My Copyfight

Actually it’s our copyfight, but my had a better ring to it.

Here’s the backstory. Lorri Mon, a friend and colleague, is the guest editor of a special issue of the journal The Reference Librarian, on topics around the future of reference and library education. Since I have a thing or two to say about those topics (as my students have heard ad nauseam), Lorri asked me to contribute a paper. I said, ok, how about a paper on liaison librarianship and how to teach it in the standard Reference course in ILS programs? I figured I could easily write 5000 words on that topic, since I have taught that standard Reference course many times, and have tried to integrate liaison librarianship into that course. And it was Lorri asking. So I said yes.

Fast-forward nine months or so. In the interim there somewhere, I had asked Diane Harvey, another friend and colleague, and the Head of the Instruction and Outreach Department for the Duke Libraries, who’s involved with their liaison librarianship program, to co-author the paper with me. Nine months or so later, the paper is written. We’ve submitted the paper to Lorri. It’s undergone blind peer review. We’ve made revisions based on the reviewers’ comments.

And here’s where the fun begins.

Lorri sends us the copyright form. Both Diane and I sit on it for a while, a few weeks, more out of laziness than anything. We were not intending to play chicken, as described here by Jason. After a few weeks of sitting on this form, Diane left me a voicemail asking me if I’d signed the form yet, and I left her a reply voicemail saying no. I also thought I should contact Lolly Gasaway, law professor extraordinaire and former instructor of my School’s copyright course… and who I have heard, from her very own mouth, ‘fess up to playing that game of chicken with publishers. Diane beat me to the punch though, and contacted Kevin Smith, Duke University’s Scholarly Communications Officer… and, incidentally, my hero.

I have to stop here briefly, to point out that the publisher of The Reference Librarian is Taylor & Francis. I had not even thought about who the publisher is, prior to agreeing to write this article… like a typical academic, I imagine. In academia, we’re acculturated to the mindset that the publication is the important thing, and the publisher is a means to that end. Journals, not publishers, have reputations and impact factors and whatnot, so that when we choose where to publish, “where” equals “in what journal.” We give little thought, generally, to the publisher behind the journal. Indeed, the publisher is largely invisible, or if it is visible, it’s only in the person of the journal editor, who doesn’t even work for the publisher. We all know that there’s a serials crisis, and about the open access movement, and all that. But when the rubber hits the road, we tend to think in terms of journals, and not in terms of publishers. I will never make that mistake again.

In response to Diane, Kevin replied that Taylor & Francis’ copyright agreement form is extremely confusing. See the form here. Note the following two issues. One: The copyright assignment agreement is on pages 2-3, but the author signs page 1, making it unlikely that the author will read the fine print on pages 2-3 closely. Two: The Schedule of Author’s Rights contains the actual terms that the author is agreeing to, but that Schedule is not included in this document, nor is a link to it provided. Kevin, of course, being a mensch, found it online… see it here.

Kevin also pointed out that, according to the Schedule of Author’s Rights: (1) The author transfers all rights to T&F, (2) T&F grants some rights back to the author, and (3) among these are (a) the right to post a preprint “on your own website, or on your institution’s intranet” (item 4 on the Schedule), and (b) the right to post a postprint, but not until “18 months after first publication” (item 6). Now, let us consider these rights. First of all, preprints are defined as “versions of the article created prior to peer review.” In other words, a draft. I would argue that a more common definition of preprint is the version of the article after peer review and revisions, but prior to copyediting and layout: what T&F defines as a post-print: “the Article in the form accepted for publication in a Taylor & Francis journal following the process of peer review.” (Though, to be fair, if I understood Kevin correctly, he disagrees with me on these definitions; he would define these terms as T&F does.) Second, I can’t post a post-print until a year and a half after the issue in which my article appears is published. Which means probably 2.5 years after it was accepted for publication, given how long the issue production process takes. Kevin pointed out that this 18-month restriction is unusual, and that the goal of it is pretty clearly to make author self-archiving difficult and, ultimately, irrelevant.

