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How Google Used Librarians…and Got Away With It

I know when I’m being used.  It’s a learned trait after being used many times by friends, family, and colleagues. 

Exactly one year ago today, the Google Librarian Central blog was updated.  There hasn’t been another blog post since.  That’s 365 days of no public communication with the librarian community.   I’ve also asked around and found out that Google did not have an exhibit at ALA this year.  The last Google Librarian Newsletter was in May of 2007.

So, why all the fanfare in 2006 through 2007 about loving librarians?


Google realized that in order to index the world’s data, they needed access to the billions of books held in libraries throughout the world.  So, their marketing department (those sly dogs) decided to buddy up with ALA and the entire library community to gain access to these print treasures so that they can scan and index them.   Before realizing that they needed to do this, Google didn’t chat with librarians directly since the early days of the service (circa 1996-1998), as they needed us then as well.

Am I angry with Google for using librarians?  A bit.

But even more, I’m disappointed in librarians who actually fell for this blatant marketing scheme.   Did they really think that this relationship would continue?  Did they grasp the importance of what Google was/is doing?  Will they fight back?  Or will they fit the stereotype that librarians are passive and let yet another company walk all over them?  I hope they won’t, but then again, I won’t be surprised if they do.

There is no doubt in my mind that the entire library community was used.  ALA was used.  Those academic institutions that signed up were used.  And those librarians that played a part in the PR stunt were used.   I saw this coming (and I’m not the only one)

So, Google will continue to use librarians, scan their books, profit from it, and then leave us in the information dust to rot like an old microfilm machine.

It’s sad really.  But then again, we fell for it.  Well, not me.   I know when I’m being used.  Do you?

39 Responses to “How Google Used Librarians…and Got Away With It”

  1. gasenngo
    June 29, 2008 at 11:30 am #

    May be librarians were used. But as a reader I’m happy with the movement.

    Also the ability to search across millions of books to find information other wise bury in the looked room, isn’t it awesome.

  2. Melissa
    June 29, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    This post sounds a little bit self-loathing.

    Yes they used us, and some librarians (not you) were tricked. That’s what businesses do, particularly successful megapowerhouses like Google; it was nothing personal.

    I’m disappointed in anybody who is disappointed with the librarians who dared to be optimistic–optimism should not be considered a flaw. This is no time to disapprove of our colleagues. This is where we say, “Well played, sir” and focus our attention on working together to “use” Google right back to the best of our ability.

    So what are you going to do about it?

  3. Anna
    June 29, 2008 at 4:48 pm #

    Melissa has the right attitude about this. My library buys a number of ebooks, but we find that anecdotally, our students and faculty prefer to look at the hard copy if they are doing extensive reading. If the Google books project can open up the contents of books that have not been full-text indexed by any of the other major players, I’m happy to use it, particularly since it will drive even more traffic to my library’s book stacks.

  4. wally
    June 29, 2008 at 7:48 pm #

    I think it’s telling that although you called it, no one has missed their blog or their newsletter. I’m thankful actually that their marketing hasn’t clogged up my feed reader. I’m not shocked by this any more than when I hear a politician has flip-flopped on a position. A mega-corp took advantage of the optimistic hopes of a non-profit and that’s news?

    I don’t think that many people are that gullible or even surprised really. And as far as outrage. Well it’s hard to work up that much rage really. It has nothing to do with being used. To me Google is still not king of the info-world because I remember back in the day how all-powerful AOL was and how short-lived that turned out to be. Patience and an understanding of history has always worked well for librarians. This is one of those times.

  5. gasenngo
    June 29, 2008 at 8:06 pm #


    Also,for those librarians who still look down Google Schoolar, in the pride of Librarian’s build search like Scirus, be a bit more open.

    It’s true that Google Schoolar doesn’t give the best result in cross reference because they don’t actually have the raw data. They only extract the information using their algorithm. And when it come to algorithm, I think Google Engine is far more smarter than Scirus (Fast search). Google Schoolar give spell check, similar word, and contextualize meaning.

    Several time I come to Scirus, look for a complicated term, miss spell bit and it give me nothing.

    Come to Google Schoolar, it tell me that I’ve been miss spelled, I accetped and it bring me the “right result”. May be this is not the best result as you can search properly in Scrius, but the nature of a search is to look for something that you don’t really have all information in the first place.

