Tag Archives: Salem Athenaeum

Parachuting Perspectives

Every day this summer, I have seen relatively large groups of tourists right next door at Hamilton Hall, and heard their tour guides telling them stories—the same old stories every day, which of course are new to these tourists, but not so to me. I think there is a proclivity for historical narratives in Salem, established in large part by the Witch Trials which are understood best through the prism of personal relationships. Local history is necessarily an exercise in “truffle-hunting” to use the analogy of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who famously divided all historians into camps of truffle-hunters, searching every little detail out in the archives, and parachutists, who summarized all those details into the big picture, exposing trends and patterns. But both truffle-hunters and parachutists aim to discover, not just tread over the same territory again and again. There’s a tendency to tread over familiar ground in Salem, but the Salem story looks different if it is viewed as only part of a much larger picture. In my academic work, I always try to balance the anecdotal and the general, but blogging definitely favors the former—so every once in a while I take a deep dive into some texts hoping to broaden my frame of reference: after all, I started this blog not only to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s history, but also to learn some American history, which I last “studied” as a teenager!  This summer, I have been slowly working through a pile of recently-published books which offer wider, comparative perspectives on colonial history: most offer the perspective of an Anglo-Atlantic world, in which Salem played a role, but not always a large one. These parachuting perspectives are not from very high up (as the Atlantic World was hardly exclusively Anglo, after all), but just high enough so we can see some things that are not apparent on the ground.


Sean D. Moore’s Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries is an astonishing book, forging connections between the histories of the slave trade and the book trade over a century, and drawing upon the records of the Salem Athenaeum. The impact of the slave trade is multi-dimensional, and here we see its cultural impact, from both transatlantic and local perspectives.


book collage

Building Collage 2

Atlantic history can be very tangible as these recent offerings in the robust field of Anglo-American material cultural demonstrate. I picked up Zara Anishanslin’s extraordinary Portrait of a Woman in Silk earlier this year when I wanted to find some context for the portraits of the silken-garbed Lynde ladies of Salem; the collection of essays in A Material World include two with a Salem focus: by Emily Murphy, Curator at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Patricia Johnston, formerly my colleague at Salem State and now at Holy Cross. Even more expansive views of the material Atlantic world, in terms of topics, time, and places, are Building the British Atlantic World, an anthology edited by Daniel Maudlin and Bernard L. Herman, and Robert DuPlessis’s The Material Atlantic.


Books Inn Civility

Well obviously Inn Civility is one of the best titles ever! I haven’t read this book yet, but anyone with only the slightest knowledge of the American Revolution (such as myself) knows that taverns played a key role, and I’ve always been fascinated with Salem’s many taverns, so I’m looking forward to delving in.


Books winship-m_hot-protestants

Another great title, but more importantly a much-needed transatlantic history of Puritanism (I see that David Hall has another Atlantic history of Puritanism coming out in the fall, but Winship was first). I’m going to use this book in my Reformation courses, and I wish everyone in Salem would read it, because the general view of Puritanism here is strictly simplistic and stereotypical. In our secular society, it’s not easy (or particularly pleasant) to get into the mind of a Puritan, but you’ve got to try if you want to understand seventeenth-century Salem society.


Climate change


And finally, views that are somewhat removed—though elemental– and closer at hand: climate and comparative history. Environmental history has always been an underlying theme in my teaching, as the “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” are key factors in medieval and early modern European history: I haven’t read any American environmental history so thought I would start with Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire. And Mark Peterson’s City-State of Boston has been by my bedside ever since it came out for a very parochial reason: everyone knows that Boston’s rise is Salem’s fall.