After this conversation between me, Diane, and Kevin, I emailed Lorri to ask if she could look into whether a change could be made to these policies. She did, and got an extremely unhelpful and unbudging response from a T&F representative (“we cannot change this section of our author rights policy”). I then replied to Lorri that Diane and I would not sign the T&F copyright agreement. I referred to the UNC Faculty Council Resolution on Faculty Ownership of Research. (I understand that Duke has a similar policy, but I don’t have a URL for it.) I offered to provide a revised author rights document that Diane & I would be willing to sign. And I apologized profusely to Lorri, for being a thorn in the side of her special issue. Lorri suggested that I write all those things to the regular journal editors (Rita Pellen & William Miller) and the T&F rep (Stacy Stanislaw), which I did.

And here, as a comic interlude, is where we had a “What we have here is a failure to communicate” moment. The response I got from Rita was: T&F will not publish the article without the copyright form signed by the authors, therefore we cannot include your article in the special issue. I replied, I wouldn’t expect T&F to publish the article without a copyright form signed by the authors. What I’m saying is that we won’t sign the form as is, but I’m offering to create an edited version of the form that we would be willing to sign. To her credit, Rita suggested that I send her an edited version of the form, and offered to submit it to T&F. This of course committed her & William to nothing, but was, from my point of view, a welcome show of solidarity.

So I created a revised version of the T&F copyright form. Because the original form was so confusing, my goal was to make it a single page: just the page that the author signs. I edited out all references to the “agreement attached” (that is, the copyright assignment agreement on pages 2-3), thus also eliminating all reference to the Schedule of Author’s Rights. I also removed the assignment of copyright to T&F, and replaced it with the right to publish, etc. — language which I lifted from the ALA’s copyright license agreement. My revised form is here… not that it matters, since T&F rejected my version.

The T&F rep Stacy replied to me a few days later that T&F “cannot accept your revised copyright form.” I assume that in the intervening few days, a fleet of lawyers had picked apart my watertight legal logic… though Stacy never mentioned who had decided that they could not accept my version. Instead, Stacy suggested that we sign T&F’s “License to Publish” form. What she said about that form was: “This form will allow you to retain copyright on your article. We would then consider you — the author — the rightsholder and list you as copyright holder at the top of the article.” One odd thing about this License form is that, apparently, only a T&F production manager can generate one, so it took a few days for one to get created for us. But here it is.

I have to stop again briefly here, to point out something very important. T&F has — had all along — a License to Publish form. Why had Stacy not mentioned this before? This email exchange had, by this time, been going on for a month. Let’s give Stacy the benefit of the doubt: let’s assume that she was not being malicious, but that she simply did not know about this License to Publish form until she ran my version by T&F’s lawyers. This is a very significant piece of information for the rep to a journal (almost certainly more than one journal) to not possess. Which means that this is a very significant oversight on the part of T&F, not keeping their journal reps informed. The result of which was that the rep to a journal was unprepared for a situation in which the author demands a less-restrictive copyright agreement. A situation which, I would like to believe, is not uncommon. Or perhaps this is a deliberate tactic by T&F? A tactic to put authors in the position of having to agree to a restrictive copyright agreement, because no one they could possibly have any contact with knows any different. Which brings me back to maliciousness.

As an aside, when Stacy first mentioned this License to Publish form, before a copy was generated for us, I did some searching. Turns out, Peter Suber had a post back in 2006 on T&F’s iOpenAccess program, which seems to have been the origin of their License form. So this License form has been around for 5 years. Plenty of time for Stacy to have learned of its existence. Also, plenty of time for it to have been integrated into the journal production process more cleanly, so we didn’t have to wait days for just the right T&F employee to create one.

The License form looked ok to me… the author retains copyright, and there’s no mention of an embargo period. But we ran it by Kevin Smith anyway, to get his reaction. And, of course, he demonstrated why I am not a lawyer. His reaction was that there is not much difference in the author’s position under the License agreement or the original Copyright Assignment agreement. The author retains copyright, but grants T&F an exclusive license to publish. By doing so, the author would need T&F’s permission to put the article in a repository. That permission is contained, you guessed it, in the Schedule of Author’s Rights, which is referred to in the License form. So there would still be an 18 month embargo for posting a post-print.

And so we come to the end of this saga. Diane and I spoke, and decided to withdraw our paper from the special issue. I wrote to the T&F rep Stacy, to drive the point home that all of this was on account of a too-restrictive copyright policy; and I wrote to Lorri to apologize profusely, again, and to promise her several drinks the next time we meet, for the hassle.

