Empathy at Work

In Brief

The purpose of this article is to center the experiences of librarians of color in academic libraries through a discussion of microaggressions and pandemic experiences of racial exclusion.

Design/methodology/approach. It draws on a synthesis of the literature of microaggressions and the psychology of perspective taking to introduce a method to encourage empathy for the experiences of librarians of color. 

Findings. Employing empathy encourages connections between people and recognition of the experiences of racism for librarians of color, both overt and latent. These can be brought to light through perspective taking exercises. Recommendations for exercises are proposed with reference to existing literature.    


Libraries have been talking about diversity (ACRL 2007; 2012)  and increasing the number of librarians of color even before E.J. Josey’s The Black Librarian in America (1970), also the year the ALA Black Caucus was formed (ALA. n.d. “1970s”). The ALA Spectrum Scholarship program began in 1997 (ALA 2019), and the Five Key Action Areas including diversity were put forward soon after in 1998 (ALA. n.d. “1998”).  An article in American Libraries (1978) decries the number of black library school graduates and the slow pace of growth. However, extraordinarily little growth can be seen in the percentage of librarians of color across public and academic libraries. The Diversity Counts report from American Library Association (ALA) lists 88.9% of credentialed librarians as white with 10.1% as non-white in 2007 (ALA). Just ten years later, according to the 2017 ALA Demographic Study of its members, 86.7% of responding members were white, with 9.4% non-white members reported (ALA, 2017), showing very little change in 10 years. These surveys are of ALA members, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated 82% of library workers are white and 10.1% of non-white for 20221. According to an analysis of recent Library & Information Science (LIS) graduates’ ethnicity and racial status, the rate of non-white LIS graduates has risen from “6.96% to 17.47% over the past 301 years” (Yoon & de la Peña McCook 2021, p.115).  The percent rate of professionals available to work in libraries has seemingly increased. If more people of color (POC) are graduating with LIS degrees but the percentage of employed POC librarians is unchanged, then we are not retaining librarians of color. A recent systematic review of retention programs for diverse librarians in academic libraries confirms that “there remains a large gap in these interventions between diverse librarians’ entrance into the field and whether they are encouraged to stay” (Kung, Fraser, & Winn 2020, p. 103). One of their solutions is to increase a sense of belonging to combat isolation when  librarians of color are in predominantly white institutions (PWI). We need to improve this environment of libraries, making them more inclusive and increase a sense of belonging. Riley–Reid (2017) cites the environment of academic libraries as an “obvious” barrier to academic librarians’ success, along with implicit barriers such as needing to conform to the institutional culture. Hathcock (2015) points out that many times diversity initiatives are aimed at recruiting librarians of color who can “play at whiteness” instead of being themselves. Assimilating into white culture negates the diversity of experience and skills in the institution, providing only representation. When the institution insists librarians of color conform, we have lost the opportunity for change and the institution has not created a sense of belonging. While these expectations are not unique to libraries and represent systemic whiteness in higher education as well as society writ large, addressing the institutional culture of academic libraries is the goal of this work. Additionally, Kimberly Griffin, the associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Maryland-College Park, writes about ‘playing whiteness’ and how the diversity strategies do nothing to foster an inclusive environment. Griffin states “diversity strategies propose training, professional development and mentoring to help Black faculty look more like an ‘ideal’ candidate and ‘conform to institutional expectations. Dr. Griffin further states “all those strategies ignore ‘the systemic and individual racism Black faculty face…and are based on conforming to norms that privilege white cisgender men” (Flaherty 2020).

To begin the discussion of how empathy can help improve the environment for  librarians of color, it is important to  note some of the most significant reasons as to why the practice of empathy should be required from white librarians. As stated previously, librarians of color are few in number, therefore;  their/our perspectives and ideas, while unique, may not always be met with understanding or consensus. Over time this lack of support can wear down the librarians of color to not want to share ideas or perspective when it is often met with confusion or disbelief. Additionally,  librarians of color are subjected to racism, impacting their mental and physical well-being as well as their job performance. Another reason for the necessity of empathy in libraries is because librarians of color experience microaggressions from the very people who consider themselves allies (Nuru & Arendt, 2019). The myriad ways that overt and covert racism rears its head in the daily lives of  librarians of color warrants time and thought that has yet been paid in the field. 

