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« Who are you missing when doing tech training? | Main | BAM: Getting it off my chest »

You can't mandate quality, but you can mandate mediocrity

We should all be obliged to appear before a board every five years and justify our existence…on pain of liquidation. George Bernard Shaw

A recent (and failed) White House petition started by a desperate California librarian demanded:

“Any school receiving Federal funds should be required to have a credentialed School Librarian on staff full time with a library that contains a minimum of 18 books per student. Failure to have a school library open to all students and/or failure to have a credentialed School Librarian to run that library should be punishable by a immediate withdrawal of all Federal monies."

What a great idea!

For about 30 seconds.

Buffy Hamilton, The Unquiet Librarian, had the courage to suggest this petition was not well reasoned. (Why I Am Not Signing The "Save Libraries" Petition) In her thoughtful commentary she observes:

While I know the intent was noble and well-intended in creating this petition, petitions like these are often a slippery slope, so I’m going to be politically incorrect and offer a dissenting perspective.  We need to advocate for more than  being “properly staffed, open, and available for children every day” because truly effective school librarians and programs go beyond staffing, accessibility, and materials.  I assert that a “credentialed” school librarian and 18 books won’t guarantee an effective or relevant library program.  These criteria are a gross and superficial oversimplification of the complexity of cultivating meaningful library programs and the possibilities for school libraries in a learning community.  Plenty of schools have “credentialed” school librarians who are ineffective on many levels—pinning language to such a narrow term that unfortunately can’t equate “credentialed” with highly qualified is problematic. (Read the whole entry - it's good.)

I would go further and argue that this was not just a poorly worded petition, demands for mandates are not the right way to help insure good library services to kids period. I've been an opponent to any kind of educational staffing mandate for a very long time. And with all the destruction NCLB has caused in good schools, any thinking person should be thinking twice before asking for anything regarding education from the federal government.

In my 2003 column The M-Word, I wrote:

When one works without a net (mandate), one tends to pay more attention to the needs of those one serves and perhaps a little less attention to theoretical “best practices.” Best practices are those that keep school libraries vital and indispensable by providing the services that are seen as important by the entire institution. We need to acknowledge that other people in education also have valid perspectives about what is in the best interest of the children we all serve. I know it is exceedingly hard to admit, but we school library media specialists may not always have all the answers. (However, we do have them a frighteningly high percentage of the time.)

We also need to recognize that many, many people resent mandates and the people who are in schools as a result of them. Mandates don’t insure quality, only quantity. And mandates can give the person mandated a false sense of security and an excuse for not providing indispensable services. Mandates can protect the less competent in our profession whose image then reflects on the rest of us. In an “image challenged” profession, who needs that? Even great programs can be endangered by mandates if the need for good communications is not seen as critical and they slip into invisibility.

Does not having a state or federal requirement that a school have a librarian mean that some librarians are doomed? That librarians will have to work in new ways? That librarians will need to change to a form that maybe unrecognizable as "librarian" at all?

Probably. And that's a good thing.

In a panel at a school library conference not long ago, I suggested that the reduction in library positions may turn out to be a very good thing for the profession. Gardeners know that plants need to be pruned now and then in order to keep the entire plant healthy. Species that cannot adapt to changed environments die out, leaving those most fit.

I have absolutely no doubt that most librarians who figure out how their programs can support their schools' goals and develop a strong communication and advocacy program will not just survive, but thrive. Might some good librarians' positions be cut? Of course. But over all, those who remain will be great. And students will be the beneficiary.

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Reader Comments (16)

Doug, GREAT POST! I'm formulating a similar post in my brain right now. I wholeheartedly agree about Buffy's post. She was courageous to point out reasons why the petition wasn't the answer to "saving our profession."
Furthermore, I agree with you about how blanketed support for every librarian isn't necessarily best for our overall profession. Yes that will make some people mad, but it's true that those who are savvy will find ways to thrive.

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPam

You might take a different view of things if you were in California - particularly if you were in the Los Angeles Unified School District and had been forced to "justify your existence" in the basement of a building in the Garment District, being questioned by lawyers for the school district whose sole aim was to destroy your career.

Perhaps the petition was overreaching - but the purpose was to draw attention to the state of school libraries - particularly in California, but also wherever school libraries and librarians have been deemed expendable.

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

>>> regardubg

How write yu arre!

Mandating which sidde of the rode to drive on is silly!

There will be some bad drivers somewhear.

Just filling up the skools wit libarians won't guarantee justice and peece throughout eternity.

