Minnesota’s Literary Moment

Minnesota is having a cultural moment. Proponents are pushing to have the state redesignated as part of  “the North,” a region separate from the Midwest, whose hardy and industrious inhabitants are molded and inspired by its extremely cold weather. Rugged Red Wing Shoes, Duluth packs and Faribault woolens are suddenly chic, now selling in trendy Manhattan boutiques. (The Wall Street Journal recently examined Minnesota’s new, hip image.) 

Alongside the surge in popularity of Minnesota-made cold-weather commodities, the state has long supported a strong literary scene, due to a winning combination of a well-read populace and strong public funding for arts programs.  At least ten independent bookstores call the Twin Cities home: Minneapolis has the progressive, left-leaning May Day Bookstore and Boneshaker Books, a volunteer-run bookstore that also houses the Women’s Prison Book Project, an organization providing free reading material to women incarcerated throughout the country. Subtext Books in Saint Paul is a welcoming literary oasis that specializes in promoting local authors and hosts regular poetry readings. Over a dozen literary magazines and journals call Minnesota home too, and in something of a literary trifecta, independent publisher Milkweed Editions shares space in Minneapolis’s Open Book Building with the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.  (The Winter 2015 issue of FB&C explores the MCBA book arts program for children in depth.) 

A writing activity at the Literary Loft in Minnesota. Image courtesy of Chris Jones at the Literary Loft.

From April 8th through the 15th, the state will host the the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center. It’s the first time the conference has ever been held in Minnesota, and as the largest literary convention in North America, it is expected to draw 12,000 attendees. 

The Literary Loft will be hosting a series of events in conjunction with the conference, such as a presentation hosted by Margaret Cho and coordinated in collaboration with Bust Magazine, and tours of the Open Book Building. 

Second Story Banned Books book signing-smaller.jpg
Open Book Center’s Second Story Banned Books Reading Series. Image courtesy of Chris Jones at the Literary Loft.  

In May, the Loft hosts its annual Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference, featuring Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Molly Beth Griffin, Loretta Ellsworth, and many other writers. 

Minnesota-born writers, especially children’s book authors, are plentiful. The Minnesota Authors and Illustrators project lists over 150 contemporary, traditionally published children’s book authors and illustrators, from Nancy Carson to Kelly Barnhill. Barnhill mentioned during a phone conversation in November that for a state of only 5.4 million inhabitants, Minnesota’s literary scene packs a serious punch. “We have such a vibrant writer’s community, it’s extraordinary. Minnesota’s not a very populous state, but writing and literacy are important to people here.”  

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Jay Gaidmore, Marian and Alan McLeod Director of the Special Collections Research Center at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia:

How did you get started in rare books?

I started out in my career as an archivist and manuscripts curator, but my interest in rare books was kindled while working as the University Archivist in the John Hay Library at Brown University, with its amazing collection of incunabula, a near perfect set of Audubon’s Birds of America, and many other significant rare books. One of the reasons I was so interested and excited to come to Swem Library was to be more involved with rare books and the full spectrum of special collections. 

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I earned my library science degree from the University of South Carolina in Columbia and a master’s degree in history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.  

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Director of Special Collections, which includes three major collections, Rare Books, Manuscripts, and the University Archives. My primary responsibilities are collection development, outreach, fundraising and stewardship, and administration.  

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?  

I have two favorites. Swem Library has a first edition of the Book of Mormon, which is regularly visited by missionaries in the area, and a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is annotated in Latin by an as yet unidentified person. 

What do you personally collect?  

I collect through my work. It is much cheaper personally that way. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I enjoy spending time with my family, hiking, reading, and binge watching television shows on Netflix.  

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Preserving rare and unique materials, and sharing them with others, either through research, bibliographic instruction sessions, tours, or open houses. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing others getting enjoyment from the treasures we are acquiring, preserving, and making accessible.  