Different types of empathy provide different ways to relate to others. The first, ‘affective’ empathy, is vicariously taking on others’ feelings. It could be how it makes you upset to hear about a bad experience from a child or good friend. You may also become upset, sad, or angry depending on their reaction. In ‘cognitive’ empathy, you may think about someone’s experience and reasoning out another’s emotions; the last is ‘motivational’ empathy, desiring for others’ emotional states to improve (Zaki, 2016;2017). In this case, you may want someone’s feelings to improve because you have something you need them to do, or you cannot do until they recover. A small example might be a child’s tantrum that they have to stop watching a movie they want to continue because you need them to put on their shoes to leave the house. Your empathy with their anger is short lived or only motivated by your need for their cooperation. Empathy can be invoked or aroused because of perspective taking, “the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting” (Johnson, 1975, p.241). By providing each of the examples above, a reader can understand the situation in which something could occur. The reader takes on the perspective of the narrator of the example to understand a feeling or emotion. 

Empathy can contribute to belonging by increasing connection with and support for colleagues of color. Although microaggressions have been studied in the library community, we suggest that one reason microaggressions continue to persist is because perspective taking and empathy education has not been used as part of diversity equity, inclusion, & accessibility (DEIA) efforts to combat microaggressions. This innovative approach has the potential to not only reduce incidents of microaggressions in the workplace, but also expand understanding of racism among white librarians,  increase connections among colleagues and reduce isolation among librarians of color. .

Literature Review  


The harmful effects of microaggressions on  librarians of color need to be understood by both librarians of color and white librarians. Microaggressions take their toll on  librarians of color and show up in psychological and physical ways as well as in work performance and create a toxic work environment for the person of color. For example, librarians of color can experience institutional violence and psychological hazing. Espinal, Sutherland, Roh (2018) refer to the deletion of a librarian of color’s work as institutional violence  due to the emotional and psychological effects it can have on them. Cynthia Lee (2020) describes the psychology of hazing as making unnecessary, untrue, and harmful comments on a person of color’s scholarship (54). Additionally, microaggressions contribute to toxic work environments. Microaggressions persist to the detriment of retention of librarians of color.

To find a viable solution to a problem, the problem must be defined and understood. The development of the term, its definitions, and the tools to measure microaggressions will also be included in the discussion. Chester Pierce, Solorzano, and Sue developed the first ideas about microaggressions. In 1977, Chester Pierce, African American psychiatrist, coined the term. In his article, “An experiment in racism: TV commercials,” Pierce et al. studied 191 television commercials. Pierce et al. noted that Blacks were negatively portrayed in them. He also illustrated how the excessive and negative portrayals affected Black Americans (86). He defined them as “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ of blacks by offenders” (65). Derald Wing Sue conducted numerous studies on microaggressions. Some of his studies focused on African Americans’ and Asian Americans’ experiences as well as the impact of microaggressions. Sue broadened Pierce’s definition of microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” (271). He developed a racial microaggression taxonomy that identifies and categorizes the harmful racial experiences of POC. His categories included microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations (272-273).   Sue defined microassaults as insults and violence that clearly communicates to the victim, they have little to no worth. This microaggression is nicknamed the “old fashion racism”. Some examples of microassaults are imagery of  lynching, racial slurs, or symbols that causes fear in POC and denotes their second-class status. Another category of microaggressions is microinsults. Microinsults are conveyed by rudeness, insults, and put downs that demean a person’s racial identity. Some examples of microinsults are commenting on how articulate a Black person can speak or asking Asian or Latino Americans where they were born. The last microaggressive Sue identifies as microinvalidations. Micro-invalidations  invalidate or minimize the racial experience of POC. The well-known microinvalidation is a white person declaring they are color blind thereby not acknowledging POC’s racialized experience (274).

