Paper Tiger

Libraries around the country may be discarding books and newsprint at an alarming rate, but Bill Sturm's Oakland History Room remains a proud exception.

While paging through a book on buried treasure, I glance across the library table and see a man who once threatened to shoot me.

He is hunched over a pile of yellowed newspaper clippings, and when he looks my way nothing registers in his eyes. He gazes back down at the pile. Which is good. Because it was very recently that he threatened to shoot me, and you’d think I’d be fresh in his memory. But then again, the time he threatened to shoot me was the first and last time, until now, he ever saw me.

Scratching his head, he lays his clippings on the table in a certain order. They are just too far away for me to read the headlines. He alters the order. Fusses. Frowns. Alters it again.

Through the west-facing windows, downtown Oakland shines against cottonball clouds. Rooftops, flags and fire escapes, a distant dome, red brick and Deco flourishes defy the viewer to assign this scene an exact date: if you squint, you miss the skyscrapers.

Which is only fitting for a window in the Oakland Public Library’s Oakland History Room, where two days from now I have an appointment to meet William Sturm, the librarian who has shepherded this vast and arcane collection since 1978. Sturm will retire next month.

Today, though, as wands of sunlight loll across the blond wood of the table, I very, very coolly close Queen of the Comstock and lay it on top of Tales the Tombstones Tell. The man who threatened to shoot me has carried his clippings to the copy machine and is dropping coins into the slot. I take this opportunity to flee. You might urge me to stay, to simply choose a farther table, say it’s a free country and why let yourself be driven from a public building, a quiet building, a repository of knowledge and peace?

But if time teaches anything–the very time this very room records–it is that history is wars and firestorms and coups but also every little thing that happens every day. That history is you. And me.

And him.

Two days later, enroute back to the library, I watch a huge group of mid-morning exercisers at the edge of Chinatown. On a sprawling cement courtyard, the mostly middle-aged practitioners move to the sound of wordless, almost martial music that churns from a speaker. What they’re doing seems too fast for regular tai chi: they flop their sweatered arms up and back, right, left. That there are so many of them, all doing the same thing in the same place at the same time, their faces earnest, is history too–someone’s, which fits in somewhere, as much as a Roman chariot race or the Human Be-In.

From the library’s side entrance on Oak Street, looking northeast, Oakland again looks lost in time. Lake Merritt is a mirror, the slow rise behind it lined with apartment complexes the pink and cream of after-dinner mints. The hills behind them, studded with palm trees and pines, waver in the mist like transparencies. From this vantage point you can look kindlier on Oakland than from other ones: face it, this is a city as renowned worldwide, justly or not, for blight and homicide as for Mother’s Cookies and the Raiders. All history can do is happen. It remains for later generations to sift what they want from it, if anything at all.

Sturm is wiry with a shock of reddish hair, looking as you might imagine Huck Finn would a few years after rafting down the river –though not all that many years. His voice is soft as he pushes an elevator button, rides to the second floor, and glides down the silent corridor he has plied for nearly 25 years; the hallway is lined along one side with vintage black-and-white photographs. In the room whose depth and eclecticism, whose very soul, owes so much to him, he stands under a massive aerial photograph of the East Bay, its shoreline bespeaking not pleasure beaches but business. Old-fashioned wooden card files, dark with the oil of countless hands, rear up all over the room like ships’ hulls.

“You never know,” Sturm says, “what a patron is going to want.”

The building in which we stand, Oakland’s main library, opened in January, 1951. Earlier it had occupied a site at 14th and Grove, which–as the nation’s second-oldest public library, serving a population that swelled by a third between 1940 and 1950–it duly outgrew. Photos taken at the opening-day ceremony show a crowd in fur coats and film-noirish hats jostling for a better view of the pale, square structure. America was still savoring the newness of peace and all the pleasure it promised. What better embodiment of faith in the future than a brand-new library?

Even then, Oakland’s library had a distinct sense of its city’s significance. As early as 1894, a city directory was already touting the library’s dedication to “filing and indexing for reference all pamphlets, leaflets and printed papers of local interest, and such programs of public occasions and other documents and contributions to current history of the city of Oakland as may be of use in forming the basis of a local history collection.” A succession of librarians took charge of the collection; when the new building opened in 1951, its “California Room” encompassed state history in general and Oakland history in particular. When Sturm’s predecessor Frances Buxton announced that she was going to retire in 1978, “they were looking for someone to take over,” he says now. “I was asked if I’d be interested.”