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

The future of special collection is brighter than ever. Not only do special collections preserve and make accessible the primary sources for research, but with every library, with the right resources of course, having the ability to get access the same e-books, e-journals, and databases, it is the rare and unique materials that differentiate one library from the next. Administrators are realizing this and are devoting much needed resources to these areas of the library. 

Also, with more and more information being available digitally, special collections librarians have an important role to play in promoting the book as an artifact and that books are so much more than the information they contain.  

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?

We have the second largest collection of books on dogs in the country, including scholarly works in several languages dating back to 1537, as well as children’s literature, breed guides, and novels. We also have 700 fore-edge painting books that were donated to Swem Library by collector Ralph H. Wark. 

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

In February, we are having an exhibit of materials from our Hip-Hop Collection, established in 2013 to document the rich history of Virginia’s hip hop community and including artifacts, posters, ephemera, LP’s, bootleg tapes, and oral histories. The exhibit will include a listening station containing sound bites from the oral histories, and a DJ will be spinning records at the exhibit opening. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester made its first stop in a yearlong traveling exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona last week, loaned by Bill Gates who paid $30 million for the 500-year-old manuscript at Christie’s in 1994. Composed of 18 double-sided sheets of paper, each folded in half for a total of 72 pages, and written in da Vinci’s characteristic “mirror writing,” the notebook contains the inquisitive artist’s scientific writings--on water, astronomy, light, fossils, and mechanics. Sketches and drawings accompany the text throughout.

Codex_Leicester(1).jpgThe Phoenix Art Museum plans to surround the Codex with artists who share three of da Vinci’s creative traits: curiosity, direct observation, and thinking on paper. According to the museum, “This exhibition of Leonardo’s Codex Leicester will be groundbreaking in its approach of bringing Leonardo into a broad artistic context that explores his continuing influence on artists into our own time.”

Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Power of Observation will be on view in Phoenix through April 12, after which it will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (June 21-August 30) and then to the North Carolina Museum of Art (Oct. 31-January 17, 2016).

Image: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Leicester (Sheet 1A, folio 1r), 1507-10, ink on paper, 11 2⁄3 x 8 1⁄2 in., Courtesy of Bill Gates, © 1994 bgC3.

One of literature’s great burial mysteries may have been solved this past weekend when archaeologists searching for the remains of Miguel de Cervantes - the author of Don Quixote - uncovered a casket with the author’s initials.

The casket was discovered inside an alcove in the crypt at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid.

“Remains of caskets were found, wood, rocks, some bone fragments, and indeed one of the fragments of a board of one of the caskets had the letters ‘M.C.’ formed in tacks,” said forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria at a news conference on Monday.

Researchers will now examine the bones in the coffin, hoping to identify Cervantes’s remains by the war wounds he endured. It appears that the remains of several individuals reside in the casket. Cervantes was shot twice in the chest and once in his left hand during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, injuries that would have recorded their impact for all time on the author’s bones.

Cervantes - who died in April, 1616 - was known to be buried in the convent, but the exact location of his grave was lost after the church was renovated in 1673. Researchers began their search nine months ago, using advanced technology to identify 33 alcoves in the convent’s crypts beneath the convent’s floor where the bones could be stored.

The discovery this weekend was a major breakthrough, but Etxeberria cautioned that while an interesting find, “from an anthropological point of view” they have not made any concrete advances yet on identifying the remains.

[Image from Wikipedia]

The United States Postal Service unveiled its “Forever Hearts” stamp last week at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Setting it apart for special notice from bibliophiles is the fact that it was designed by Jessica Hische, whose work we most recently profiled in an article about the Penguin Drop Caps series of decoratively bound hardcover reprints of classic works of literature. Hische is a young illustrator and letterer who regularly creates illustrations for magazines, books, and advertising.     

588504-L0.jpgThe latest in the “Love” series, which dates back to 1973, “Forever Hearts” features a filigree-like heart in which the word “Forever” is ornately spelled. Hische designed the drawing by hand and finished it digitally. She had previously worked on the 2012 and 2013 “Love” stamps with designer Louise Fili.