    And with more time, more query, more traffic, Google Schoolar will be smarter.

    Nothing personal here, but Google Book, Google Schoolar is a good product, now matter how librarian think. There may be a better product from library community in the future, but it’s not Scirus.

  6. stevenb
    June 30, 2008 at 1:40 am #

    Make that two librarians who weren’t fooled. Recall a certain LJ Backtalk column titled “Nice Infomercial Google”. Librarians falling all over themselves to sing Google’s praises and getting videotaped while doing it. That said, I agree there are merits to the book project, but Google wasn’t that transparent and likely still isn’t.

  7. NickeyD
    June 30, 2008 at 3:57 am #

    Well, Google chose the library path not just for scanning merits, but also to gain vocal support from Librarians in their ongoing copyright case with Author’s Guild.

    Anyways, I agree that many people got pwned, and it was sad thing to watch.

  8. Phil Bradley
    June 30, 2008 at 5:52 am #


    I also think that it’s rather sad to see librarians looking at provision of information on the internet in a way that is defined by Google. It’s sad that no-one has actually said ‘hey yeah, lets use something other than Google’.

    Ho hum.

  9. Jenica
    June 30, 2008 at 8:32 am #

    Phil, go for it. Recommend something other than Google. Pick one of the services that they provide — not just search — and identify an equally priced solution provided by someone else. Then pick another of their services, and do it again. And another. And another. I’m sure that we can identify other free tools that are comparable for much of what Google does, but in other cases, there are no competitors offering the same services at the same price point simply because no one else is doing it.

    Frankly, I don’t think that librarians are failing to use things other than Google, it’s that Google is far ahead of its competitors on the innovation front, and in marketing that innovation. And therefore sometimes the gSolution is the only one available at that moment.

    So if it makes you sad… help us fix it. Identify other options, publicize them, and change the world. Otherwise? Google’s going to be the one defining the changes. Because they’re out there, doing it out loud.

  10. Steven
    June 30, 2008 at 3:15 pm #

    Thanks for the comments all!

    Melissa: Of course, optimism is not a flaw. But if we want to be taken seriously as a profession, I think we need to point out who the winners and loser are in this story. The winners are Google (who will no doubt make a lot of money on this) and those that will access the books online (although there are lots of flaws with the book search product). Do librarians win here as well? In some respects, yes. We do stuff for our users and they will benefit.

    On the other hand, will this be the end of Google helping librarians? Will Google start giving back like the Gates Foundation? I haven’t seen anything yet and doubt that they will. Google has always been about taking and not giving (in many respects, they are evil).

    If Google can’t get anything else from libraries after sucking them and their collections dry, they will leave us in the dust. That is, unless we do something about it. And by me pointing out how we are being used, hopefully more librarians will stand up and say, “Hey, remember us?”

  11. Stephen
    July 1, 2008 at 12:09 pm #

    It seems a bit rash to say that Google has sucked our libraries’ collections dry. Providing access to information is the key for libraries, and having expanded digital collections improves this access. Do libraries really have the funding and resources to digitize their entire print collections on their own? The fact that people not longer need to go to the physical library is the result of the internet, and digitized books doesn’t change the fact that people still prefer to read on paper. It is good for libraries to focus on changing the physical environment (as in information or learning commons models) but digital collections are sure to be a part of the future as well. Libraries have always had to adapt along with new technologies and this case is no different. Is it a better model that libraries pay publishers to gain access to electronic content?

  12. Nancy Prager
    July 2, 2008 at 9:10 am #

    Yes, Google used libraries and librarians. The original project was Google Print. Shortly after the project launched, publishers and the like raised a fuss. Google reformulated the program a bit and launched Google Print For Libraries.

    Had Google really intended to help libraries and librarians, the scans would have been maintained on servers at the libraries. Instead, all of the data has been stored on central servers under Google’s control.

    Also, had Google been as philanthropic as its marketing indicated the scanned books would be able to be searched regardless of the search engine someone uses. No, the materials are only available if you use Google’s search engine.

  13. Phil Bradley
    July 2, 2008 at 3:22 pm #

    Umm, thanks for the advice Jenica. However, before you start telling me that I need to ‘help you fix it’ you might want to read one of my books where I discuss search engines other than Google, or coming along to one of my courses – how about ‘Internet searching without Google’. Or take a look at my website, or one of my weblogs where I provide plenty of options for Google free resources. I can work perfectly adequately without Google. Can you?