So now we have this paper on our hands. It was peer reviewed and revised. What to do with it? Diane & I discussed submitting it to another journal, but we decided that we’d had it up to here with publishers for the moment. And, of course, we don’t actually need to publish this article… need in 2 senses, actually. For one thing, I have tenure and Diane has continuing appointment, so neither of us need this publication for professional reasons. For another thing, if we want to put this article out there, we can just do it. We have the intertubes and we’re not afraid to use them.

And here’s where I get on my Open Access soapbox. What is the point of scholarly communication? I would argue that the most important function of scholarly communication is making scholarship (the input, e.g., data, datasets, etc.; and the output, e.g., articles, reports, etc.) publicly available. So that the scholarship can join The Great Conversation: so others can benefit from it, can react to it, can criticize it, etc. So scholarship, in all its forms, should be made public, though not necessarily published, at least in the traditional sense of the word. Of course, I’m not saying anything even remotely new with any of this.

And here’s where I realize that I am a very bad person. Because this whole saga has made me realize that there’s a possibility for a dirty trick here. One could, were one so inclined, submit an article for review to a journal, have it reviewed, make the revisions as recommended by the reviewers, then withdraw the article. This is of course what we did, but not by design. One could do this by design, and thereby address one of the persistent criticisms of scholarly publishing outside of the vehicle of the journal: the lack of peer review as a quality control mechanism. Plus it would still allow you to do whatever you want with your article, unbeholden to any publisher’s copyright agreement. Of course this is a total free-rider approach, and therefore unsustainable at scale: free-ridership as parasitism. But hell, the scholarly journal publishing industry is collapsing anyway, why not help it along?

So in the end, Diane & I decided to just make our article public. So here it is: here is a link to the article as a Google Doc. In fact, the Google Doc in which we wrote the article. I was thinking of setting up a WordPress instance and installing CommentPress, and putting this paper there, so that you, dear readers, could comment upon it and give it a round of post-print peer review. And maybe I will do that for future writing. But it seemed like overkill in this case.

Let me start my conclusion by saying that there’s a certain amount of irony to this whole soap opera. On the one hand, this is a tempest in a teapot: this paper is in no way worth the trouble that has surrounded it. It’s not even 5,000 words, and is hardly my magnum opus. (At the risk of speaking for my co-author Diane, it isn’t her magnum opus either.) I really don’t care all that much if it gets published or not. On the other hand, precisely because I don’t care if it gets published, it’s the perfect paper on which to take a principled stance. I can afford to take a principled stance, because I don’t care if I lose. Where “lose” is a word which here means, “don’t get the paper in the special issue.” Which, let’s face it, is losing the battle but winning the war.

It’s good to be tenured. Pre-tenure, I would have signed the copyright agreement and barely stopped to read it. If I did read it, I would have been annoyed and then signed it anyway. Now, I can afford to be an asshole take a principled stance and give the publisher a hard time over an unreasonable policy.

Now, let me really conclude by saying this: I hereby boycott all T&F journals. T&F publishes a fair number of journals in ILS (Journals by Subject > Information Science), and I shall not publish in any of them ever again. And, furthermore, I would encourage you, whether you are in ILS or not, to not publish in T&F journals either. Because, let’s face it, the only way publishers will change their restrictive copyright policies is if authors refuse to publish with those publishers. Give ’em hell.

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32 Responses to My Copyfight

  1. Valerie says:

    I published an article in The Reference Librarian, and was so excited to have it accepted that I didn’t carefully read the terms. I truly regret it, and have vowed to only publish open access after this.

    Silly me, I made the suggested edits directly to my original copy (all you n00bs, don’t do that! Keep a copy of the paper as you ORIGINALLY submitted it, before ANY suggested edits from the publisher/editors!) So now I do not have a copy that I can freely post/distribute. Seeing as the topic is fairly time-sensitive (social media stuff,) by the time the embargo is over, the information will be mostly useless.

    I work at an academic library that does not offer tenure, so the main purpose of publishing this paper (besides the desire to share information) was to help build my personal brand/name recognition in my field, and now I can’t even use it to promote myself. Such a disappointment!