Following Sue, several researchers created scales to measure the effects and occurrences of microaggressions. One of the first quantitative studies in the area was developed by Mercer, Zeigler-Hill, Wallace, and Hayes (2011) who created a fourteen-point scale inventory of microaggressions, microinsults, and microinvalidations, the Inventory of Microaggressions against Black Individuals (IMABI). They validated the scale as a measure of microaggressions resulting in stress, discomfort, or anxiety. Torres-Harding (2012) created a scale as well, resulting in the Racial Microaggressions Scale (RMAS). This scale classified common types of experiences into the microaggressions categories. These instruments help to document the existence of microaggressions. One of the early articles to study the effects of microaggressions in Library and Information Science (LIS) literature is Alabi’s article “Racial Microaggressions in Academic Libraries” (2014). Her article revealed that  librarians of color experience racial microaggressions in academic libraries and are frequently treated differently, but their white colleagues are unaware of it. Additionally, she provided several solutions to racial microaggressions and the exclusion of librarians of color. For example, she suggests that one of the solutions is “to adopt a multicultural philosophy” rather than a philosophy that does not see race or color. The second solution she offered was to check for bias in performance reviews (189). 

Discussing microaggressions and social justice issues in libraries can itself be viewed as a controversial act. In American Libraries, Lara Ewen (2019) reported on two librarians who experienced backlash for creating a workshop on microaggressions. Nicole A. Cooke and Miriam Sweeney experienced threats and insults after the title of their grant and their workshop became known (Minority Student Experiences with Racial Aggressions in the Academic Library). As a result of threats and harassment, their contact information had to be removed from the university’s website for their safety. Cooke responded “we cannot crack the nut (of racism) if we cannot get to the ethics of care. And we cannot get to the ethics of care until it is naturalized, and until people do it without being told to or being guilted into it…” (52). Ewen also relayed a 2016 incident involving Stacy Collins, who also experienced backlash and national attention, this time as a result of her LibGuide on social justice and anti-oppression issues. Collins suggests that libraries can assist their employees who are doing anti-racism work “to create a ‘culture of care’…in a space where marginalized people are not responsible for creating the necessary change” (52). Renee F. Hill (2019) provided her perspective on microaggressions as a Black female doctoral student and as a faculty member. Her experiences revealed that microaggressions she experienced as a graduate student did not change when she became a faculty member. She details some of the racial and sexist comments she received during her time in the academy. She does not offer any overarching solutions to her white colleagues but offers a very subtle one to Black colleagues, “I now believe in my academic abilities. I no longer blame myself for when I am mistreated. I speak up for myself and others. I do not allow other people’s opinions of me to cause me to question my worth.” (213). 

Microaggressions have been documented as a source of stress in the workplace (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, & Esquilin, 2007; Alabi, 2015a; Arroyo-Ramirez, Chou, Freedman, Fujita, & Orozco, 2018), including in libraries. Alabi has conducted several studies of  librarians of color (2015b) in academic libraries and found librarians of color describing their microaggressions, assaults, and invalidations couched in her title, “This actually happened.” She describes comments and situations that surprised even the contributors who had a lifetime of microaggressions for context. These incidents were so frequent that Arroyo-Ramirez began an online diary where librarians of color could write about their microaggressions in community, to share and be understood by others. It was later turned into a Zine developed for the same purpose and described in her article (2018). These sharing activities were meant to help ease the sense of isolation often found in academia and libraries by librarians of color in mostly white spaces. 

Whether intentional or as acts of unconscious bias, microaggressions create a burden of exclusion and additional stresses on librarians of color in the workplace by pointing out when librarians of color are not conforming to expected standards of normative whiteness. Normative whiteness is when white is set as the standard definition of culture, people and behavior.  “As a result, whiteness sits at the center of racial categorization. White normativity functions to make whites ‘standard,’ “ (Morris 2016, p. 952). Isolation can be the result of being the only one in a workplace, cultural or environmental exclusion or both. “Calling out” microaggressions as well as learning to recognize them can reduce the stress of workplace exclusion for  librarians of color. Additional observations about feeling excluded or invisible in the workplace are expressed by Gibson, Chancellor, Cooke, Dahlen, Patin, & Shorish (2020). Their article points out the exhaustion of librarians of color working with others who did not acknowledge or support them as colleagues during the pandemic and during traumatic racial events happening in the news and around them in 2020. The lack of support during traumatic incidents for POC can be called disacknowledgement (Mirriam-Webster 2023), insensitive or clumsy acknowledgement, or avoiding acknowledging things that are clearly happening in the public discourse. These disacknowledgements can also be seen as microaggressions. The pandemic disproportionately affected POC, creating an especially stressful situation. Limited health insurance, limited access to test kits, racial segregation, higher mortality and infection rates, and underlying health conditions all contributed to the health disparity (Vasquez-Reyes 2020) during the pandemic. Ignoring both public discourse on a topic clearly about race, as well as the impact of the pandemic creates another situation, expecting them to act like librarians who do not have a stake or connection to the events taking place. The lack of empathy and connection to coworkers increases isolation and limited feelings of belonging in the workplace. Vicarious trauma (Kendall, M., 2020), identifying with a community or a part of the community where disaster or trauma is perpetrated while not directly or always being the victim of that trauma, helps to partially explain the isolation and exclusion and lack of belonging that many POC experienced during the pandemic and violent racial events that followed the death of George Floyd and so many others.