Dare we say it’s the perfect complement for the love letter you plan to send to your bookish valentine?

Image via USPS.

The Devil’s Bible

Devil medium

Devil medium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes the devil is in the details, but he’s not hiding from anyone at the National Library of Sweden. Visitors can catch a full view of Satan by examining the 13th-century Codex Gigas--“Giant Codex”--the largest extant medieval manuscript in the world, clocking in at over three feet long and weighing 165 pounds. (It takes two people to lift the thing.) Along with a complete Latin translation of the Bible, the Codex Gigas includes five shorter texts discussing exorcisms, magic potions, a list of saints, and a history of Bohemia. 

Most astonishing, the same scribe wrote the entire manuscript - probably a monk at a Benedictine monastery in Bohemia (Czech Republic). Some researchers point to a mysterious monk named “Herman the Recluse” as the author, but since no other work by Herman exists, the theory is impossible to verify. Written on ruled guide-lines, the pages filled with two columns of 106 lines each, the script maintains a remarkable uniformity from start to finish. Researchers estimate that it would take one person five years of around the clock work to complete the Codex Gigas, meaning it’s more likely that this one scribe spent between ten to twenty-five years (or three hours a day) writing and illustrating the manuscript. 

After the book’s completion, rumors circulated suggesting that such a task was too large for one person to actually complete without supernatural help, and that the devil assisted in its creation. A full-page portrait of the Prince of Darkness in all his fire-breathing, loin-cloth wearing, green-faced glory appears inside the manuscript, earning the Codex Gigas its nickname “The Devil’s Bible.”

The Codex Gigas passed through many hands before ending up in Sweden. The Benedictines pawned it off to another monastery to settle financial debts, and in 1594 it ended up in the possession of King Rudolf II of Hungary. It was plundered by the Swedes in 1649 during the Thirty Years War, who brought it to the National Library in Stockholm, where it has been ever since.  The entire manuscript is now digitized and available for examination at the library’s website. Commentaries and historical analysis assist in understanding this massive and bedeviling book. 

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Vanessa Brown and Jason Dickson, proprietors of Brown & Dickson in London, Ontario:

How did you both get started in rare books?

Vanessa: I started working at an ILAB shop during my undergrad and that’s where I was introduced to bookselling, conservation and rare books in a professional capacity, but the itch really got under my skin when I started collecting L. M. Montgomery as a teenager. I remember being dumbfounded by a signed copy of Pat of Silver Bush, around the same time I met Jason actually. We met each other through working on a regional poetry anthology, and so words and books have always been a part of our relationship. I collected his zine, Paradigm. I guess that was why he helped me get a job at that ILAB shop--or maybe he just thought I was cute. I hope it’s because he thought I was cute.

Jason: A good friend opened a shop when I was still in high school. I got to help open it and loved the experience completely. I was eighteen and, mainly growing up in a small town, to come to London, Ontario--a big city--and work in a cool downtown bookshop was a dream come true. Then I worked with Vanessa for an association dealer for nearly 10 years, and we both cut our teeth there. I grew up in that shop. We loved working. We loved the culture. It all just came into place, and I’ve never left the business.

When did you open Brown & Dickson and what do you specialize in?

Vanessa: Our official launch was January 1, 2015 but we’ve been kind of open since the beginning of November. People seem a little confused by what we call a “semi-retail” environment, but we really like having a half-shop/half-office hybrid. We specialize in Canada and her culture. While we still love traditional Canadiana, we are focusing more on 20th century iconography, pop culture and the development of our national identity.