  2. StevenB says:

    I do agree with your assessment of the publishing experience with T&F. I used to write a column for The Reference Librarian, mostly because Bill and Rita asked me to make a regular contribution – and both are friends and good colleagues – so I agreed to do it. I’m not on the tenure track and at this point in my career a column in RF isn’t going to make a difference. But I like a challenge. I gave it up after a few columns (I have to admit that T&F brought some real deadline and commitment to regularly publish discipline to all of what were previously Haworth journals – which had a reputation for being published on no particular schedule). To some extent I just became too busy for it, but I was also fed up with the burdensome T&F author agreements. I just didn’t need it.

    I too will have an article in Lori’s special issue. Perhaps you are aware that the project originated from a symposium that was held at the Drexel U iSchool back in March 2010 on the future of reference service. I delivered a talk there, and Lori asked those of us who gave a talk to contribute to the special issue of RF. Since Lori and her colleagues at Drexel were nice enough to invite me to speak I agree to turn my talk into an article. I knew that eventually I’d have to sign over the copyright to T&F. I considered amending it with the SPARC author addendum, which I have used in the past, but I was reasonably sure that it wouldn’t be accepted – and unlike you – I just didn’t have the time to invest in going back and forth with T&F, Bill and Rita, Lori, etc over negotiating the rights for this article. Like you, it’s not that critical to my career standing.

    Bottom line, if it wasn’t for Lori asking me to contribute – and me wanting to help her to get this issue out the door – it’s highly unlikely that I would choose to submit any of my publications to this publisher.

  3. Jessica Olin says:

    Thank you for this warning/information. Where I am in Libraryland doesn’t require publication, so if I want something published it’s because I want to get my voice out there. I do have something I’m working on (hoping to have it finished by the end of the calendar year), and now I know to avoid T&F journals when the time comes.

  4. Nice post, Jeff. I have to say I stopped publishing in the dead tree world some years ago, after a several year stint as a columnist for ‘Technicalities’ (I stopped publishing regular articles years before that). My reasons had less to do with the copyright hassles (though those damned forms make my head hurt), and more to do with the time lag. Too many times I re-read articles after 18-24 month publication processes and realized my thinking had changed substantially over that time. I ascribe this partially to my shortened attention span and partially to the speed that things change in my world. Better to push stuff out on my neglected blog now and then, and go for the quick win. Of course, as you say, I don’t have to pay attention to tenure anymore–as a retired trouble-maker doing independent consulting, I can say pretty much anything (and do). Ah, independence!

  5. Shira says:

    Have you reviewed other publishers’ author agreements and found them to be less restrictive/objectionable? It seems like this could be a fast track to not publishing in mainstream journals at all, and jumping ship for open-access online peer reviewed journals. Not that that’s a bad thing, and I hear you have tenure, but: I’m completely willing to accept that T&F are terrible, but are they really alone in that, or meaningfully worse than anyone else?

    • Actually, Shira, yes, T&F’s copyright agreement is more restrictive than some others, though not than all. It’s the 18-month embargo that’s really unusual and onerous. Many publishers require that the author sign over all copyrights, and then grant some back to the author, but that’s actually not necessary. All that the publisher really needs is a license to print, as the ALA’s copyright license agreement, that I link to above, shows. Also see the resources Kevin Smith compiled for faculty authors:

  6. Marisa says:

    Jeff — Thanks for such an insightful post. As an institutional repository manager, I have to work with faculty who are upset because we (being the IR) are not allowed to post their work online because they’ve signed their rights away. It’s nice to hear that you’ve taken a principled stance on the matter — I wish more faculty would!

  7. McKenzie Wark says:

    Good for you. I gave up publishing with Taylor & Bandit also. We have to make our own alternative peer reviewed environments.

  8. Terrell says:


    So very proud. A long time coming.

  9. Scast says:

    A brilliant exposure of the absurd nature of old academic publishing: academics give their work for free to publishers who then sell it back to our institutions for an arm and a leg. Those of us involved in open access publishing need to work together to put alternative peer review structures in place.

  10. Sarah Tusa says:

    You don’t *need* to publish at least in part because you have tenure? I guess your institution does not exercise post-tenure review. I and several of my colleagues have tenure, but with state-imposed “post-tenure faculty evaluation” — and even before that, it seemed — tenured faculty have been and still are evaluated on our “scholarly and creative activities,” as well as on our performance of our primary job duties. (And that’s on a 12-month contract, whereas the “teaching” faculty have 9-month contracts and thus have time to pursue research efforts.)