What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

Things become crystal clear when you find yourself in a parallel universe and are able to discern what your universe lacks. Almost exactly a year ago, the Peabody Essex Museum notified researchers that the temporary Phillips Library location in Peabody would close for several months in order to move to a “new” location: this was confusing to many, as the Phillips had been relocated for the renovation of its historical buildings in Salem with PEM promises to return. But now this venerable library, constituting Salem’s major archive, was to move somewhere entirely new! Where? When? We didn’t know, but they of course did, and in December the admission finally came: the Phillips Library would be consolidated within a massive “Collection Center” in a former toy factory in Rowley, about a half hour to the north. Almost-unbelievable tone deafness on the part of the PEM leadership accompanied this………….removal every step of the way: here you can read the tale of the big move by a member of the Museum’s Collection Management Department who admits that for well over a year before it began, it took over her daily life. She knew, I guess everyone in the Museum knew, but no one bothered to tell the people of Salem.

PEM Collection Center Great HallThe “Great Hall” of the PEM Collection Center in Rowley.

So that leaves Salem archive-less, with no professional, nonprofit museum dedicated to collecting and interpreting its history, and a main street that is increasingly subdivided between the imposing architecture of PEM (yes, more space is needed for all those visiting exhibitions—that’s why Salem stuff must be dispensed to the north) and monster/vampire/witch wares. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition really, made more apparent to me when I was home (in York Harbor) on vacation a few weeks ago. I’m not really a beach person, so I spent most of my time prowling around nearby Portsmouth, and one morning, my father and I were treated to a basement-to-attic tour of the Portsmouth Athenaeum by the Keeper of its collections, Tom Hardiman.

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Athenaeums are essentially private membership libraries which circulate books old and new among their members and highlight their collections through exhibitions and programs: the Salem Athenaeum certainly plays a central role in the cultural life of the North Shore doing just that. But over its long history, the Portsmouth Athenaeum evolved into something much more: its active collection policy transformed it into an historical society which serves not only its membership but also its community. It’s an archive, a research center, a library and a museum, all at the same time. Keeper Hardiman assured me that the Athenaeum collects the history of the region (except for materials related to communities like York, which have active historical societies) and consequently space is in short supply and a satellite location might be necessary at some point, but of course the Athenaeum will remain right where it has always been: in Market Square, in the center of Portsmouth. He showed me the Athenaeum’s very first book, and its most valuable, along with charters, newspapers, photographs and objects (including the the axe wielded by Louis Wagner in the terrible 1873 Smuttynose murders, which is kept in a closed cabinet), as well as all sorts of places–public and private—that revealed its inner historical-society workings. Throughout, in both words and places, I discerned respect and even reverence for the resolve of its donors and benefactors.







Portsmouth Ath 8 Bookplates and books, newspapers, cyclists, and a working bulletin board at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

It was a wonderful tour which I enjoyed immensely but I came away feeling sad, as I realized that so many of the corresponding items that the Athenaeum was holding for Portsmouth were lost to Salem. Certainly the book collection of the Salem Athenaeum is impressive but it is not, and has never been, a historical society: it didn’t have to be. That’s what the Essex Institute, one of the predecessors of the PEM, was: for well over a century. This is a role that is denied steadfastly by the leadership of the PEM but decades of library acquisitions reports and articles in the Bulletins and Historical Collections of the Essex Institute contradict this opinion. The case is moot, however, as these collections, in the form of the Phillips Library, have been removed from Salem and I’m sure that the PEM is in the midst of purchasing stacks of non-Salem, non-historical titles so to obliterate the foundational nature of the Library forever. I could go on and on for quite some time about the tragic nature of this obliteration, but I’ve already done that for a year: what we need at this time is a constructive takeaway. I began this post with a discussion of disclosure because my time in Portsmouth highlighted the importance of planning and coordination for me, and the trigger effect that one institution’s actions can have on others. In the mitigation following the PEM’s disclosure that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, it was revealed that, contrary to city regulations, the Museum had not submitted a Master Plan. This is an institution that withdrew from its commitment to the Salem Armory Headhouse in the 1990s, ultimately determining its demolition, and swallowed a city street whole in the next decade: didn’t we need to know what it was going to do next? Don’t we need to know what it is going to do next? Salem trembles with the PEM’s every move, and Salem’s institutions could have compensated for its historical withdrawal if they knew it was coming: but they did not. Imagine a real historical museum in Salem just like that projected in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment published in 1991, the year before the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum into the Peabody Essex Museum. Though just one of several alternative proposals for the site, I’m sure that this “Derby Wharf Museum” failed to get much support because everyone thought Salem already has a maritime museum, but now that museum is gone—and so much more.