A graduate of the UC Berkeley Library School and an Oakland native with a lifelong interest in the city’s history, he was a shoo-in.

“I said, ‘Sure.'” He shrugs. “It was simple, really.”

The room was officially renamed the Oakland History Room. And Sturm’s lifework began in earnest.

One of his first projects was to assemble and index African-American-owned East Bay newspapers dating back to 1900. “A lot of traditional resources,” he points out, “do not cover the African-American community.”

Other projects followed. Sturm was vigilant, inquisitive, acquisitive. A local club, institution, or department was shutting its doors? Cleaning its closets? Shedding deadweight? Library staffers stayed one step ahead of the trashman. Alameda County voting registers, dated 1869 to 1943. Oakland Tribune yearbooks, dated 1911 to 1949. City birth and death certificates dated 1870 to 1904. In a crowded world where the value of the newspaper you are holding is arguably no more than that of the pulp on which it is printed, Sturm stood between countless documents and oblivion.

The room’s newspaper clipping file has been maintained since the 1920s, covering state and local events–“such as which speakeasies were shut down, and where,” says the librarian, this example sliding easily off his tongue as if people seek such information every day.

Staffers stopped clipping in ’78 and started indexing, he explains, thumbing through cards in a drawer. Each is a separate path to discovery: “Montgomery Ward,” says one; “Mother of the Year,” says another. We see card after card bearing the names of individuals who once, long ago, meant something: the owners of factories, the presidents of flower-arranging societies, the givers of charity teas.

“J. H. McCullough,” Sturm muses, pausing over a card. “I don’t know who that is.”

And it floors me, the destruction inherent in history, endless tapestry that it is of death and endings and decay: the factories have been bulldozed. Those roses are dust. The parties and guests tumbled long ago into eternity, not even a song lingering in the air to mark their place. The past is nothing more than piles of corpses, with ours someday to join them. Yet this card file stanches, in its quiet way, the constant ploughing-under.

In a side room is one of Sturm’s favorite parts of the collection. A bank of metal cabinets holds hundreds and hundreds of programs–for art shows, dog shows, fashion shows, gospel shows, plays, parades, pageants, operas, conventions, building dedications, ship launches, festivals, sporting events.

Live on our stage, tonite! A colorful little sheet from the El Rey theater at San Pablo and 45th, brittle with age, urges moviegoers to enter a prize drawing between features. What better way to track the town’s cultural history, Sturm asks, pulling out a new program that guides shoppers to artists’ open studios. Not long ago, some members of the Oakland Symphony came to this room wondering who played, long ago, at the Oakland Auditorium. The file, Sturm says, turned up “all kinds of famous names that amazed them”–like that of Arthur Rubinstein, who performed there regularly.

Filed by category, place, and date, the programs embody what Sturm calls “paper ephemera.” Each was created to accompany its anonymous bearer through an hour or two of entertainment. Then, its purpose served, it was to flutter, with thousands of others, to the sticky floors of stadiums and cinemas. That is a program’s preordained fate. “But the very things people throw away,” Sturm says, “are what we want to keep.”

He opens another file stuffed with fliers announcing rallies and protest marches. “Sometimes if there’s a demonstration going on outside,” he says almost conspiratorially, lifting out a sheet announcing a march led by Jesse Jackson, “I’ll walk out of the library and into the crowd and pick up a leaflet. Then I’ll bring it back and immediately we’ll put it into the file.”

Is it a crime to keep what was never meant to be kept? Is it a crime against time, against the nature of rallies and wrestling matches, which is to be short, sharp, and over?

If so, then photos are somewhat less criminal. In this room, binder upon binder is packed with pictures of neighborhoods, events, people, buildings. Most of the pictures have been donated; the library had a windfall when the Downtown Property Owners Association handed over its archives. We see corseted figures, Queen Anne houses, the neon signs of “shops that are no longer with us,” Sturm says, though he remembers them from his childhood in the ’50s. And we see proud Deco storefronts, also long gone, but which “my mother remembers.” A city’s photo albums are like family albums once removed, in which it is the places one has known and not the people, caught there on the page, that spark love or memory or shame.

