Using Vertical Files in Archives

Vertical files in archives are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. The Archive Lady Melissa Barker shows us the fabulous genealogy finds that may be awaiting you in an archive somewhere. The family history you may find may be even sweeter than your favorite truffles.

In the movie Forrest Gump, the character Forrest Gump says: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” In an archive, it can be said: “Vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” So, what are vertical files?

Vertical files in archives

Vertical files (or subject files as they are sometimes called) can be found in most state and local archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries and even in some museum collections.

Vertical files are a collection of documents and ephemera that are put in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets and cataloged by surname or subject. These files could contain just about anything that can fit into a file folder. Most archives will create an index by the title on each folder but most of the time what is inside of each folder is not cataloged. Vertical files are sometimes seen as a “catch-all” or a “hodgepodge” for all those documents that don’t really go anywhere else but should not be discarded.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

Most archivists file family group sheets and genealogical information that has been donated to the archives in vertical files. Other wonderful items found in vertical files could be compiled family histories, photographs, and even receipts like the one shown here for E.E. Collison Jr’s Portrait and Landscape Photography studio.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

One of the most popular genealogical items to find in vertical files is newspaper clippings. These clippings could be an obituary, a marriage announcement, a birth announcement or just about anything that has been clipped from the newspaper. Above is an example: an advertisement for Skelton’s Super Market.

Accessing and using vertical files in archives

When doing genealogy research in an archive, ask the archivist if they have vertical files. These collections of records could be very valuable for genealogy research. Some archives don’t always advertise that they have a collection of vertical files, so it’s important that the researcher ask the archivist specifically about this collection. Vertical files are usually stored in back rooms of the archives but the index is available at the archivist’s front desk or they could be on the in-house computer.

Once you have found what interests you in the index, you can request the files that you would like to investigate further. The archivist will retrieve them and bring them to you, sometimes only one or two files at a time. Once you have received the files, you can look at each item and make copies of what is of interest to you and your genealogy research. When you have finished with the file, give it back to the archivist who will then bring other files you have requested.

So next time you are researching at an archive, ask if they have vertical files! Like that box of chocolates,”you never know what you are going to get.”

My motto is, “It’s not all online, contact or visit an archive today!” Read more articles about uncovering genealogy gems in original manuscript repositories–you may soon find yourself visiting one.

Found in an archive: 10 unexpected discoveries

Keeping up: How to know what’s new at your favorite archive

Top 5 questions I get asked as an archivist

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Declutter Your House: 3 Questions for the Family Archivist

To declutter your house, you may have to ask yourself hard questions–especially if you’re the family archivist. Is that old apron or state fair ribbon just clutter or is it history? If it’s a nice piece of history but you can’t keep it, where can you donate it? Professional archivist Melissa Barker takes on these important questions for genealogists.

Before you declutter your house, ask yourself these 3 questions.

1. Will this item help to tell my ancestor’s story?

So many of our ancestor’s stories have been lost to time or by people throwing things away. Many of the artifacts and memorabilia that we own help to tell our ancestor’s story. A first place ribbon from the State Fair where Grandma won for her apple pie recipe tells a story. Because Grandma won a ribbon, her pie was the best of all the pies submitted and she was a great cook! A great idea would be to keep the ribbon and write up a story about how she won the ribbon so that your descendants will have this story. A bonus would be if you have the actual apple pie recipe to put with the ribbon and story. If the item helps to tell your ancestor’s story, maybe it should be kept and preserved.

declutter your house

2. SHOULD I DONATE THE ITEM TO A LOCAL ARCHIVE?

Before tossing those genealogical records, photographs, or artifacts, consider contacting an archive where the family is from and see if they would be interested in the items. Many of our libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, archives, and museums accept records donations to add to their collections. This way, if a researcher contacts or visits the archive and is researching the same surnames you are, they could benefit from the items you donate. Make sure to call ahead and find out if the archive takes donations and set a time to take your items to them. (TIP: Click here to see how to use ArchiveGrid to search for repositories in specific locations.)

declutter your house

3. ARE THE ITEMS VALUABLE?

Many times we don’t know the value of what we have in our genealogical collections. The value could be monetary and what we own could be worth money. It’s always a good idea to get objects and memorabilia appraised by an expert if you think they could have a monetary value. But maybe your items have historical value and if you toss these items, you would be throwing away history. Many genealogists have one-of-a-kind documents and artifacts that help to tell the story of an historical event. That event could have taken place at the local level, state level, or even the national level. Checking into the monetary value and historical value of an item before tossing it just might change your mind!