Derby Wharf Museum collage

Salem Willows Portsmouth AthenaeumSalem Maritime’s proposed “Derby Wharf Museum” in its 1991 Site Plan, one of several proposed alternatives for the Site which you can see here; there are even a few Salem items among the digitized photographs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s collection.

Great Wars and Ghosts

Despite my dislike for Haunted Happenings, I have to admit that the range of offerings is much more diverse and engaging than a decade or so ago, as nonprofits in Salem have entered the fray in a big way. A good example: on this Friday, Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, will be speaking about his new book, The Apparitionists: A Tale Of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, And The Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost at the Gothic Revival Chapel at Harmony Grove Cemetery. This setting seems perfect for this talk, which is co-sponsored by the Cemetery, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Salem Historical Society.


The Apparitionists is about spirit photography in general and America’s first “photographer of disembodied spirits” in particular: William H. Mumler, who set up shop in Boston in 1862 after producing a dual image by accidental double exposure. He offered up an embellished story to The Liberator in November of that year: alone in the photographic saloon of Mrs. Stuart, 258 Washington Street, trying some new chemicals, and amusing himself by a taking a picture of himself which, when produced, to his great astonishment and wonder, there was on the plate not alone a picture of himself, as he supposed, but also a picture of a young woman sitting in a chair that stood by his side. He said that, while standing for this picture, he felt a peculiar sensation and tremulous motion in his right arm, and afterwards felt very much exhausted. This was all he experienced that was unusual. While looking upon the strange phenomenon (the picture of two persons upon the plate instead of one) the thought and conviction flashed upon his mind, this is the picture of a spirit. And in it he recognized the likeness of his deceased cousins, which is also said to be correct by all those who knew her. At first, Mumler disavowed any connection to the Spiritualist community which seemed to give him more credibility, as his doctored cartesdevisites of reunited husbands and wives and parents and children separated by death were much in demand. His claim was that his camera could capture these spirits, in medium-like fashion, yet he was not a medium himself.  Mumler’s time in Boston came to a close when several of his “spirits” were recognized as real live Bostonians, but he moved on to New York, where his continued success drew the attention of investigators and detractors like showman P.T. Barnum, and where he was ultimately prosecuted for “obtaining money from the public by fraud, trick, and device” in a sensational trial held in the spring of 1869, the very same year that Mary Todd Lincoln visited his studio to secure a photograph of herself and her dearly-departed husband. Mumler was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but spirit photography lived on, in America and especially in England. That’s the story for me: the survival, the hope, even after the notorious trial and all sorts of revelations about the technical process that could produce multiple images on one print.