  14. Gem
    July 2, 2008 at 5:57 pm #

    Originally, I was excited when I saw the Google blog for librarians. I had dreams of learning even more complicated and exciting ways of using various Google services (such as some secret way of doing nested boolean searches in Google). However, I quickly discovered that they weren’t posting anything that I didn’t already know. The normal tech blogs I read would usually find new feature before the normal Google blog discussed them much less the Google Librarian blog.

    Maybe they stopped updating it because we’re more knowledgeable than they expected and they couldn’t come up with enough new content to keep us interested.

  15. Mikee
    July 3, 2008 at 9:12 am #

    I agree w/ Melissa.
    Librarians weren’t “used.” Google is simply smart and innovative enough to use the available resources around them, unlike librarians who complain and whine all day.

    I’m in library school and this kind of thinking disappoints me. So what if librarians were used (that is common in any other profession), if so, librarians should simply step up and use Google to their advantage.

  16. MYHerring
    July 3, 2008 at 9:17 am #

    Perhaps there were more of us who didn’t take the bait after all. I said all along that Google was taking advantage for its own good and not necessarily ours (See, for example, my FOOL’S GOLD). But more than this, librarians are mostly fiddling while their profession burns. While much of what is on the Web is questionable,what remains may well not come up, or appear buried a dozen screens down. Still, it doesn’t take a bean-counter to realize that it’s not only preferred by many students, but also much, much less costly. If we librarians don’t do something about that, we’ll end up the answer to a trivia question in a decade os so.

  17. Sarah Houghton-Jan (Librarian in Black)
    July 3, 2008 at 1:06 pm #

    I think you got it totally right Steven. Admitting that I am one of the librarians who was pwned, I will say that I was largely enthusiastic (like others have said they were) about Google forming a partnership with librarians. They could help us and we could recommend ways that their products would work better for our users. So much for that. And as a long time proponent of other search engines myself (Ask or Exalead anyone?) I am even more maddened about how we were exploited. I still have a Google shirt that a Google rep gave me during an Internet Librarian conference just because I stopped at the Google Booth and said I was a blogger. It’s like “please, please, please publicize us.” (just for the record, the shirt was never worn). And it’s very interesting to me that no one from Google has responded here to champion their cause and integrity. They’re usually lightening fast about replying to criticisms on popular blogs.

  18. walt crawford
    July 3, 2008 at 1:59 pm #

    I’ll have to disagree, at least in part. The University of Michigan wasn’t used. I don’t believe any of the libraries that are part of the Google Library Project were (or are) used.

    Google Book Search provides ways to search for items in books that no library can do by itself. It doesn’t provide the books, but–especially for obscure items (one paragraph on a topic in a 300-page book) it reveals sources that would otherwise stay hidden.

    I still don’t see how this can do anything but help libraries–which is, after all, where the books are (especially the tens of millions of in-copyright, out-of-print books). How does making your collections better known hurt you?

    As for the Google PR towards librarians in general–well, yes, it’s interesting that it seems to have disappeared entirely. As one who, perhaps naively, wrote a piece for the short-lived newsletter (for which I received the usual $0, but they made up for it by not even suggesting possible employment), I’m just bemused by that whole thing. (No, I never got the T-shirt either.)

    But, I’m sorry, this just doesn’t follow:
    “Google will continue to use librarians, scan their books, profit from it, and then leave us in the information dust to rot like an old microfilm machine.”

    More access to public domain books. Full-text searching for books that only libraries can provide. How exactly does this “leave us in the information dust”?

  19. Eva G.
    July 3, 2008 at 8:13 pm #

    Thank you Melissa, Mikee, and Walt – your comments really wrapped up the thoughts that I shared! I have NO idea how librarians think they’re being used or exploited by Google. I’m STILL thankful for all the wonderful things Google provides for me and my patrons. Then someone was fussed up that the books are kept on Google’s server – oh, so you really think a library has the server space for that amount of information, more than Google? Really, you think that? And, come on, there’s so many blogs and other librarian resources, are you really that bent out of shape that we don’t have a dang “Librarian Center” on Google??? Stop whining, start innovating. This is silly, but will make for an excellent follow-up blog rant.