And your list of alternatives is masterful and complete!!!! We are so grateful.

We are sooo lucky to have you there by the side of the road cheering our demise.

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Moore

“I assert that a “credentialed” school librarian and 18 books won’t guarantee an effective or relevant library program.” But not having enough books and not having a credentialed librarian will result in ineffective library programs.
By the way, lots of studies confirm access to books and the presence of a credential librarian mean higher reading achievement. (My work, Keith Curry Lance, Jeff McQuilllan, etc etc.)
NCLB was a lousy mandate. The newer proposals are even worse. That doesn’t mean all mandates are bad, eg Richard Moore's example of driving on the right side of the road.

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Krashen

Mandates are not the answer, obviously, but please don't suggest that they aren't POWERFUL. My state requires one person called a librarian IN DISTRICT. So, since only one is mandated, two years ago, our school board eliminated all but one position. Let me tell you how good library service can be with one librarian in district and one para per building: Not very good, and I am a hard worker with lots of experience and crack paras. Not best librarianship practices. One person can do stuff (selection and deselection) and spaces, the occasional big event. Not basic reference service. Not regular research help or skills training. Not introduction to technological tools. Not effective culture-of-literacy promotion. Not service to the point that teachers, students, administrators, and board members see us as essential.

It doesn't matter what the librarians were doing, or how important it was to the school culture, the teachers or the students. It only matters what the board THINKS we do, and since the board THINKS librarians do the same thing as paras, despite annual board updates with data and stories and alignment to state standards and the common core, I am lucky that my state mandates me or our students would be lost in a sea of materials only obtainable through Scholastic Book Fairs and Wikipedia. Oh, wait. We'd have lots of reading specialists too, because the board knows what they do and why they require an advanced degree, which is to increase test scores. (Yes, I've told the board that research suggests librarians do that too, but after all, the cultural zeitgeist says librarians are outdated, and what is truth to that?)

It may be misguided to look to mandated staff requirements to resolve issues with teaching research skills and literature appreciation to kids and teachers, but it is equally misguided to suggest all we need to do as librarians is toot our own horns better and be more self-reflective about the services our libraries offer. I am darn tired of those who ought to be supportive of librarians and library service suggesting we need to think harder about how necessary we are. I AM NECESSARY, and after two years of serving 2000 students, I will tell you, MORE DEGREED LIBRARIANS ARE NECESSARY TOO. I wouldn't complain if my state decided to mandate degreed librarians in each building. At least mandating well-qualified workers of certain kinds is more likely to ensure decent education than mandating test scores of certain amounts is.

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate W

Speaking of mediocrity, you just flunked Advocacy 101.

It's a petition. It's designed to raise awareness of the importance of librarians in school libraries.

It's not the final wording of a bill before congress or a proposition on the ballot.

Way to support fellow librarians in their struggle to promote the profession as fundamental to learning.

Suggest you read Niemoller's When they came. When they come for you, don't bother asking for help in saving your job.

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermlaiuppa


The school library petition had a word limitation, so encompassing all Teacher Librarians do to promote both digital and print Information Literacy couldn't be articulated. Your response to publicly trash a sincere effort to bring some much needed attention to the decimation of our country's school libraries is ignorant.

How else will Mr. Obama know of California's travesty of one Teacher Librarian to 5000+ kids, and less than 10 books per child in LAUSD, digital books included? His handlers and corporate "philanthropists" have convinced him that all-digital library kiosks are the way to go nationwide. That scenario puts you out of a job too.

So, the Unquiet Librarian and some readers won't push library services for all students, and reasons offered up are specious; a misspelled word, no guarantee of good service with credentialed professionals, or laws won't be obeyed anyway. Boo hoo. Lip service is easier to dish up than effort.

When we discuss school library services we assume that others in our professions understand we mean books, both digital and print, Web2, Information Literacy training, technology access and integrating these services with school curriculum that Teacher Librarians offer.

California is dead last in ALL school library services to students and it shows. As California goes, so goes the nation. Enjoy your state mandate while it lasts and don't snivel when Georgia's school libraries are on the chopping block because so called reformers and raptor philanthropists have bought waivers to circumvent your laws. Your own comment says its already happening.

This petition is an attempt to force Mr. Obama to take a closer look at the disastrous consequences RTTT and NCLB policies have rained upon school libraries nationwide, especially in California. Such lack of support from within our profession is unconscionable and short sighted. The forces seeking to corporatize both public and school libraries will win unless librarians of all types stick together.