Librarians of color experience frequent microaggressions in the workplace, isolation and exclusion that can contribute to workplace trauma, coupled with environmental and vicarious trauma relating to violence against people of color reported in the news. Even after a renewed effort in DEI education, these events have not ceased.  This situation creates a baseline of stress for librarians of color in our workplaces. Microaggressions or any topic about racism affect everyone. White people want to deny that racism exists because they do not like to see themselves as racist. Racism is a difficult conversation for people of color because when we point out someone behaving in a racist manner, we are not believed, and it hurts. Continuing microaggressions in the workplace also show that our current diversity or DEIA training programs to increase belonging and inclusion in academic libraries have yet to succeed. The theory of perspective taking is an untested  approach in the DEIA world of libraries to which there are many merits and possibilities for change and improvement.” Empathy is a tool that white librarians can use to learn about the effects of microaggressions and reconcile the stresses more carefully in the workplace. Understanding and employing empathy can be an antiracist strategy to better understand  librarians of color colleagues and to address the microaggressor or microaggressive situations that are taking place. 

Perspective Taking and Empathy

Johnson explains that perspective taking is assumed to be part of learned cooperation in social interaction but may only be learned in situations of group similarity. Perspective taking is one way to arouse, or evoke empathy for people in an “outgroup” or those unlike themselves based on some attribute, such as race, education, experience, etc. (Vescio, Sechrist, & Paolucci 2003). Perspective taking is the practice of imagining the situation of someone else and thinking about the thoughts and feelings you might have in that same situation. The authors found that perspective taking and empathy arousal, combined with situational attributions (something out of the participant’s control), had the most positive effect on white attitudes toward black individuals and their association with stereotypes. So when (white) folks use perspective taking to see how they might react in a situation of discrimination, along with imagining the thoughts and feelings that situation may evoke for them, their view of black people in those situations went beyond stereotypes and instead they were able to feel empathy for the individuals and the situation. 

Perspective taking to reduce racism and discrimination can be applied to  library antiracism education/professional development. In 2000, Finlay and Stephan wanted to find out if they could influence the empathy that students felt toward African Americans in discriminatory situations and found that when small increases in empathy occurred, the students reported feelings of injustice toward the perpetrators. In a study of public health information campaign messages to reduce discrimination based on race, Lindsey, King, Hebl, and Levine (2015) found that showing common situations to an audience can prompt empathetic responses toward the people described. In their study, perspective taking was particularly beneficial when combining it with other types of diversity training in a business setting. Todd and Simpson (2016) concluded that the more familiar the scenario and similarity between the learners and the marginalized group, the more empathetic the response that is triggered. Janezic and Arsenault (2021) used videos to show scenarios to participants–first a positive experience and then one where marginalized people experienced discrimination in the situation. Then they asked participants to answer a series of questions about their feelings toward the marginalized person and their perceived similarities and differences, including race. They found that triggering memories of a situation they may have experienced themselves,  prompted participants to place themselves in the scenario and remember the emotions they felt at the time. Many of these memories elicited empathetic responses toward the marginalized people in the scenarios. The researchers concluded, “inducing empathic reactions for outgroup members in order to prevent discrimination and stereotyping is a potent and valuable intervention strategy” (Janezic and Arsenault, 2021, p.50). Based on these studies, a workshop or presentation describing or showing common academic library situations to a group of librarians, and then discussing discriminatory or micro aggressive behavior toward traditionally marginalized librarians, should result in increased empathetic responses. While no study achieved its goals at 100% effectiveness, the results suggest the method contributes to better understanding among people who see one another as belonging to different groups. 