So, if you are considering cleaning out that closet and tossing items that you don’t think mean anything to anyone and are just taking up space, ask yourself these questions and make sure you are making the right decision.

Declutter your house by repurposing old family heirlooms

You can often transform the family “gems” from your piles or boxes of clutter into meaningful items to use or display. Get inspired by these upcycled heirloom projects:

A New Heritage Quilt from Old Family Fabrics

An Old Earring Gets New Life as a Wearable Conversation Piece

Create a Heritage Scrapbook

Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and bi-weekly advice column The Archive Lady. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Home Archiving for the Genealogist: 5 Ways to Think Like an Archivist

You may be doing some “home archiving” without even realizing it, if you’re the keeper of any family photos, documents, heirlooms, or artifacts. Professional archivist and genealogist Melissa Barker offers these tips for the family historian and keeper of the family archive.

Home Archives

I have always said that “home archiving” is something genealogists do, perhaps without ever calling it that. So family historians can definitely benefit from learning how archivists work. Here are five ways to think like an archivist.

5 Home Archiving Tips for Family Historians

family history video documents home archiving1. Learn to preserve family artifacts.

Archivists are always educating themselves on how to preserve certain items that have come to their archives. Genealogists inherit family heirlooms all the time. Learning how to preserve them is thinking like an archivist.

Tip: Preserving an item means keeping it from further deterioration. This may mean putting it in special storage materials, keeping it out of strong light, and storing it in a place that isn’t too hot, cold, or humid. Click here to read an article on humidity and your family archive.

2. Organize your “collection.”

A very important job for archivists is keeping their records collections organized so they know what they have and can pull them efficiently. Genealogists, as home archivists, would also benefit from keeping their genealogical records organized.

Tip: Get inspired! Click here to catch some tips on organizing your digital photos from Denise Levenick, The Family Curator and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records.

archival sleeve3. Store your treasures carefully.

Archivists are always careful to use special materials such as archival file folders and boxes to put records and artifacts into for preservation. Genealogists should use archival materials to preserve and store their records just like archivists do.

Tip: Click here to read my article on how to archive family history documents. It’s packed with great tips and recommended products to store your items safely.

4. Keep the stories that go with your artifacts.

Telling the stories of the people that have come before us is also something that archivist try to do with the records they have in their care. Archivists do this by sharing their records collections with the public through displays, exhibits, and open houses. Genealogists should tell their ancestor’s stories by sharing their family histories with their families and passing down their ancestor’s stories to the next generation.

Tip: Create a meaningful display of artifacts in your own home. Group together items that tell a story, preferably unique, eye-catching items. Add framed copies of documents and photos (keep originals safely tucked away). Click here for some fantastic ideas from Lisa Louise Cooke on sharing your family history with the non-genealogists in your family.

5. Archive your own mementos.

Archivists collect today for tomorrow! Many archivists collect documents and artifacts that are produced today so they can be preserved for tomorrow. They collect items such as the high school graduation program, digitizing the local newspaper, and that local diner menu.

Genealogists do the same thing in their “home archiving” by collecting and preserving a funeral card, digital photographs they took at the grandbaby’s birthday, and the marriage invitation you received for your niece’s wedding.

Home Archiving, National Archiving: It’s all in the Genealogy Gems Podcast

Did you know I’m on Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast now? I chime in frequently with that “offline” archival perspective that’s so important in our research. Click here to see the list of recent episodes. In Episode 211, publishing this week, I report on a fascinating way you can help make collections from the National Archives more accessible to everyone. Why not listen in? It’s free!

National Archives Citizen Archivist Program: Calling all Genealogy Volunteers!

The National Archives Citizen Archivist program is recruiting help to tag, transcribe, and comment on records in the U.S. National Archives catalog. This is a great way for genealogy volunteers to help others discover their family history in the National Archives and learn for themselves what’s there.

National Archives Citizen Archivist

The National Archives Citizen Archivist Program

Have you heard? The U.S. National Archives is looking for Citizen Archivists! What is a Citizen Archivist, you ask? A Citizen Archivist is a virtual volunteer that helps the U.S. National Archives increase the online access to their historical records. This is done by crowdsourcing metadata about their records through tagging, transcribing, and adding comments to the U.S. National Archives catalog.

As a Citizen Archivist, you will be volunteering your time to make historical and genealogical records more accessible to the general researching public to help them with their research. This could include genealogists, historians, writers, and other researchers that will benefit from your volunteer work. And who knows, maybe you will find records that belong to your ancestors!