Spirit Photography 1869

Spirit Photographs MET

Spirit Photograph Holmes MFAHarper’s Weekly, May 8, 1896; page from an album of spirit photographs by Frederick Hudson, 1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art; spirit stereoview from the collection of Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The context for that story has to be the wars–the great wars: the Civil War for America and the First World War for Britain. The collective mourning for the victims of these conflicts seemed unprecedented, unfathomable, and never ending–but of course it wasn’t. Just last week I was talking about all the crises of the fourteenth century with students in my Introduction to European History class: famine, war and plague, leaving millions dead, suddenly, languishing up there in Purgatory, without hope of salvation, unless some action was taken by the living. And suddenly the dead are everywhere: dancing, in the mirror, appearing in threes without warning at any time. Ghost stories emerged for the first time. Late medieval ghosts are often admonishing the living, to get their (spiritual) affairs in order or seize the day, whereas the spirits of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem to be conjured up for comfort only. In either case, medieval or modern, it’s more about the living than the dead. Given the long trend towards rationalism, it is difficult to understand how an essentially superstitious spiritualism would resurface in the nineteenth century, if viewed apart from the tremendous grief unleashed by the wars. All indications seem to point to the Spiritualism “conversion” of Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician as well as the creator of the ever-rational Sherlock Holmes, as occurring coincidentally with the Great War and the death of his son Kingsley: his earnest Case for Spirit Photography was first published in 1922, and was followed up by aspeaking tour across the United States which the New York Times labeled “The Second Coming of Sir Arthur”.

Spririts Medieval Getty

Spirit Photograph 3 LC 1901

Hutchinson-1922-12-14-the-case-for-spirit-photographyThe Three Living and the Three Dead from the Crohin-LaFontaine Hours, c.1480—85, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 23, fols. 146v–147; A girl with three spirits, c. 1901, Library of Congress; the first edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case for Spirit Photography, 1922.

Say’s Anatomy

Of insects, or rather, American Entomology: or Descriptions of the Insects of North America by Thomas Say, published in 3 volumes in Philadelphia, 1824-28. That’s my pick of the books up for “adoption” at the Salem Athenaeum’s 3rd annual Conservation Night tonight, when antique books in need of serious restoration are funded by generous benefactor bibliophiles. I’ve been working on this committee for several years now, and the depth and breadth of the Athenaeum’s collection never fails to amaze: it’s tough to narrow down the list of needy books each year but the institution is committed to a long-term campaign. This year’s candidates, which you can see here, include: the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787–with an amazing pull-out map), 1714 and 1739 editions of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a first (1884) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (1860), and (of course) Caroline Upham’s Salem Witchcraft in Outline (1891—with a really cool cover), among other worthy volumes. I really don’t care much for bugs, but bug books are another thing altogether, so the Say volumes appeal to me if only for their beautiful plates, produced by Say himself and his fellow artists/naturalists Charles Alexander Lesueur, and Titian Ramsay Peale, the youngest son of the esteemed artist Charles Willson Peale.

PicMonkey Collage


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Say Insects

Say 3 Peale

Thomas Say (1787-1834) accomplished a lot in his relatively short life: he was a self-taught naturalist, entomologist, and conchologist ( word I had never heard before now–one who studies shells, mollusc shells in particular) and great explorer–of nature and territory. He was a co-founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812, Professor of Natural History at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of two pioneering works, American Entomology and American Conchology (1830-36). He was also a Utopian scientist (not incompatible at that time), settling in the Owenite community at New Harmony, Indiana in 1826, where he died eight years later.

A Hebrew Scholar at Harvard

Last night was the second annual Conservation Night at the Salem Athenaeum, at which the newly-conserved books which were “adopted” last year were showcased to their sponsors, as well as a whole new (actually very old) crop of books which need conservation through sponsorship. It was a really nice evening, because it was immediately apparent that everyone in attendance (quite a crowd) really loved books, and they were able to examine and touch and talk about such amazing texts as the 1730 edition of Newton’s Opticks, a 1774 edition of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, several Hawthorne first editions, as well as the first appearance of Poe’s The Raven and Collected Poems in book form. Two conservators who did much of the work on the first group of adoptees were also on hand to discuss their process and answer questions (quite a lot of questions):  Peter Geraty of Praxis Bindery and Stephanie Gibbs. I was on the committee which chose the books to be put forward for adoption, so I’ve been looking and thinking about these titles all year long. I knew that the Newton and the Franklin and the Poe and anything by Hawthorne (this is Salem after all) would find sponsors quickly (and so they did) but that less famous titles might be “orphaned”, so I went straight for a more mundane text (book), the first Hebrew textbook to be published in America by the first Jew to receive a college degree in the New World:  Judah Monis’s Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue [Dickdook leshon gnebreet]. Being an Essay to Bring the Hebrew Grammar into English, to Facilitate the Instruction of All Those Who Are Desirous of Acquiring a Clear Idea of this Primitive Tongue by their Own Studies.  Boston, N.E., Printed by Jonas Green, and are to be sold by the author at his house in Cambridge, 1735.

