formats and to developing multiple user applications on a single foundation of content and technology. The research and development layer focuses on usability that integrates user testing in design methodology, on the development and implementation of metadata guidelines for musical holdings, on intellectual property rights evaluations, and on network requirements for delivering high-fidelity, real-time audio and data for interactive music research and teaching applications.

4. The Role of Librarians and the University Library

Some years ago, with the rise of distance education and the emergence of institutions such as the University of Phoenix, it was predicted that the university campus would wither away as the educational content of degree programs was delivered on the learner’s desktop. Along those lines, some may wonder whether the library as a physical place is becoming obsolete, or they may assume that, at the very least, its role needs to be reconceived in an era when so many reference and research materials are available to potential library users from their desktop computers.

With the creation of the groundbreaking Information Commons, Jerry Campbell at the USC both presented an answer to this question and established a model for others to follow. The University of Michigan’s Media Union also illustrates how we can reconfigure the space of the physical library to continue its traditional function as a vital cultural environment, a social space that facilitates the exchange of ideas and information. We expect that IU Bloomington’s new Information Commons, a highly integrated technology and information center, will be equally successful.

IU’s Information Commons, which will open in fall 2003, grew out of complementary needs, and is the result of combining the complementary strengths of the library and IT organizations. Our technology organization recognized the increasing demand for more student technology centers, multimedia capability, and group workstation space, which are the responsibility of UITS. Space, particularly centralized space, is at a premium on campus. Simultaneously, the libraries felt the pressure of students’ demand for 24/7 service and collaborative learning capabilities. An information commons, where students’ technology and information needs can be met at one service point, provided a way to rethink the role of the undergraduate library. Students require group spaces with technology access. Faculty, likewise, require spaces for teaching and meeting. Both need workstations and technical support for the creation of multimedia presentations. The Information Commons will integrate technology with irreplaceable print collections and the resources of IT support staff with the expertise of library user and instructional services and reference staff. And it will serve as an intellectual gathering place, the sort of marketplace of ideas that remains a crucial element of any community of learning, even a twenty-first century one.

As many scholars have suggested, information overload is one of the greatest problems we will face in the future. The Internet is not a library, nor does it have the organized cataloging and commitment to preservation that make the library an accessible and imminently usable resource. More important, as James O’Donnell, author of Avatars of the Word, has pointed out, there is no filter. There is no sense that someone has surveyed the available resources and selected a set of materials that is both comprehensive and delimited. “On the Internet,” notes O’Donnell, “you never know what you are missing.”

How should librarians change to work more effectively in the digitized world? Large universities will have a continuing major role in providing access to huge print resources and in serving the faculty who use them. At the same time, they are building the future digital environment that will provide possibilities to integrate the library in vital new ways. Librarians have an opportunity to be much more than knowledge navigators. They have the opportunity to define the digital libraries of the future, but only if they are able to straddle the worlds of virtual and traditional collections.

In the digital age, libraries are no longer our primary storehouses of knowledge. More and more, the source of information is constantly at our fingertips. But like the Alexandrian library, the contemporary research library is more than ever before a vital hub of intellectual dialogue and discovery. It will continue to be the place where tributaries of knowledge converge and develop new currents of thought and creative activity.

Concluding Comments

Digital library capabilities are identified as necessary to the achievement of all the anticipated transformations of the information age outlined in the PITAC report and in the committee’s earlier report to the president, Information Technology Research: Investing in Our Future. Many, if not all, of these transformations are central to the missions of universities. It is of the utmost importance for universities to direct their attention and resources to working-individually, in collaboration with one another, and in partnership with the government-to advance the state of knowledge and practice in digital libraries. In order to do so, universities must plan strategically to develop the IT infrastructure and services and the institutional arrangements that will enable digital libraries to realize their transformational potential in research and education and throughout society.

One of the more interesting digital projects currently under way serves as a good metaphor for my message today. The project, which is funded by the NSF, involves Stanford computer science engineers, archaeologists, and classics scholars in a partnership with the Sovraintendenza of the City of Rome. Their goal is to reconstruct the Severan Marble Plan, a highly detailed map that depicts the floor plan and every architectural feature of each building in ancient Rome. The map was carved on marble slabs that covered the entire back wall of the Roman Templum Pacis. Today, only 15 percent of this gargantuan city map exists, and it is broken into more than a thousand pieces. Classicists have tried for centuries to piece together the puzzle of the Severan Marble Plan. Now they are doing so by making a high-resolution digitized version of it available on the Web, so that a range of scholars can study the pieces. The research team is even developing a viewer that will allow members of the general public to match fragments and a slab map that reconstructs the known areas of the plan.

This is a wonderful example of how technology is making classical studies more accessible, but it is also a good analogy for our enterprise. As we survey a changing landscape, we, too, must try to fit the pieces together. In the same way that marble tablets gave way to other means of recording and disseminating information, paper and our treasured models of libraries as bricks-and-mortar repositories of knowledge will give way to new technologies, new paradigms, and new roles for librarians. Like the team of scholars reconstructing this map, we will collaborate to pool our knowledge and resources and to make strategic decisions.

The world is moving inexorably in the direction of library systems of collaboratively held collections that capitalize on integrated IT infrastructure and provide wide, yet organized, access to distributed information. It is up to the librarians at the nation’s premiere research universities to lead the charge into this integrated information landscape and fully embrace the central role digital technology and materials will play in the library of the future. And it is up to university IT professionals to aid them in that effort through constantly deepening collaboration.


My most sincere thanks go to Susan Moke and Gerry Bernbom for all of their work on successive drafts of this paper. Thanks are also due to Karen Adams, Eric Bartheld, Kristine Brancolini, Jon Dunn, and SuzanneThorin for their valuable contributions to its preparation.


Greenstein, Daniel, and Suzanne Thorin. 2002. The Digital Library: A Biography. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources. Available at

O’Donnell, James. 1998. Avatars of the World: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee. Report to the President. 2001. Digital Libraries: Universal Access to Human Knowledge. Panel on Digital Libraries. Technical Report. Available at

President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee. Report to the President. 1999. Information Technology Research: Investing in Our Future. Available at


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