  20. Jenica
    July 3, 2008 at 8:34 pm #

    Phil, getting aggressive with me doesn’t do anything to advance the discussion, or to address the point that I hoped to convey, which was that yes, librarians are using Google resources uncritically, because, as I wrote, “Google’s going to be the one defining the changes. Because they’re out there, doing it out loud.” I apologize if you were offended by my frustration; that was not my intent, and my hope was not that you personally would “fix” us, but that we would all work together collaboratively rather than just blaming Google. I think that point still stands, perhaps more pointedly, as I was unaware of your list of helpful anti-google publications and works, and I’m uber-aware of Google. That awareness comes from the fact that they have the power, the resources, and the voice right now. And librarians, if they object to that, need to stand up, collaborate, and work together to fix the situation, address it, or work with it.

    What we don’t need is to attack each other with sarcasm when someone doesn’t know about the work you’ve done. Because that doesn’t actually help anyone fix anything, and it rarely advances the discourse.

    July 4, 2008 at 8:42 am #

    I say the ALA is not perfect in this regard. A week after the ALA lost big in US v. ALA (US Supreme Court 2003), Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Esq. of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom said the ALA would get together the resources needed to advise libraries on obtaining the necessary resources for CIPA compliance. Yet now a major ALA argument against CIPA compliance is the supposedly great cost. The ALA made itself in charge of informing libraries how to afford CIPA compliance in 2003, yet to this day it only complains of the cost and has taken no steps I can see to act as it promised and assist libraries in this regard.

    So here we hear about librarians complaining Google dropped the ball on them a year ago. But the ALA dropped the ball on advising our nation’s libraries on how to afford CIPA compliance, then advises libraries to complain CIPA is not affordable, and this ball was dropped over five years ago.

    I say the ALA’s ball droppage is far more significant than Google’s.

  22. Terry K
    July 5, 2008 at 5:04 pm #

    Google is a great search engine and is powered by brilliant word of mouth marketing. Most people would not use another search engine and risk being seen as using second best but have little clear evidence for their choice. I regualrly run open internet courses in the UK for librarians and MBA students and it never fails to surprise me how uncritical searchers generally are.

    Try using a tabbed search engine such as for awhile and watch the difference in search results particularly between Yahoo and Google. It’s no good being a Google basher without evidence. The evidence is there and if a few more libraries had their default pointed at non-Google search engines with a display of reasons why you need to use more than one search engine then maybe we would have more respect in the search community. There are so many subjects where it is at least as good if not better to use an alternative search engine to Google. Expose these areas and teach the world to search more critically.

    Google cannot be blamed for a lack of interest in/respect for librarians if we do not shine.

    Terry K

  23. Sally Adrina
    July 6, 2008 at 12:48 am #

    I wish more people would turn to Worldcat instead of Google when looking for books. Worldcat has updated to include images of the cover, various publications/editions, and also providing citation. I find that Google is the new Yahoo crutch for users.

  24. wpk
    July 6, 2008 at 11:06 pm #

    walt, i’m sorry, but the university of michigan absolutely was used, at best, seeing as how they were in cahoots with google as they copied *in copyright* works, cover to cover, *without permission*, compelling litigation, and losing all credibility with authors, publishers, and borowers.

  25. Martin Courtois
    July 8, 2008 at 11:37 pm #

    I’m disappointed the library community didn’t demand a better financial deal from Google. We had resources Google couldn’t duplicate: World Cat, big research library collections. Google had money. We could’ve worked with Google to set up grants or some sort of continuing funding to help libraries in exchange for use of our resources. But, we gave it all away under the guise of improved access to our collections.

  26. David P. Dillard
    July 9, 2008 at 12:02 am #

    It seems to me that this is not the first time, nor the last time when libraries may seem to be taken for a ride by corporations in the development and use of their information technology solutions. Consider the early days of searching in the seventies and the eighties, when libraries used telecommunications networks to connect computers to the remote servers of Dialog, BRS and SDC Orbit and other databanks. Librarians performed mediated searches and in many cases collected money sent to these databanks from their clients, serving as unhired and unpaid sales representatives for online searching services. Of course they were paid by the academic or public library in which they worked, but the profits from these searches went to the databank vendors. It would kind of be like working for a hospital and selling medical insurance from insurance companies to perspective patients. There is a good reason libraries opt to employ their time and resources to provide these services or content to providers like Google and other databanks. The end result is a service level that cannot be approached without these electronic tools, hence we now lease databases and make them available to the clientele of libraries. Google books alone has permitted librarians and the public to get inside the covers of books to find content that would be undiscoverable without the surgery of a Google Book search.