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As an educator myself, I was drawn to this important educational text:  upperclassmen at Harvard College in the eighteenth century were required to read the Old Testament in its original language, and so training in Hebrew was essential. Monis transitioned from student to instructor at Harvard in the 1720s based on his knowledge of the ancient language, and students would make copies of his handwritten grammar before the college imported Hebrew type from England and commissioned the printed text, which remained required reading for undergraduates for much of the eighteenth century. I was also drawn to Monis’s personal story: born in the Old world, he flourished in the New, based on the expertise he acquired from his heritage. But in order to retain his position at Harvard  (which he held until his retirement in 1760) he was compelled to relinquish a good part of that heritage and convert to Christianity.

Monis 5

Monis 2

The complete list of adoptable Athenaeum books is available here: there are still a few “orphans”, and one share of Monis, I believe.

Summer Arrives

Summer arrived in Salem in a big way this past weekend with several days of 90+ degree heat; it felt more like early August than June. This is a bit of an aberration, and we should be back in the 70s this week (it’s raining this morning). I braved the heat and went out into the garden, armed with a quart of “half-and-half”, half lemonade, half unsweetened strong black iced tea–my second favorite summer drink (after gin & tonics). On Sunday I was able to have a few of my VERY favorite summer drinks out in the garden of the Salem Athenaeum, at the annual garden party. This event is timed to coincide with the blooming of the massive multicolored rhododendrons in the garden, and I think the timing was perfect this year.

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At home the lady’s slippers have arrived and the catmint is in full bloom, beckoning Moneypenny. On a less happy note, someone stole my three large planters–filled to the brim with hydrangeas and Memorial Day flags!!!!–as well as my neighbors’ in the middle of the night. Not a tragedy obviously, but sad that someone would do this.

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Path leading into the garden of the Salem Athenaeum, lined by huge rhododendrons, which frame a beautiful 18th century house next door. Another beautiful house, on Chestnut Street, with the street’s only surviving Elm tree in front. I’m on a quest to find all the elms I can this summer, so if you know of a particularly majestic one in eastern New England, please let me know!

Fennec Foxes (and a Scottish Explorer)

Begging your collective indulgence for one more fox post, I want to showcase another title from the rich collections of the Salem Athenaeum that is a candidate for the annual Adopt-a-Book program:  James Bruce’s Select Specimens of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in Egypt, Arabia, Abyssinia, and Nubia, the last volume of his five-volume work Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768-1773 (1790).  This book had me at hello when I laid eyes on just one of Bruce’s “select specimens”, a nocturnal Egyptian desert fox with very large ears called a “Fennec”.

Fennec from James Bruce Select Speciments of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Wow! You can’t get any cuter than this. I’m hardly the first person to be entranced by this desert fox; fennecs caught the eyes of several visitors to Africa after Bruce, including the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who based the wise fox character in The Little Prince (1943) on this particular species. I don’t remember noticing these ears in my childhood, but how could I have missed them?

Fennec Fox in Little Prince 1943

Fennec Foxes Tower by Joachim S. Muller

The Little Prince and the Fox, 1943; a “tower” of Fennec Foxes by photographer Joachim S. Müller.