We see horse-drawn carriages. Streets and parks that look almost the same as they do now, only altered by a production crew and posed with costumed extras to make a period film. Cupolas. Smiling cotton-mill workers, youths from the Portuguese neighborhood called Jingletown. We see local hospitals like the one called Franconia, which stood where Kaiser does now. Its tall and forbidding silhouette brings to mind scarlet fever, trachoma, diphtheria–the scourges of a day when HIV meant no more to doctors than MRI or liposuction. We see picnics, tall ships in the estuary, a dignified downtown.

“Here’s Broadway and 14th around 1900. See the Flatiron Building? See the streetcar?” Sure enough, it trundles along confidently, gleaming, bound full-throttle for obsolescence.

“You’d be amazed at how many requests we get for information on the history of local transport.” At its best, Sturm boasts, Oakland “had a tremendous public-transportation system. And that alone is a very vital story–of neighborhoods developing, and communities being brought together. Some people are streetcar people,” he says, then flips to a picture of a train. “Some are railroad people.” Oakland is, after all, the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad, and Pullman porters set down strong roots here in train travel’s heyday. Some are bus people, too: a box on the shelf is stuffed with old AC Transit timetables. Lying next to it is a vintage wooden ruler with the incised legend, Heald’s Business College is A GOOD SCHOOL. Nearby are neighborhood newsletters, such as Adams Point’s Adams Pointer, and a collection of the carefully filed minutes of neighborhood association meetings. I am baffled, dazed by the utter obscurity of what interests others: of what might, for just one hour, interest just one patron, whose interest then justifies its inclusion in this collection. The collection filters life like baleen, catching all but diatoms.

But in the history room’s postcard archive, the aperture widens immensely. These hundreds of images, printed in flowery colors and dating back to the 1910s, are all-out ads for Oakland.

The Lodge at Mosswood Park. Greetings from Lovely Lake Temescal. During that era when Americans were first learning to drive, West Coast towns competed for tourism, for upstanding new residents. Along with San Francisco, Carmel, Anaheim, and the rest, Oakland–chartered in 1852–cast its bid. And who was to know what each would reap? The postcards show Fruitvale’s orange trees, a bucolic Mills College campus, a log cabin flanked by climbing roses and explosive bursts of pampas grass. Sunset at Lake Merritt. Another shot across the lake, with sailboats in the water and cows on the grass. Croquet at the Claremont Hotel. The Oakland on these cards is so self-consciously all-American, so picket-fence, that you might not recognize it.

“What a good picture,” Sturm declares, drawing out a card, “of Pill Hill.” The sun is always shining in these pictures and the sky is preternaturally blue.

The cards, like all the other ephemera, are chroniclers. One shows a wooden church with a high steeple. The church we see in this picture against its blue sky, Sturm explains, was torn down long ago and later rebuilt. Its successor, too, met the wrecking ball in time, and today not a trace remains. So the postcard, Sturm points out, bravely battles “two layers of demolition.”

A postcard of a hillside home features a child astride a pony, in the street. Another shows a farm. And then we see a roller coaster.

Shut down in 1929, Idora Park occupied four square blocks in the vicinity of Telegraph and 56th. Postcards once sold there show a grand roller rink with a swooping peaked roof. Bears in a cage. Victorian ladies in white dresses and flowered floppy hats shepherding children down a promenade. A large brick theater on the premises sports potted palms. Little girls with solemn faces pose aboard a sedan with a sign that says Idora Park–1908–Oakland, California. Crowds ride the Mountain Slide, the Autocourse, carefree long before there was a Bay Bridge.

On the far wall are the heavy volumes in which births and deaths are listed in a fine, confident cursive. While the County Recorder’s office is legally required to keep all such certificates dated from 1905 onward, it has no use for these older books. “So the county health department asked if we wanted them.” Sturm beams. “I said, ‘My gosh, yes.'”

History’s dirtiest secret is that those parts of it that really interest us are often the parts that involve us most directly. We are self-centered animals –more likely, Sturm notes, “to be interested in our own corner drugstore than what Hitler was doing in Poland in 1939.” But any route into history, even a selfish one, he says, is priceless.