    Librarians, Jelly Beans, and Google Book Search.
    (cover story)
    Dillard, David.
    March / April 2006 v. 30 no. 2 p. 20-21

    Librarians may get used by the providers of these services, but they in turn are getting resources that are not available without these databases.

    David P. Dillard

  27. Cindi
    July 9, 2008 at 10:00 am #

    For librarians it doesn’t matter whether a patron’s information need is met by a snippet from a digitized book, an electronic article, a print book, or a print journal; nor does it matter who provides access to those things (until the cost is prohibited). The patron looks at all that information coming at them and freezes or worse, gets completely lost or diverted. Librarians have the crazy ability to focus them back, give them a different set of vocabulary to open the door to a new avenue of discovery, and (more importantly) TEACH them. Let everyone else (Google, Microsoft, Internet Archive, individual institutions, the next new thing) digitize the universe of knowledge. We need to keep doing what we do best, organizing the chaos, filtering out the noise, and teaching people how to fish.

  28. michael
    July 9, 2008 at 1:02 pm #

    I fail to see where Google has done anything wrong. The libraries who helped them have lost nothing, and in fact have gained (along with the rest of us) a valuable tool.

    If any librarian honestly has an US vs. GOOGLE view, then they should step aside and start selling buggy whips, while the rest of us enjoy the fruits that Google and various other technological companies and partnerships have provided us.

    The only real question I have about Google Scholar and Google Book Search is “Why the hell didn’t OCLC or some other librarian-centered organization do this years ago?”

  29. Brian
    July 9, 2008 at 5:01 pm #

    Seriously, it’s pretty simple: copying in-copyright books cover-to-cover without permission is illegal.

    Too bad “the Google Five” (more like the Keating Five than the Chicago Seven, come to think of it) libraries didn’t read their own little Copyright Violation Warning signs posted near their own photocopy machines in lieu of accepting Google’s wheelbarrow full of quarters.

  30. Tim Reynolds
    July 9, 2008 at 7:40 pm #

    I am with Martin Courtois, we should have arranged more grants or other compensation. While I agree that as a whole the world community will benefit from Google’s project as a profession we shot ourselves in the foot big time not just once, not twice but three times.

    1) Librarians are/were the one to encourage people to use Google. I remember in library school when Google was the new kid on the block and how Google was the best thing ever.

    2) After we got them to the top of the Search Engine Heap we open our only resources to them for nothing. Go read/watch Pirates of Silicon Valley to see what happens next. Basically we might see brink and motor libraries go by by. I am sure all of you tech fans will be happy and thank the lord I am switching to museums. I do need a pay check.

    3) Finally we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot again by being Google’s best sales reps once again. We will be the ones showing patrons the value of Google Book Search instead of the power of libraries. No one is going to use Book Search unless we encourage it. So lets try and be smarter this time.

    Its going to be an interesting shoot out between OCLC/Open Content Alliance and Google. Pick your devil to sale out to now so you can get your asking price.

  31. T Scott
    July 10, 2008 at 3:08 pm #

    I just went through all of the postings on the Librarian Central Blog and was struck by how very few comments there were (and none, as far as I can tell, from the bloggers who seem most distressed and taken advantage of). Perhaps the Google folks decided that since librarians didn’t seem very interested in engaging with them on the blog that it wasn’t worth the time and energy that they were putting into it. One way of looking at this is that Google made a good faith effort to develop a stronger relationship with the library community through the blog and the newsletter and the librarian community didn’t step up.

  32. walt crawford
    July 11, 2008 at 12:11 pm #

    “Seriously, it’s pretty simple: copying in-copyright books cover-to-cover without permission is illegal. ”

    Seriously, Google’s project may be the focus of two lawsuits–but neither of those lawsuits has been decided against Google. A number of legal scholars believe that Google Library Project constitutes fair use; others disagree. Simply asserting that the project is illegal does not make it so.