I am so enraptured with the illustrations of the Fennec and other African animals in Bruce’s Select Specimens that the explorer himself has become the backstory for me. But the Scottish explorer and scientist James Bruce (1730-94) is very notable for being among the first modern European explorers of Africa and seekers of the source of the Nile, preceding the great Victorian expeditions by almost a century. He is generally credited with tracing the course of the Blue Nile, one of the Nile’s tributaries, and rediscovering and reintroducing Ethiopia to Europeans. Apparently his descriptions of African lands and life were viewed as so fantastic by his peers that his credibility was questioned, but his accounts were verified by later explorers. I just love his fauna, which he drew himself:  the bat-like fennec, the expected hyena and rhinoceros, a long-legged, long-tailed mouse called the “Jerboa”, a tail-less guinea pig-like creature called the “Ashkoko”, even his African insects and reptiles (though not the scary snake).

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Illustrations from James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburgh: J. Ruthven, for G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1790.

Fathers, Friends, Neighbors & Artists

While the Peabody Essex Museum continues to mount blockbuster exhibitions, there are more intimate exhibits at smaller venues here in Salem. The Salem Athenaeum and the KensingtonStobart Gallery are currently featuring shows that focus on relationships:  The Good Father (with some exceptions) is the Athenaeum’s Fall/Winter exhibition, and Artist Friends and Neighbors is on view at the Kensington-Stobart until December 2nd. Both exhibitions emphasize proximity, in different ways, and you can also get very close to the texts, images and artwork.

The Good Father was assembled by Elaine von Bruns, the “honorary” curator of a succession of Athenaeum exhibitions. A variety of fathers–from literary, artistic, and political realms, as well as the animal kingdom–are represented by both texts and images from the Athenaeum’s vast, venerable and diverse collection. There are early editions of Hawthorne and Melville on display as well as eulogies for the father or our country bound for the Athenaeum in 1800. Several classic illustrated editions are on view; though he was not a particularly good father, I particularly loved Fritz Eichenberg’s image of Heathcliff from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights.

Good and bad fathers at the Salem Athenaeum:  Swedish artist Carl Larsson (1853-1919) and his daughter on the exhibit poster, pages from editions of Cheaper by the Dozen (1948), A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young (1924), Hamlet, and Wuthering Heights (1943).

For me, the Artists Friends and Neighbors exhibit  is a perfect blend of past and present inspirations and associations. Most of the exhibiting artists are friends of mine, and as the exhibition title implies, friends and neighbors to one another. An assemblage of work by Salem artists working today is also evocative of the circle of Salem artists who were friends and neighbors a century ago, many of which I’ve written about here:  Frank Benson, Philip Little, Ross Turner, Isaac Henry Caliga, Jesse Lewis Bridgman. It was quite the cultural milieu a century ago, and it is exciting to see echoes of this cumulative creativity now.  The curator of the exhibit, Jim McAllister, will be giving a gallery talk on this very topic on November 27. And quite apart from the historical inspiration, the exhibition is a lively display of very diverse talents and influences, with works in just about every medium from the participating artists:  Charlie Allen, Katy Bratun, David Decker, Julie Shaw Lutts, Barbara Burgess Maier, Trip Mason, and Racket Shreve. Whenever possible, click on the link so you can see these artists’ works for yourselves (or visit the gallery):  I couldn’t get images of everyone’s work and those images I did get do not do justice to the actual pieces.

Selections from Artist Friends & Neighbors:  Corpus Domini by Charlie Allen (oil on canvas); The Dictionary Series by Julie Shaw Lutts (encaustic collage); two very different fish by Katy Bratun; photographs by Trip Mason (please check out his portfolio here–photographs of photographs taken at night never come out very well!) and 81 Essex Street by Racket Shreve. I’ve included a photograph of the actual house for contrast.  Apologies to Mr. Decker and Ms. Maier–my pictures of their work were far too flashy.

Artist Friends and Neighbors, through December 2, Kensington-Stobart Gallery, 18 Washington Square West (in the Hawthorne Hotel), Salem, Massachusetts.

The Good Father, Salem Athenaeum, 337 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts.

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