Jason: I love 20th century Canada. It is something that most folks our age up here adore but don’t take seriously because it isn’t a serious focus for collectors really and, well, we’re Canadian. We don’t take anything we do seriously. But Canada is one of those countries that, because of its relative similarity to the US, and its proximity to the big USofA, it’s culture has crept into much of mainstream 20th Century identity. Ivan Reitman. You Can’t Do that on Television. The Guess Who. We are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. So to come into this and have all of the material new and unprocessed, unappraised mostly, well...Vanessa and I are very excited to be a part of that, bringing 20th Century Canada into the trade, selling it into existence.

What are your roles?  How do you divide your labor?

Vanessa: We’ve worked together for so many years, and have been friends since high school. Now we’re married. It’s hard to describe. We finish each other’s sentences and cover for each other, pick up each other’s slack. It’s automatic. I suppose Jason is better at administration, numbers. He’s more technical with cataloguing. I’m captivated by social media and customer relationships. But we are both equally obsessed with local history and regionalism.

Jason: Vanessa and I are both writers. She writes in one awesome draft that she then chips away, works, coerces, and refines it to form a final manuscript. I collect bits and pieces and break them and stitch them and Frankenstein it into a final monsterpiece. This is how we are at work too. Vanessa is mainly a big picture person. I’m mainly a “how are we going to this, actually” person. But we are both entrepreneurs and finicky managers. Technically, however, we differ greatly. So when we dream together -- dream about what we plan to do and where we plan to go -- it is sparing no expense, but how we actually create it together is very complicated and nuanced. There’s a lovely balance. We’ve honed this over years of working together, and it is magic.

What do you both love about the book trade?

Vanessa: For me, the first thing is the relationships. I find that I get along with book people. I love the eccentricities of collectors and sellers. Just as important, in fact, more important to me, is the hunt. The treasure hunt, the finds, the discoveries. Your network is what makes those happen, so the two things work together. Finding a one-of-a-kind significant item can energize me for months.

Jason: I have clarity of purpose bookselling. I get it, I can do it well, and the struggle means something to me. I don’t find that in other work, honestly. The struggle of other jobs is deeply irritating and soul-crushing. So to come into the shop each day and see the challenge in front of me...that is galvanizing and inspiring. I can live with that, and grow.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

Vanessa: I should say the Nuremberg Chronicle, but no. It has to be the 13 page manuscript of the lost, unpublished Mammoth Cave article by L. M. Montgomery. She referred to it in her journals, but no one had ever found it. The owner, who didn’t quite know what she had, inquired with an academic colleague of mine about selling it. He sent her to me. That was a landmark moment for me as a seller. The manuscript is at the University of Prince Edward Island L. M. Montgomery Institute now, where it should be. I also had the privilege to assist in appraising the Montgomery suicide note at the University of Guelph, and that appraisal led to another important finding about her death.

Jason: A complete run of Artscanada. I took a very long time with that. It excited me. Also large chunks from James Reaney [Canadian writer] and Greg Curnoe’s [Canadian artist] libraries. Basically any large collection of arts ephemera from early to mid-century Canada that I’ve had the opportunity to catalogue or even see has made my pulse race. Also I’ve handled some rare photographs of London, Ontario that I really dorked out on seeing things like, “Oh THAT’S what that building was back then.” This sort of thing excites me. Weird self published books of poetry and self-produced records excite me too and I’ve had the pleasure of handling many of those.

What do you both personally collect?

Vanessa: Now that I’m selling, I’m not collecting anymore. It’s the same principal as being a drug dealer. You can’t smoke what you sell. Jason’s a bit more footloose and fancy free than I am. He likes to dance with the devil.

Jason: British and American ghost stories. I also have a collection of wholly inconsequential scraps relating to my life.

Vanessa, I understand you are also something of an L. M. Montgomery expert.  Could you elaborate on that?