    In the meantime, I can only sympathize about the restrictive author’s contract. I am not surprised, however. Publishers want to make money. They want to make money at the expense of authors’ sweat equity and libraries’ overburdened and ever-tightened budgets. Some are worse than others. If more of us could afford to refuse to publish with such publishers, think of the impact that would have!

  11. Terri F. says:

    I very much appreciate your posting, but why not publish the article in your institutional repositories?

  12. KatyG says:

    Why not help along the demise of scholarly publishing? In the scenario you present — submitting a paper for peer-review and then withdrawing it — you wouldn’t be hurting the publisher as much as the editor and/or peer reviewers. Those are the folks who put in the time and effort to review, edit, make suggestions for improvements, etc. And those folks — often, our colleagues — are unpaid!

  13. I’m wondering why you wouldn’t submit your article to an open access LIS journal and support that method of publishing? There are more and more OA journals to choose from – why reject all journals?
    Denise Koufogiannakis
    Evidence Based Library and Information Practice

  14. Sally says:

    I published a couple of articles in a different T&F journal, but with the same copyright transfer agreement. I simply altered it by putting an asterisk after the paragraph stating assignment of publishing rights, and then at the bottom of the form stated that I retained the right to place a copy of the final peer-reviewed manuscript in my institution’s digital repository. I then signed the form and returned it. Everything was accepted as such. As a Scholarly Communications Librarian, I’m a chief proponent of our IR and will not sign any agreement that doesn’t allow me to place my work in it. My feelings on this are that authors don’t need to go out of their way to draw attention to the topic of retaining certain rights. If it’s possible, simply amend the form. If the editor says something, then I’ll fight, but the onus is on them to start it.

  15. Javier says:

    Well done, Jeff. I’ll have to second Terrell: very proud!

  16. I had a similar experience with a chapter in an edited volume for Routledge, which is Taylor and Francis. In the end, after a many months of negotiation, rewriting of agreements, and brinksmanship, we (Steve Lambert and I) did get our two chapters licensed CC BY-SA; I did not expect it to happen, but it did. The irony was that the two of us who were negotiating for this were specifically writing about open source art practice. We kept reminding them how ironic it was that had asked a couple of free culture folks to write about open source practice, and then refused to allow free culture to happen.

  17. Ada says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I applaud your pulling your paper! Wonderful! I had a *very* similar experience with T&F trying to publish a paper in a library journal of theirs. We pushed and pushed to get a publication agreement that met with our requirements and finally threatened to pull the paper and ultimately they reluctantly agreed (after the kind of shell game you encountered) to our addendum. A paper about open access even! We then wrote to the entire editorial board letting them know about their publisher’s policy and tactics and suggested that they push T&F or their society publisher that contracts with T&F to change their policies.
    These editorial boards are made up of librarians and library administrators who must (yes, I feel must) grow into better advocates for author rights and open access too. They have leverage if they choose to use it, collectively and individually. Call me crazy but we *all* have to be advocates. Not just a few of us. We *all* have a hand in advocating for and pushing for change. Not just a few scholars, or a few authors or a few librarians.
    Thanks again for posting this.

  18. Pingback: My Copyfight | PomeRantz « ADA Library Blog

  19. Pingback: Ruling Imagination: Law and Creativity » Blog Archive » One more step along the road away from the old (scholarly) publishing models

  20. Deborah says:

    The nastiest part is the trickery, where they hide that they actually have better licensing agreements. When I went through my copyfight with Taylor and Francis, after they rejected the SPARC addendum, they finally got around offering me the Author or Company-Owned Copyright Agreement (PDF), which I also think they’ve had for a while and which is much better than the licensing agreement they offered to you. (It’s basically “author retains rights, grant Taylor and Francis the non-exclusive rights to publish, use your name, and sell to aggregators.”) Why they didn’t offer that on to you is beyond me.

  21. Robin Peek says:

    Bravo Jeff, Bravo! Well done. I am going to include this in a course lecture in the fall.