How to Get Started as a National Archives Citizen Archivist

First, you will need to go to the “Citizen Archivist Dashboard” at the U.S. National Archives website. Once there, you will need to register to be a Citizen Archivist (see the screenshot on the right for where to click). Registration is free but you do need this account to be able to contribute to the project. Once you are registered and logged in, you can then navigate to the catalog and choose records from the curated missions.

The “missions” are groups of records that need transcribing or tagging to help the records be more accessible to researchers working online. Some of the missions that are needing transcribing are “Fugitive Slave Case Files,” “Native American Reservations,” and “The Truman-Churchill Telegrams,” just to name a few. New missions are added to the site regularly, so be sure to check back often to see what is new that you would like to work on.

Who Can Contribute as a Citizen Archivist?

National Archives Citizen ArchivistAnyone who has a computer and the willingness to volunteer time to this project can contribute. You do not need to commit to any amount of time; you can work at your own pace as you have the extra time. There is even a support community available through the “History Hub” that can answer your questions as you work through the records. (You can click on that at the bottom of the list shown in the screenshot above.)

So, if you have some time on your hands and want to help make historical and genealogical records more accessible online, why not become a Citizen Archivist today? Click here to get started–or click below to read more ideas about how to give back to the genealogy community.

The Unclaimed Persons Project

Help Curate Holocaust-Era Newspaper Articles

Transcribe GPS Gravestone Images at BillionGraves

Found in an Archive: 10 Unexpected Discoveries

What we expect to be found in an archive is documents, photos, memorabilia and other paper-based items. But the Archive Lady Melissa Barker’s list of “most unusual discoveries” reminds us to expect the unexpected in archival collections! Read about her top ten unique and exciting archive discoveries.

found in an archive

10 Unexpected Items I’ve Found in an Archive

Working in an archive everyday like I do in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives, you can come across some of the most interesting items! Here is a list of my top 10 discoveries.

1. Looney Money

This is money that was dispensed by a local business to their employees for wages. This money usually had the store or business name on it and the money could only be spent in the store or business.

All images in this post courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives, except as noted.

2. Straight Razor

While working on circuit court case packets, I ran across one for William Hughes who was charged with going armed with a straight razor in 1952. The actual straight razor was in the packet and just as sharp as it was back in 1952.

3. Fudge Pie Recipe (with a Voting Roster?!)

While processing a collection of voting and election records, I found a 1952 local city ballot that had a handwritten fudge pie recipe written on the back. I actually made the pie and it was wonderful!

4. Lock of Hair

While processing a manuscript collection of various types of records, I found a lock of hair tied with a blue ribbon that was in perfect condition. The lock of hair was in a harmonica box and addressed to a gentleman and had been sent through the mail. So far we have not been able to determine whose lock of hair it is.

5. A 100-Year Old Vacuum Cleaner

Recently a man walked into the archives and donated a 100 year old vacuum cleaner. This vacuum cleaner is motorless and looks just like the Bissell vacuum cleaners you can buy today. The crazy thing is, it still works!

6. Snake Photo

Recently a patron donated an old photo album that had belonged to her Grandmother who had owned the local hotel back in the 1920s. The photo album included a photo of a lady holding a very, very large snake. There is a name of “Mille Viola” on the photo and it was taken at Kern Bros. Photographs in New York.

7. Moonshine

In the archives, we have come across a couple of examples of the moonshine trade. In our court records, there are numerous court cases about moonshiners. We also have several photographs of bottles of moonshine and stills. Seems it was very popular to take photographs of what the police had collected.

8. Grand Ole Opry

In one of the wonderful scrapbooks that we have at the Houston County, TN. Archives, there is an original 1943 Grand Ole Opry Ticket.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

9. Railroad Memorabilia

The railroad once went through many communities and areas including Houston County, TN. We have many items to help us remember the railroad, like railroad spikes, lanterns, and tools used to work on the railroad.

10. Dioramas

By Tracyleanne (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Click to view.

We have three dioramas in the archives, one depicting an old church, one depicting a dogtrot house and one depicting a schoolhouse. They are a very popular attraction for our patrons.

Melissa doesn’t have images of her dioramas–and every diorama is different–but here’s an example of a diorama of a wastewater treatment plant. (People create dioramas of diverse places, don’t they?)

What Have You Found in An Archive?

What treasures or unusual have you discovered in an archival collection? Tell us in the comments below!

Listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode #210

with Lisa Louise Cooke

In this episode:

  • You’ve heard of “burned counties,” a phrase used to describe places where courthouse fires or other disasters have destroyed key genealogy records? In this episode, a listener presents the problem of her burned city?Chicago.
  • Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard shares some of the latest buzz about DNA health reports you can get with your DNA tests for family history?and some opinions about them
  • News from the Genealogy Gems Book Club
  • Get-started Swedish genealogy tips from Legacy Tree Genealogist Paul Woodbury
  • The Archive Lady Melissa Barker shines the spotlight on archival collections that haven’t even been processed yet (and suggestions for getting to them)
  • Five years away from the release of the 1950 US census, Lisa has tips on researching your family in the 1940s and preparing for its release

MAILBOX: GEMS FOR YOU AND YOUR SOCIETY

   

Gail mentioned the free step-by-step Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast

Great news! Your genealogy society or group may reprint articles from Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems blog! Click here to learn more.

MAILBOX: GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB

    

Shannon by Frank Delaney and Ireland by Frank Delaney
(Thank you for supporting the free podcast by using our links to get your copies of these books.)

Book Club Guru Sunny Morton recommends the novels of Frank Delaney, beginning with Shannon (and now she’s reading Ireland). Frank is a master storyteller, and family history themes wind throughout his stories. Tip: he narrates his audiobooks himself. They are well worth listening to! But they’re so beautifully written Sunny is buying them in print, too.

MAILBOX: THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE

   

Resource: Newspapers.com

“Burned county” research tips

Sam Fink’s list (an index of Cook County marriages and deaths)

Recommended:

Family History Podcast episode #37: “I discussed a book specifically on Chicago research: Finding Your Chicago Ancestors: A Beginners Guide To Family History In The City Of Chicago by Grace DuMelle. As I recall, it was a very comprehensive book and could give you good leads on where to look.”

How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers by Lisa Louise Cooke

Premium Podcast Episode 143: Johnstown Flood story

Premium Podcast episode 145: Eastland disaster story and tips on researching disasters in your family history

Fire, Flood or Earthquake? 5 Tips for Researching Disasters in Your Family History (includes mention of GenDisasters)

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. RootsMagic is now fully integrated with Ancestry.com: you can sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.

Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at https://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.

ARCHIVE LADY: UNPROCESSED RECORDS

As an archivist, working in an archive every day, I get very excited when someone walks through the door with a records donation in hand. Many of our archives would not have the genealogical and historical records they have without the generosity of others that make records donations. Archives receive donations of documents, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts almost on a daily basis.

Many archives have back rooms full of unprocessed and uncatalogued records collections. Sometimes they are even sitting in the original boxes they were donated. These records collections have not been microfilmed, they are not online anywhere but they exist and the genealogist needs to seek them out.

  

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

Many times record collections haven’t even been processed yet but the archivist might let you look through a specific collection. Be prepared, sometimes the archivist doesn’t allow patrons to view unprocessed collections. But like I always say “It doesn’t hurt to ask!” The archivist should know what they have in those collections and should be able to help you decide if a particular collection will be of help to you and your genealogy research.

The answer to your genealogical question could be sitting in a box of unprocessed records. I like to always encourage genealogists to put “unprocessed records” on their to-do list. As genealogists, we should leave no stone or box of records, unturned.

DNA WITH DIAHAN: MORE DNA HEALTH REPORTS

Recently, Family Tree DNA offered its customers a new $49 add-on product: a wellness report that promises to “empower you to make more informed decisions about your nutrition, exercise, and supplementation.” The report comes via a partnership with Vitagene, a nutrigenomics company.

How does it work? When you order the report, Family Tree DNA shares the results of your Family Finder test with Vitagene and gives you a lifestyle questionnaire. According to the site, “this information, along with your DNA raw data results, will be analyzed using the latest research available in the areas of nutrition, exercise, and genomics. You can expect your results to be available on your dashboard within one week of purchase.”

At this point, the test is only available to those who have taken the Family Tree DNA Family Finder DNA test (we called to check with them specifically about those who transfer their DNA to Family Tree DNA, but the Wellness Report isn’t available to them, either). Those who qualify will see a Wellness Report upgrade option on their Family Tree DNA dashboard:

There are several components to the Family Tree DNA and Vitagene Wellness Report. The site describes them as follows:

Nutrition Report. “Personalized, actionable recommendations designed to help you reach your weight goals. Learn how your DNA affects traits such as obesity risk, emotional eating, weight regain after dieting, and more. Included Reports:  Obesity Risk, Alcohol Metabolism, Cholesterol Levels, Triglyceride Levels, Lactose Sensitivity, Gluten Sensitivity, Emotional Eating, Weight Regain After Dieting, Fat Intake, Sodium Intake.”

Exercise Report. “Outlines the optimal physical activities for your body to start seeing better results, faster. Included Reports: Power and Endurance Exercise, Muscle Strength, Muscle Cramps, Exercise Behavior, Blood Pressure Response to Exercise, Weight Response to Exercise.”