Your comments betray that you are unaware of copious amounts of research linking school libraries staffed with credentialed TLs, a wide selection of books and reliable funding to improved reading scores. That you would comment on the lack of such evidence shows that you do not research your own opinions. Do you even have a degree in education or a School Library Services credential?

And if I misspelled any words, DEAL WITH IT!

[For the record, this was posted on Buffy's blog - I read it there. Doug]

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Roche

In my (very humble) opinion, so many of us oversimplify our teacher librarian position. It's so easy to say we need to advocate, be a part of the school's instructional team, and be a leader... We often read that teacher librarians should do these things regardless of staffing, and we get all dreamily enthused when we here these rah-rahs at conferences. Then we come back the reality of our jobs and circumstances. I'm not criticizing. In fact, I too often use my "poor me" situation to excuse myself from doing what should be done. But what is it, exactly, that should be done? I'm rambling, but back to point:

Stephen Krashen commented, "By the way, lots of studies confirm access to books and the presence of a credential librarian mean higher reading achievement." That's just too simple. I think (a dangerous thing to do, I know) that schools that have higher reading achievement do have credentialed librarians and lots of books, but I'm also sure there are schools with credentialed librarians and lots of book whose students do night have higher reading achievements.

It's what the librarian DOES that makes a difference, and that cannot be mandated. By the way, what is it that those great librarians do that separates them from the rest of us.

Keep posting, Doug. If the day comes that no one disagrees with you, then on that day, you probably didn't say anything at all.

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob

This is a fabulous conversation. The petition has set it in motion and it is definitely one that needs to happen. Library programming and instruction are important to our students and it appears that unless something happens soon, librarians will cease to exist in our schools. In the 3rd Colorado Study, Keith Curry Lance states:

“Over the past two school years (2007-08 through 2009-10), the net loss of 67 librarian positions out of 562 constitutes a loss of 12% of all endorsed librarian positions in Colorado public schools. If endorsed librarian positions continue to be lost at the rate of 67 a year, they will be extinct in Colorado public schools by 2025. Hypothetically speaking, that means that by the time children born today reach high school, they would not have the assistance of trained librarians to help them navigate the information environment – and just at a time when such skills are becoming more and more important to society and also as part of the very standards in which students are expected to be proficient. [Http://]”

This quote refers to the students and schools within Colorado. The majority of students living in California have already gone through at least 7-8 years of public school education never receiving the services of a credentialed librarian. Unless a student lives in a district – or even a school – with an enlightened administrator who values the instruction that librarians give to their students, he/she will not know what it is to walk into a library and receive full instruction on a variety of basic research topics, much less learn how to stay safe online, use 2.0 tools, or use a database.

You state, Doug: “Does not having a state or federal requirement that a school have a librarian mean that some librarians are doomed? That librarians will have to work in new ways? That librarians will need to change to a form that maybe unrecognizable as "librarian" at all?”

This is an intriguing question. But what does that mean for our students, really? Even if we removed ourselves from the physical space called ‘library’ and either had our own classroom [which, I believe that we currently have – called the ‘library’] or roamed to other classrooms throughout the day, [which I already do] it still means that a school has a person working there called “the librarian”. We are still talking about keeping a person in the building.

About this mandate thing: schools have all kinds of mandates. There are so many mandates that it makes our heads spin. Students are required to have highly qualified teachers, be served healthy school lunches, to participate in state testing. In CA, students are specifically mandated to have a textbook for each class. Mandating the presence of a school librarian is not out of the realm of possibility for education today. It’s all about priorities.

The conversation does indeed ricochet between the reasons that many folks didn’t want to sign the petition and what it hoped to accomplish.

It asked for direct quantitative mandates. In California, it appears that this is the only way that students will ever see a school librarian in their school: a direct statement that says: “schools will have a credentialed school librarian and a clerk”. Why not? English classrooms have a credentialed teacher. So do History, French, Math and Science. Why shouldn't my classroom have the advantages of having me - the credentialed teacher for that classroom - be there every day?

Legislation that gives money to districts or schools more often than not is filtered into testing, hiring extra assistants, consultants or the “(highly priced) program du jour”. Even money that is intended to go to the school library somehow finds itself funding reading programs [AKA Accelerated Reader, etc] or reading specialists instead of going into the library.. Again, in CA, when School Improvement Funds [SIP] that went directly into schools got merged with Library funds; most school libraries never saw a dollar of that money once it was merged.