  22. Marcus Banks says:

    A wonderful, inspiring post to which one can respond in many ways. I’d like to address your idea of using the Web for post-publication peer review. I fully support this, and like librarians should lead the way. Last year I organized a panel on this topic at the Medical Library Association meeting;

    At this point my own strategy has become to blog and forget about the formal publishing process. Not only are author’s rights issues involved, but the speed of publication is slow. But there won’t be a critical mass–always just a vanguard–until there are formal structures in place for recognizing/validating blogging and other new forms of scholarly communication.

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  24. “I would argue that the most important function of scholarly communication is making scholarship (the input, e.g., data, datasets, etc.; and the output, e.g., articles, reports, etc.) publicly available.”

    This may be too negative a thing to say, but I think if the actors involved treated that as the most important function/point of scholarly publishing, scholarly publishing would operate VERY differently.

    I think maybe to scholarly authors, the point of scholarly publishing is to get tenure, or otherwise do well in review processes.

    As a practical matter, it is my impression that EVERY publisher has two versions of copyright/license agreements. Some of them produce the second quicker than T&F did in your case (but it always takes knowing to ask), and with possibly better terms. For my own publication with one publisher, i said “I don’t like these terms much, are they negotiable?” They said, “OH, here, see if you like this one better.” It was indeed one where I retained copyright but gave them a 12 month exclusive license to publish, which to me was sufficient. But EVERY author has to know to ask for the “better contract”, ridiculous.

  25. Pingback: UMW Libraries » Copyright and Scholarly Publishing

  26. Alan J. Ramsbotham, Jr. says:

    Your post and the subsequent comments triggered several thoughts regarding Internet, Open Access publication, and peer review. Peer review enhances the integrity of the scientific process. It provides the reader with a level of assurance regarding the validity of the information in their hands.

    I submit that Internet publication in an open access environment can ultimately attain the same end result. It requires a bit more heavy intellectual lifting and discernment on the part of the reader. But at the end of the day, there is a net benefit.

    Your post provides an excellent example. While admittedly not an academic paper, it asserts certain facts, which are subject to question and challenge. As I write this, some 27 folks have seen fit to peer at (pun intended) and offer comment on your post. Their assessments and comments constitute a form of peer review. In addition, I, as the reader, receive the value-added benefit of their knowledge, experience and opinions.

    Furthermore, I have the ability to view and evaluate the quality of the comments (and by implication, the comment0rs) first hand. Again, from my perspective as a reader, a value-added benefit.

    Now, to offer a few unsupported and highly speculative comments. I am not an academic. My work involves review and analysis of scientific information, much of which comes from peer reviewed journals. Over the years I have published a few papers in peer-reviewed journals, just to see if I could do it.

    My impression is that peer review is not what it used to be.

    My perception is that the Internet and the growing numbers of publications (both print and on-line) have created almost unbounded demand for material. Publications may be “peer reviewed.” But the process is largely invisible to the reader–and in many cases, I suspect, to the author.

    The Internet changes the landscape dramatically, and in ways that we are far from understanding as yet. But the short version is that readers have access to orders of magnitude more information that can be assessed to reach conclusions about the validity of what they are reading. A good example is the growing number of publications that now publish statistics on citations.

    What is evolving may, in fact, prove to be a more effective and informative form of peer review, in which the substance of the review is visible to the reader. Again, this places a heavier intellectual burden on the reader. But I believe the net value-added is considerable.

    The Internet also provides authors with unprecedented access to, and ability to interact with their peers in the development of material. Competition being what it is, we need to exercise discretion. But I suspect that most of us now have a trusted cadre of “severest friends and best critics” to review our work.

    A final shift in gears before closing. Most of my work for the last 40 plus years has been for the US government, the last decade of more in the service of decision-makers who are convinced that “It’s all on the Web, and all we need to do is generate the right semantic query.” My joy at finding evidence in this Blog that the field of Library Science is alive and well is unbounded.

    And thanks to PomeRantz for an informative and entertaining post.

  27. What a great narrative. I would go one step further in your boycott and encourage instructors to avoid using T&F serials whenever possible in their courses. It’s a big step, but it’s a principled step.

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  30. Geo says:

    Greetings, Jeffrey:

    Many thanks for sharing your experience and insights so generously and eloquently, and best wishes to you in all of your adventures, both in the library and beyond.


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