“You find out it wasn’t always a drugstore, that it used to be a liquor store, and before that a storefront church.” He makes an expansive gesture. “What starts out very narrow becomes a broader and broader picture.”

Unsurprisingly, most patrons who probe the library’s birth and death records are tracing their own family trees. In fact, a sizable proportion of the Oakland History Room’s habitués are into genealogy.

And they’ve come to the right place. Not long ago, Sturm says, a patron came looking for traces of his grandfather, a fin-de-siècle Oaklander. No cards in any of the room’s 160 drawers listed him by name, but the patron knew the name of a church his forebear had attended. Librarians located a church gazette dated 1900–and there was the grandfather’s picture, “with a high starched collar and everything,” Sturm recalls with satisfaction. The patron was overcome; “he’d never seen that picture before. Now, say you wanted to learn about your ancestor.” Sturm opens a drawer at random. “And you knew that the ancestor was a member of, say, the Oakland Canoe Club.” He flips to a card that cites a 1882 newspaper article about that club’s plans for expansion. “You could start right here.”

Look what else you can turn up in the clipping file; follow your heart:

A single report on the Apostleship of the Sea.

A March 1889 article about E. L. Funke, an Oakland physician who was caught in his office performing a “criminal operation.” What, an abortion?

Forty-seven cards bearing the heading “Shootings.” Street melée ends with a shooting. Angry teen expelled by family shoots grandmother. Murder by Chinese highbinders of Gaw Ki Ging, a foreman at California Jute Mills near Lake Merritt.Oh, and lepers: In the Oakland Enquirer a story from October 1892 detailing “the activities of Samuel Dutcher, local leper.” And another: “Oakland leper woman now in SF pest house.” And another: “Problems of lepers; recent case found here.”

Under a framed painting of a rancho are shelves lined with books whose titles breathe romance: Adiós, for instance. Wolves Against the Moon. These are the works of local novelists and poets–“not only the Jack London set,” Sturm points out, but a diverse horde that boasts odd ducks and pioneers and seers. Compared to other towns its size, Oakland has spawned a tidal wave of writers. Is it something in the estuarial air that fueled London and Gertrude Stein, Ina Coolbrith, Joaquín Miller, Maxine Hong Kingston, and all the others? The history room is hardly elitist, and photocopied poetry chapbooks with psychedelic covers are on these shelves along with everything else.

“Some of the stuff in here I’m sure is quite awful,” Sturm says, then immediately looks abashed. “But the point of the collection is that it’s trying to do something that other libraries aren’t doing.”

Maybe it’s because most Americans pull up stakes and move every five years, or because grand global struggles demand our attention, or because Coke taught the world to sing in perfect harmony–for whatever reason, local history tends to take a backseat–an outré and almost embarrassing backseat, at that. These days we buy history-lesson best-sellers like Cold Mountain and Longitude in droves, but the history in them is big and swashbuckling, a far cry from Bushrod Recreation Center and the Chabot Observatory. Still, the reluctance of other libraries nationwide to take on the task of preserving local history surprises and alarms Sturm. “We’re trying to set an example.”

He pulls out Elise Fraser’s The Mystery of the Star Sapphire, circa 1951. Her other books include The Emerald Necklace and The Jade Elephant. “They’re mysteries–Christian mysteries,” says Sturm, eyebrows raised as he examines a black-and-white photo of the sweet-faced, silvery-haired author on a bookflap. “We’ve probably got the world’s only complete collection of her work.”

Frequently at libraries I make a game of looking for books that haven’t been checked out in many years. (Seashell-collecting guides are generally a good bet.) These days that game is getting harder and harder to play, because history is having its way with libraries themselves. In his new book Double Fold, released last month, longtime Berkeley author Nicholson Baker writes with articulate outrage about what he calls libraries’ “assault on paper”–a wholesale destruction of the very artifacts they are bound to protect. Banking on arguably impermanent technologies such as microfilm and microfiche (does anybody remember 8-track tapes?), American libraries spend millions of tax dollars every year junking tons of books and periodicals.

“The only time there’s justification for destruction” in a library, Sturm says, “is when the materials are actually disintegrating before your eyes.” He gestures around him. “Whatever is here,” he says, “is here permanently.”