Supplementation Report. “Reveals which deficiencies you are more inclined to suffer from and recommends a supplement regimen that will help keep you healthy and feeling 100%. Included Reports: Full Supplementation Regimen, Vitamin D Intake, Vitamin A Intake, Folate Intake, Vitamin B12 Intake, Iron Intake.”

And what about your privacy? According to Family Tree DNA’s Q&A, “Your data is 100% secure and protected by industry standard security practices. We will not share your information without your explicit consent.”

This is just one of many services that are cropping up or will crop up in the future to offer additional interpretations of our DNA test results. (23andMe was the first major company in the genealogy space to offer these. Click here to read about their health reports, and click here and here to read about the company’s long road to FDA approval.)

Essentially, each DNA test you do for family history looks at a certain number of your SNPs, or little pieces of DNA (not your entire genome, which is costly and isn’t necessary for genetic genealogy purposes). A nutrigenomic profile compares your SNPs with SNPs known to be associated with various conditions or ailments. (These genetic markers have been identified by researchers, many in academia, and deposited in ClinVar, a large, publicly-accessible database that itself is part of an even larger genetic database, SNPedia.) In this case of Vitagene, they are likely mining ClinVar for specific places in your DNA that pertain to nutrition, and were also evaluated as part of the Family Finder test.

Of course, many factors affect your health, nutrition, exercise capacity, and other wellness indicators, not just your genes. The purpose of reports like these is to give you just one more piece of information to weigh personally or with your health care provider.

When considering whether to purchase a nutrigenomics report such as this, I’d look carefully at what’s promised in the report, as well as the company providing it and the cost. Vitagene does also sell vitamin supplements, so they have a clear motivation to tell you about what supplements to take. And, for your information, Vitagene also offers this $49 health report for AncestryDNA and 23andMe customers.

Of course, if it is health advice you want, for only $5 you can turn to Promethease.com and receive a health report?based on any testing company’s autosomal DNA report?that includes some nutritional factors. (I’ve blogged recently about Promethease and another inexpensive recommendation for DNA health reports. Click here to read it!) Or, I will just tell you right now, for free, without even looking at your DNA: Exercise more and eat more green vegetables and less ice cream. There. I just saved you some money. You’re welcome.

GEM: COUNTDOWN TO THE 1950 CENSUS: 5 TIPS

Get a copy of a census record for yourself or a relative (1950-2010). This costs $65 per person, per census year. In addition to genealogy uses, census records are legally-recognized documents to prove your identity, citizenship or age if you’re applying for a passport and you’ve lost your birth certificate or other situations like that. Order it through the “Age Search Service” offered through the US Census Bureau.

Video tutorial: How to obtain a copy of your census record

Find your family in all possible records before and during WWII

City directories, WWII draft registrations, military yearbooks, the US Public Records Index, military enlistments, and even alien registrations or internment camp records for foreign-born residents during WWII.

WWII-era newspapers: Searching for coverage

Finding family history in WWII-era newspapers: Narrowing the results

5 places to find city directories:

“U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995” at Ancestry.com (subscription required)

City Directories of the United States

Library of Congress

WorldCat.org to see holdings at different libraries (may require copy service request, since originals may not circulate through interlibrary loan)

Local public libraries/societies

Find your family in all possible records AFTER the war

City directories, yearbooks, deeds, divorce records (the divorce rate went up after WWII)

Post-WWII draft registrations: Click here to order copies of draft registration records for men born 1897-1957. Requires full name of applicant, address at time of registration (tip: get it from a city directory).

Help create location tools for the 1950 US Census

Steve Morse’s “Project 1950

Google your family’s history during the 1940s and 1950s

Google Earth for Genealogy (FREE)

Premium video: Ultimate Google Search Strategies for the Family Historian

The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox 2nd ed, by Lisa Louise Cooke (there’s an entire chapter on YouTube)

Follow-up your discoveries with Google and YouTube search questions. Example: You find your grandmother working as a telephone operator in the 1940s in a city directory. What would her job have been like? Search YouTube:

YouTube videos on 1940s telephone operators

LEGACY TREE TIP: START YOUR SWEDISH GENEALOGY

     

Click here to read Paul Woodbury’s tips on the Genealogy Gems website.

PROFILE AMERICA: THE OPEN ROAD

“The busiest spot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” Library of Congress photograph; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Click here to see full citation.

BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is a lightning-quick tech tip from Lisa Louise Cooke on how to undo that last browser you just closed and didn’t mean to! The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor
Hannah Fullerton, Audio Editor
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager

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