    Tim R.: “No one is going to use Book Search unless we encourage it.” That’s interesting…and, much as I love the field, may overstate the importance of librarian recommendations. (As for the doom of brick-and-mortar libraries: I still fail to see how making books more findable, books that generally need to be borrowed from libraries, is going to doom libraries, unless they can’t handle the demand.)

    And, as usual, T Scott makes an excellent point–it’s not as though librarians were actively engaging Google on its blog.

  33. David Bigwood
    July 11, 2008 at 12:52 pm #

    Steve, they were listening. Check out New newsletter today.

  34. Tim Reynolds
    July 11, 2008 at 2:25 pm #

    Well I think most people do not see Google stopping at finding the book. You can talk about helping with the long tail all you want. They are going to need a product soon enough.

    How do I know this? Look at how fast abstracting services have disappeared. People will take a full text article over an abstract any day. Logically people will take a full text book over a few pages. This will force Google to make the whole book accessible. If they dont people wont use this service and no ad revenue will be generated. With no ad revenue they lose their investment. I really dont see Google losing 100 million or so when lawsuits and lobbyist cost less.

    Again I am not against Google doing this, I am just saying be ready to cut a good deal. We can not blame Google if they knock as out of our business we have done it to ourselves. We can look logically at the new environment and make use of it.

  35. Jim Scheppke
    July 12, 2008 at 4:49 pm #

    I agree with Tim. Google’s ultimate business plan is to be able to deliver the full text of books — public domain books and books not in the public domain. Their strategy for the latter might be to support “orphan works” legislation the the Congress that would unlock a lot of post-1923 content. ALA is working on this too — another example of librarians giving Google the rope to hang us with?

    Librarians need to get it straight: Google is a competitor and not a partner. They will be laughing all the way to the bank when they start delivering millions of books that were given away to them by librarians. The big question is, will access be free? I imagine so, given Google’s advertising-supported business model — I don’t think that will change. Imagine the ranges and ranges of books in large research libraries that will be totally devalued at that point.

    If librarians had had enough vision and imagination and money we could have created our own full text book delivery site. OCLC might have led this, or the Library of Congress. It’s probably too late now. Our capitalist economy gives first dibs to the private sector to deliver public goods. It’s only when the private sector can’t deliver (“market failure”) that the public sector gets their turn (that’s why public libraries were invented in the mid-19th century to do what bookstores and private libraries couldn’t do to serve everyone). It doesn’t look to me like we are going to get a turn this time.

  36. wpk
    July 14, 2008 at 8:41 am #

    still just gotta wonder how that “number of legal scholars” (both of them paid for by the google?) is going to get around a common-sense interpretation of:

  37. pjkwik
    July 23, 2008 at 9:48 pm #

    As a librarian, I say: who cares? The Google project has opened up the possibilities with books on the internet, and has brought that to millions of people.

    If we can’t adapt to that as a profession, we should fade away.

  38. Laurel
    July 31, 2008 at 4:29 pm #

    Google? You can’t read, download, print or even cut an dpsate most books….it’s a great TOC service. Google Scholar is OK- but not for real research, good for very unique, nice to after true research in indexes. I am really confused by the fear of Google….they are really one big tease. A library gives it away for free,all of it.

  39. Tim Reynolds
    August 8, 2008 at 9:50 am #

    Common sense interpretation of copyright law? I do not think thats actually ever been done. On top of the constant misuse of the law with enough money you can get any law changed. Oh America the Beautiful. If you don’t believe me look at what’s going on with the digital copyright laws. In the 2000 they where pro-writers just this year tthe rullings were changed giving publishers the right to reprint articles/photos in other formats. What we should learn from this is that copyright law is neither static nor has commonsense .

    On top of this the ALA in its truly infinite wisdom is backing the argument to free up orphan works. So now there is no one really stopping Google. This is being done so libraries can make digital libraries out of old materials only historical societies want Its a noble cause in their minds. But once thats done we have helped Google once again.

    Remember I am not arguing that Google Booksearch (odd they didn’t call it Google Pagesearch?) or Google Scholar are great today. I am saying do A SWOT; look over your backs for the future, because you going to see what a 500 Lb gorilla really can do soon.

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