The Oakland History Room’s materials must be used on the premises and not checked out, but chances are that nearly any book you pluck off the shelf has not been opened for a long, long time. Not With a Sketchbook Along the Old Mission Trail. Not Westward the Bells. Not Granite Crags or Lore of the Vaquero. Not Social Etiquette: Manners & Customs of Polite Society by Maud C. Cooke, whose picture appears on the title page along with the year 1896 and the logo of Oakland’s Occidental Publishing Company, and a caption calling Cooke “the well-known and popular author.” Its dozens of chapters include “Removing the Hat,” “Suitable Topics of Conversation” (avoid death and religion), and “Acknowledgment of Inquiry Cards.”

But Soul on Ice and Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels are here too. And Manzanar Martyr. And Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942. And biographies of Tiburcio Vasquez and Joaquín Murieta: bandits or Robin Hoods, depending on when the books were written, and by whom.

The bookshelves snake around the room and jut halfway into it. In a corner, another cabinet is packed with pamphlets beckoning visitors, residents, and investors to motels, restaurants, and towns throughout the state.

“It’s a level of detail that you wouldn’t regularly find in books,” Sturm says, holding up The Redwood Wonderland and What Humboldt Offers You, published by that rainy county in 1912. He points out a midcentury pamphlet from the Coral Reef Motel in Alameda.

“This one’s still with us,” he says, staring down at the motel’s pastel facade and the cars, sleek behemoths, in its ample parking lot. “But it doesn’t look like that anymore.” He slides the pamphlet back into the drawer and peruses one published last year by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.

“You might say,” he smiles, “that some of these are waiting to get old enough to be interesting.”

Yet another auxiliary room is reserved exclusively for guidebooks. And yet another, down the hall, is lined with immense volumes created by the city’s tax assessor and by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. These books map out swatches of Oakland, block by block, listing address, ownership, estimated value, and more. The tax assessor’s books are dated from 1877 to 1925, the Sanborn ones from 1882 to 1933, and again their pages bear the meticulous penciled inscriptions of a time before typewriters.

Sturm runs a finger down huge pages where roomy woodframe houses are assessed at a few thousand dollars each. Their owners’ names evince the kind of multiculturalism that came west on the wagon trains–Claus Kruitzfeld, Thomas Kehoe.

“These have become absolutely vital resources,” says the librarian. For one thing, they tell us what has been lost.

Much of Oakland has been, over the years, wiped out and rebuilt and wiped out again. If you looked up 19th Street and Broadway in one of these volumes circa 1910, Sturm says, “you’d see a lot of houses. If you look at that area now you’ll see Auto Row.”

West Oakland has had it especially hard: in the late ’30s, scads of old homes were torn down to make way for defense workers’ housing. Then came urban renewal, and the vast 7th Street post office–“all of which,” Sturm says sadly, “cost Oakland a lot of its traditional architecture.”

Color codes and other markings in these books provide clues about each structure: how many stories it had, where its windows were, what it was made of, what its function was. Library patrons often consult them to investigate the toxicity of a property they’re thinking of buying.

“Was there ever a gas station there?” Sturm asks. “A soapworks? The zoning laws were different back then, and a single-family home might well have been located right next to a factory. It’s good to know.”

Library staffers “have done countless house searches” for patrons, and for countless reasons–real estate purchases, genealogical searches, rumors of poltergeists. It’s a process that predicates a virtual tour of the collection.

Imagine that someone walks in wanting information about an address –say, 51 8th St. First stop: the Sanborn Fire Insurance books. The house appears on a page dated 1889; it’s a two-story corner dwelling on 8th at Fallon Street, not far from where the library stands today. Its yellow color on the map reveals that the house is a woodframe structure; its large front porch extending around the side is indicated by a dotted line. A one-story extra unit is attached to the rear.

Next stop: the tax assessor’s books. An 1890 volume shows the house and indicates that its owner, Charles H. Lougee, made $1,500 worth of improvements on it that year. An 1892 book shows another $2,000 in improvements.

Back to the main room, to the Oakland city directories–primitive versions of phone books, listing residents’ names, addresses, and occupations. (Various directories in the collection list Gertrude Stein and Jack London.) Charles Lougee is listed at 51 8th St. in January 1892. His occupation is given, puzzlingly, as “wreaker,” though earlier editions list him as a carpenter, which might mean that he built the house on 8th himself. An 1894 directory shows him at another address, on Grove Street.