Vanessa: I think I have done that already, but since you ask...I think there is a moment where you can turn a hobby into something you take seriously. It’s a conscious decision, and one that I also made as a writer. It’s all well and good to dabble in something you enjoy, but there’s a level of work that’s involved in actual research that exhausts you unless you are truly committed. You hear about that in the trade all the time, people who like books and enjoy reading and tell themselves it would be pretty neat to run a bookstore someday. You can’t run a business that way, and you can’t contribute to your culture in a meaningful way unless you have the determination to see something through. I believe that bookselling is an essential role in the world of academia, archives and cultural preservation. So, taking part in the Montgomery scholarship community is just part of the same thing. These words, these pieces of ephemera, the archives, the cataloguing numbers and the private collections, these are all part of transmitting our past into the future. Montgomery’s work is a cornerstone of Canadian literature, and since I’m a Canadian writer and bookseller, knowing about her makes sense to me.

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

Vanessa: The book trade in Canada is massively different from the United States. There are no association book dealers other than Jason and I in Canada under the age of fifty. We are doing things in another way than the generation before us. What I know for sure is that the market is shifting. Up north, we need to focus on fostering the trade. There are lots of collectors, but not a lot of sellers.

Jason: The trade will be fine. Those who adapt will survive. Books are simply too fascinating. And they will always have value. And the sellers who discover new markets or embrace and learn the idiosyncrasies and progressive ways of selling will do just fine. I think bookdealers are being forced to come out from behind the myth of the dusty grump and be visible and accountable. That is not a bad thing. In fact what was once mysterious is now common, and dealers are having to be more creative in finding the mysterious -- I should say romantic -- in books once more. This is work, but good work. And good things will come of it.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

Vanessa: We hope to put out our first catalogue by spring. It’s going to be epic.

Jason: What she said.

Tomi Ungerer is one of those multi-talented artists who, while known to many, is never quite known for the same thing. To some, he is a graphic artist whose commercial art for newspapers and magazines in the 1950s-60s was fresh and thought-provoking, while others appreciate the erotic drawings that raised quite a stir upon publication. For most, however, Ungerer’s fame is greatest as a children’s book author-illustrator. In The Three Robbers (1961), Moon Man (1966), The Beast of Monsieur Racine (1971), and many others, he was chipping away at a new kind of children’s literature, something more imaginative and less conventional, that influenced the likes of Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein. “No one, I dare say, no one was as original. Tomi influenced everybody,” said Sendak.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 11.31.35 AM.png
Tomi Ungerer, Untitled, 1961 (drawing for The Three Robbers). Collage of cut paper, gouache, and marker on paper, 11 3/4 x 9 1/4 inches. Image courtesy of the Children’s Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

On view now at New York City’s Drawing Center is Tomi Ungerer: All in One, the first career retrospective in the United States dedicated to the artist. The exhibit shows the many faces of Ungerer--and in doing so, rounds out our constricted knowledge of him. Ungerer may be the 1998 winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Prize for children’s literature, and his most recent book, Fog Island (2013), may have been heralded as a top children’s book of the year, but he can still use the re-introduction that a major retrospective can furnish. Some priggish responses to his erotic illustrations had convinced him that his days as a children’s illustrator were over, and after the publication of his Fornicon in 1971, he and his wife abruptly relocated to Nova Scotia, in a sort of self-imposed exile. Ungerer continued to make art, and in 2007, the Tomi Ungerer Museum opened in the city of his birth, Strasbourg, France.  

Eat copy.jpg
Eat, 1967, Self-published poster. 21 x 26 1/2 inches. From the collection of Jack Rennert, New York. © Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag AG, Zurich.

Tomi Ungerer: All in One is up through March 22. A limited edition, signed print of Ungerer’s Eat poster and an extensively illustrated catalogue containing curatorial essays and an autobiographical statement about drawing by Ungerer are available in the gallery.
Today marks the start of Bibliography Week in New York City, a yearly event where national organizations devoted to book history hold their annual meetings. Bibliophiles from around the world descend on the city for these bibliographic meetings - but also for the wealth of bookish events planed by allied groups.