Putting Theory into Practice 

Empathy education has been used in other contexts, professional development for DEI education in business settings, and by public health campaigns to reduce stereotyping, and racism. Building an empathy education program for use in academic libraries using these techniques could be one way to educate white librarians against microaggressions, and to build empathy toward librarians of color and their experiences of isolation and exclusion in predominantly white spaces. As colleagues, the authors discussed the lack of empathy we observed from parts of society and in our librarian community toward current events and the reactions we had observed. We concluded that more empathy was needed for  librarians of color in situations of public violence against people of color. Collective trauma or generational trauma has been documented around situations including war, genocide, immigration, chronic poverty, abusive situations, PTSD etc. (Wesley-Esquimaux, C. C. & Smolewski, M. (2004)). It can be exacerbated by the pandemic and televised police violence against people of color. Parallel situations of public violence in the Asian-American community as well as the LGBTQ+ provide additional examples of situations where it is necessary and meaningful to extend empathy among colleagues. Noting these events in perspective taking can illustrate how public violence might be traumatizing for people who identify with these communities but who were not directly involved in the events. Empathy is recognizing these situations where witnessing violence in a community or toward folks who share their identity can be traumatizing. Just as the Asian American community was rocked by the Lunar New Year shootings in California (Nierenberg, 2023), it is hard to imagine how they would feel if their local community celebrations ended in tragedy. In a similar way, parents may be more apprehensive about their children following news of yet another school shooting. The sense of community violation during a regular or everyday situation is transferable to almost any event. The difference for many traditionally marginalized communities is the frequency of violence that creates apprehension and situations of collective trauma. We can all relate to situations like these and can use perspective taking to employ empathy in traumatic situations. However, the moderator of the program should be sure to advise the participants that certain scenarios may be more prevalent in communities of color than white librarians may experience. The impact of additional challenges or burdens are magnified. Some examples might be, lack of reliable childcare, unexpected caregiving expenses for children and aging parents, difficulties finding local healthcare providers who share your identity (increasing expenses and time commitments). When relaying the scenarios, it is important to remember our discussion of compounded stress earlier in the article. Remember that in addition to these stressful situations, librarians of color are already under social stress and systematic racism that magnifies the difficulties of the situation. Moderators should emphasize that while any of these situations can happen to anyone, the point of the exercise is to recognize the structural constraints of race in our society to overcome stressful situations. For instance, I identify as female, and will not drive on a deserted country road at night if I am alone, because I have safety concerns if my car breaks down or I need to stop. My male identifying partner does not share these concerns for himself. Or, folks whose families have never experienced poverty may not have a concern with a large medical bill because they have family to whom they may turn for help, or they may have significant savings. Folks who do not have extended families, wealth in those families, or who live paycheck to paycheck have more financial stress or concern over sudden expenses. An employee who is not a caregiver may not mind working late at the last minute, while someone who has sole caregiving responsibilities will be stressed by this request, or scrambling to find coverage in their absence lest they look incompetent to fellow staff members or a supervisor. 

Suggested Scenarios for Empathy Education
TopicScenarioQuestions for reflection/perspective taking
Empathy introduction, explain perspective taking and elements of empathyHow might these personal events affect you at work?Stress of being a caregiver for a loved one Loss of reliable childcare or a caregiverFamily or loved one who passed Financial difficulty Student loan debtMoving or eviction of you or a family member Relationship difficulties
How might world and national events affect your feelings of empathy towards those affected?September 11th Hurricane Katrina/ Florence/ Ida Lunar New Year Shootings  Atlanta/Virginia Tech/Pulse Nightclub/Church shootings War in UkraineIsraeli Palestinian WarSchool Shootings
Microaggressions, explain microaggressions, and their implications. How might these descriptions of microaggressions affect your feelings of empathy for those involved?InterruptionsAssumptions of incompetenceAssumptions of educational levelAssumption of employment Employee classificationInability to remember colleague’s name or pronunciationAssumption that Librarian of Color was not born in the United States/does not speak English
How might you address these situations after the concept of microaggressions is explained to you?
How might world and national events that target traditionally marginalized populations affect your feelings of empathy towards those who identify with these situations?Police violence toward traditionally marginalized populationsBlack Lives Matter MarchesViolence targeting LGBTQ+ focused events
DisacknowledgementHow might you rethink a disacknowledgement?(LOC) I was in a meeting the other day and x (male person) kept interrupting me.(Male coworker) Really? He’s such a nice guy, I have never seen him interrupt anyone. 
(LOC) I had really bad food at this restaurant the other day.(White librarian) I’ve never had bad food there, did you know what you were ordering?