And if we wanted to know more, we might pursue Lougee in the card files. We might, nastily and perhaps fruitlessly, hunt for his name in the old Oakland police logs. Dating from 1880 to 1910, these massive books–each one almost too heavy for a normal-sized person to lift–tell precisely which officers arrested whom, where, at exactly what time, and for what. Again in a careful hand, they tell us each arrested person’s height, weight, and heritage, describe his or her complexion, list the contents of pockets and, briefly, the punishment. The ubiquitous Jack London is listed in one of these, too: a mishap involving a bicycle license, Sturm says.

Few libraries anywhere have records like this. Anyone with the slightest interest in crime could curl up with one of these and be happy for hours. On February 13, 1885, 49-year-old J.J. Ayres, a fair-skinned, six-foot-tall Oakland resident, was arrested at 1:45 p.m. for “exposure of person.” On March 20, 1884, a 31-year-old West Indian named Nick Lewis was arrested for “attempt to commit arson.” Attempt? Did he throw a torch and miss? Or did they merely find him nursing something flammable?

On December 23, 1884, at 1:15 a.m., Charles Johnson alias Driscoll was arrested for visiting an opium den. Only 21, and at 5’4″ and 130 pounds not a bruiser, the boy was celebrating Christmas early. And Ah Hing–“complexion: yellow”–was seized for running an opium den. We read of drunk McCloskeys and McGuires; on one page, 26 out of the 54 arrests are alcohol-related.

Cops had trouble spelling “Portuguese.” It comes out “Portuguse” and “Portegeese” and “Portaguse.” But in so doing, the logs are further evidence that Oakland was polyglot: we find larcenous Danes, foul-mouthed Scots, gun-wielding Swiss. Flora Kowalsky, a 35-year-old “Jewess,” was busted for disturbing the peace.

John Taylor was charged with dealing a faro game. George Kilpatrick was cruel to an animal. Louise Gillen –a slip of a seventeen-year-old, well under five feet tall–was nabbed for adultery at 3:30 on a September afternoon. That was a crime? You can practically hear the shouts, see the Indian-summer sun streaming through a bedroom window.

Batterers. Burglars. Killers. Doers of malicious mischief: gold watches and chains were duly removed from their persons after their arrests. A standard sentence was five days in jail and a five-dollar fine, though an embezzler had to stay 75. Some are guilty only, as the logs say, of begging, or of seeming insane.

Kids with names like Freddie and Minnie were picked up as runaways and returned to their fathers a hundred years before anyone could blame it on Metallica or NWA.

A woman at the next table is reading

Early Years of the Dimond District–about the Irishman, Hugh Dimond, who struck it rich in the California gold fields while still wet behind the ears and retired at 41 on nearly 300 acres in the Oakland foothills. And a man in bicycle trousers is poring over old pictures of baseball players in a pile of materials, including a twenty-year-old Express, about the Oakland Oaks, the Pacific Coast League champions of 1948. He is planning an East Bay Bike Coalition ride, next month, whose route includes minor-league ballparks. Another book, hardly larger than a pamphlet, lies open on a nearby table: How Oakland Served the Defenders, published in 1918. It tells how a group of patriotic local women, based in a clubhouse at 13th and Harrison, arranged entertainments for WWI soldiers.

“A popular feature,” reads the old type, “was the servicemen’s balls.” I’ll just bet it was.

All around us in this room are layer upon layer of arcanity, and those who immerse themselves in it. That my personal interest runs to sickhouses and embezzlers rather than, say, streetcars does not faze Sturm. If anything at all brings someone to this room and keeps her here, his job is done.

“Public libraries are serving the public. And that’s a very large spectrum. You simply can’t prejudge what anyone’s going to want.” He hefts a stack of books.

“Oakland’s been a city since 1852. It has a very long history, if only people would think to ask.”

In his years here, he has addressed countless roomfuls of kids. That so many know little or nothing about world history, much less national history, much less local history, “is frustrating, I agree. But it struck me that what I had to get across to them–what might work–was the knowledge that what they see every day of their lives was at one time different. At first, they don’t get it that the bridges weren’t always there. Then you tell them. And then you say TV wasn’t always there. And that’s where it starts.”

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