A schedule follows, courtesy of The Grolier Club:


• Colloquium on Children’s Books. Grolier Club: 1:00 pm-5:00 pm. A half-day colloquium on children’s books: “Journeys Through Bookland: Explorations in Children’s Literature,” held in connection with the Grolier Club exhibition “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature,” brings together six children’s literary experts who will guide participants through highlights in the history, present and future of the book for children. Admission: $75 for adults, $25 for students. Space is limited, and reservations are required. Please contact Grolier Club Administrative Assistant Maev Brennan at the Club (212-838-6690, x7) or via email at mbrennan@grolierclub.org.

• Rethinking the Book Arts: New Perspectives on Building the National Collection, a talk by Mark Dimunation, Chief, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, The Library of Congress.  6:00 pm-7:30 pm. In the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library (203 Butler Library, Columbia University). Reception to follow in the RBML on the 6th floor of Butler Library, where the exhibition “Diverse Characters: An Exhibition of Letterforms and Books by Russell Maret” will be on view. 


• The Literature of the Liberation, 1944-1946, a lecture by Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey. At the Grolier Club:  2:30-3:30 pm. An exhibition of this material, drawn from Sir Charles’ collection, will be on show at the Grolier Club beginning Thursday, January 22.  


• Booklyn’s Fine Press Salon is Open. At Booklyn, 37 Greenpoint Avenue, 4th Floor, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. You are invited to visit from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm to peruse new and innovative fine press books from around the world, including rare works by Wolfgang Buchta, Lesley Dill, Peter Koch, Ruth Lingen, CTL Presse, Veronika Schapers, Mark Wagner, Xu Bing and more. Please contact Marshall Weber (718-383-9621, or mweber@booklyn.org) for more information. For more details on Booklyn, visit www.booklyn.org

• The 131st Annual Meeting and Dinner of the Grolier Club. At the Metropolitan Club, 1 East 60th Street, at Fifth Avenue (two blocks west of the Grolier Club). Grolier Club members only, please.  


• Booksellers’ Showcase. At Christ Church Methodist, 520 Park Avenue (at 60th Street). A special mini-antiquarian book fair, sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm in the Parish Hall of Christ Church Methodist, next door to the Grolier Club.

• The annual meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America. At the Cosmopolitan Club, 122 E 66th Street (Park and Lexington): . Papers from New Scholars at 2 pm, Annual meeting at 4 pm, with address by Craig Kallendorf, Professor of English and Classics at Texas A&M University, on “The Medium Is the Message: Printing the Classics, from the Hand Press to the Computer Age”. Reception follows at 6 pm. 


Center for Book Arts: Winter Open House, and Special Exhibition Tour. At the Center for Book Arts, 28 West 27th Street, 3rd floor. From 11 am to 2 pm participants can see artists conduct hands-on demonstrations, tour the Center’s Jane Mead Timken Printshop, and talk to CBA staff about courses and programs. From noon to 1 pm the Center will offer a special tour of the current exhibition [TBA]. For more details, visit the Center for Book Arts website.

• ”The History of Material Forgery,” a lecture by Nick Wilding. At the New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue (at 103rd Street). 11 am. Contact Arlene Shaner, Reference Librarian for Historical Collections, at 212-822-7313, or ashaner@nyam.org. 

• The annual meeting of the American Printing History Association. At the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, Trustees’ Room, Second Floor:  Reports on this year’s activities and initiatives; presentation of the Individual and Institutional Awards; news and information exchange, beginning at 2:00 pm; lively reception follows. 

SelmaMarch_1965_35-005-39 copy.jpgJust days ahead of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march in January of 1965, the New-York Historical Society opened last Friday an exhibit of the historic photographs of Stephen Somerstein. As a student newspaper’s picture editor, Somerstein joined and documented the protest march with “five cameras slung around my neck,” he recalled. He snapped about 400 photographs over the 54-mile journey--of the leaders, the marchers, and of those who either cheered or jeered from the sidewalks.

Freedom Journey from 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein is on view through April 19.

Image: Stephen Somerstein, young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer, via the New-York Historical Society.

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