(LOC) I am really upset about all the violent images in the news today (White librarian) Why? What’s going on? …Oh, that. That happens all the time there.(dismissively)
Table 1. Suggested Scenarios for Perspective Taking

Using perspective taking and employing the techniques of the researchers to create common scenarios in libraries that many people could relate to, could increase the empathy and understanding of white librarians for their colleagues who were librarians of color. Starting with common personal stressor scenarios, perspective taking puts white librarians into situations where they might want or expect empathy from their colleagues, such as family and caretaking stress. The second set of scenarios involved perspective taking for large scale natural or other disasters. They were designed to create empathy for strangers who were experiencing trauma, for instance, Hurricane Katrina, California mudslides, and shootings such as the Pulse Nightclub, the burning of three Black churches in Louisiana, the synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the Lunar New Year community center event in California. Natural disasters and public places that become situations of violence can convey the randomness of trauma that can affect people in those situations. The last set of scenarios are micro aggressive situations in library settings. Using reflection to review the setting to be more personal, we asked them to think of microaggressions they may have observed, or situations we have explained earlier in the workshop, then reevaluate the role of bystanders in the microaggression. They were then asked to employ perspective taking and explain why they might or might not feel empathy in the situation. These questions are listed in Table 1. By working from the simple to more complex examples, we hope to bring participants along in our discussion of perspective taking and empathy in a gradual way.


Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility efforts in academic libraries have not yet achieved a representative workforce of librarians of color,  one where librarians of color feel valued, seen, and empowered vis-a-vis their white colleagues; nor one where white supremacy culture is not permeating the library. Based on the demographics, the profession also has a problem retaining librarians of color in the profession. Retention strategies can benefit from the literature of microaggressions and the psychology of empathy. There are many opportunities to employ perspective taking and extend empathy to librarians of color in academic libraries. We have detailed these in the incidents of microaggressions, collective and vicarious trauma resulting from targeted and racial violence in the news, as well as dis/acknowledgement of situations of vulnerability during the pandemic. The discussion of ongoing microaggressions can be included to educate librarians about situations of exclusion and racism they might not recognize in the workplace. It can also be used to encourage white librarians to empathize with librarians who experience them. In addition, perspective taking provides opportunities to employ empathy and discussion with our colleagues when current    events involve marginalized communities. Creating a professional development program for libraries employing the tactics of perspective taking scenarios along with discussions of not just overt discrimination but also microaggressions, can contribute to better environments for library workers. 

The authors acknowledge the long term effects of empathy education are unclear, and that empathy, just as information literacy, cannot be known or applied  fully after only a 50-60 minute session. We suggest that adding empathy education is an important component.  The use of a strategy of scenarios based in academic library situations similar to the ones we have developed should have a positive effect on white colleagues’ knowledge of and recognition of microaggressions, as well as increasing empathy and belonging for librarians of color. Creating connections between colleagues by acknowledging experiences can help to build a more inclusive workplace. As libraries continue to reimagine and improve DEIA programs by getting rid of what’s not working and integrating approaches that might, empathy perspectives should be one of the tools in the kit to apply.


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We would like to thank Ian Beilin and Shannon Simpson for serving as our reviewers and Jaena Rae Cabrera as our editor. Thank you also to Vanessa Earp and Michelle McKinney for invaluable feedback and support as we developed this project into an article.

  1. (Percentages do not add to 100% as they are population estimates based on sampling). []

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