The other reason that many folks didn’t like the petition is because it didn’t talk about the importance of the library program. This is, indeed an important point. We know that there are far too many of us who are not moving into the present [much less the future] of libraries. So yes, let’s have that conversation within our own listservs and conferences and associations and create the environment that moves us all forward.

An important thing to remember: it doesn’t matter how good you are, how well you teach, how lively your library is…you can be cut. I’ve seen far too many incredible librarians with outstanding – even award winning – libraries sent into retirement or to the classroom or sent to lead multiple libraries.

And so this again, brings us back to the first segment of our concern with the petition – mandating the presence of a librarian.
I say, let’s get that mandate there. There’s too much at stake - our students of the 21st Century need the instruction that the librarian provides. Our schools need the social environment that the place called 'library' provides. Our faculty needs the professional development ‘big picture’ expertise that a librarian provides. Even if we are reinventing ourselves, we still need to be there....and as we reinvent ourselves, we can bring our classroom colleagues along with us.

California is facing a ‘trigger’ budget pull this January. This means more budget cuts, more libraries decimated and more students who never see the inside of a school library.

It is my hope that those of you in other states will take a look at California. We truly are the canary in the mine shaft. I’m already reading about administrators in other states who are watching the creative approaches of our administrators and learning how to circumvent financing their libraries, budget-cutting their librarian away and replacing him/her with paras or parent volunteers.

It’s about priorities. Our job is to rally together and talk priorities with our unions, administrators and our legislators. At some point soon, we will be asked to write to our legislators about putting school libraries into ESEA. When that happens, we have to pull it together to make those calls and write those letters. We lost out big time when we didn’t have any legislative support to getting school libraries in the first round of ESEA – what does that say about our own advocacy?

This petition was obviously not the way to get our voice heard - but it did start the conversation. It really is time to own up to our own internal deficiencies - yes, reinvent ourselves... but first let’s get librarians back into the largest classroom on campus and let’s talk about how we can teach, collaborate, professionally develop and be active participants in campus curriculum. We need to bring our library voices to the larger educational community and back sound educational priorities.

Personally, I’d like to see legislation that specifically states that “schools will have a credentialed school librarian and a clerk; and money for materials”.

Unless it’s specific – it ain’t there.

And unless we finally take action together, it’s not going to happen.
Connie Williams

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterConnie Williams

"Bob" wrote:: Stephen Krashen commented, "By the way, lots of studies confirm access to books and the presence of a credential librarian mean higher reading achievement." That's just too simple. I think (a dangerous thing to do, I know) that schools that have higher reading achievement do have credentialed librarians and lots of books, but I'm also sure there are schools with credentialed librarians and lots of book whose students do night have higher reading achievements.

Dear Bob. Good grief. Let's go back to R. Moore's argument. Mandating that we drive on the right side of the road will not eliminate all auto accidents. Does that mean we should drop this law?

November 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Krashen

Well, I really can't add anything because Connie, Linda, Stephen, Donna, Mialuppa said it so well. Richard is an example of an illiterate senior HS student trying to express something complex w/o having the benefit of years of seeking out information related to his interests. I know what he means though. Thank you Richard for trying to respond with passion to such an important topic no matter how inarticulate you may sound to the rest of us. Which brings me to my main point. Which is more important to a person's education: books or teachers???? If you think a student like Richard would pay any attention to anything you say Doug, you are mistaken. No matter how great a TL you think you are, because Richard is illiterate, all of your best practices would be a waste. Why is he illiterate??? Probably because he has gone to school in California, lives in the inner city of Los Angeles and has never stepped foot in a library. There is no substitute for reading. Readers are deeper thinkers than non readers. All I can say to Richard is this: I didn't mean to insult your intelligence, just your intellect. Please visit your library and start reading. Anything you find interesting. Your spelling will improve also. Oops, that's right, I forgot. There are no libraries: they have all been closed. Doug, do you have any suggestions for Richard???? Maybe some fancy Web 2.0 tools that can help him translate what is in his mind into words??? Sigh. . . . I guess I am just too old fashioned!

November 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Scherr

We don't let secretaries work as architects and we don't let nurses work as doctors. But in California because of budget cuts, paraprofessionals (and sometimes parent volunteers) are running school libraries.

Connie Williams is on point: history and geometry and anatomy classrooms all have credentialed teachers, so should the school library.

That's not the way it is everywhere, and that's not the way it should be.

President Obama says in his Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

"Every child in America deserves a world-class education."

As Dr. Krashen asserts, research shows that a world-class school library makes a big dent in that world-class education.

See my full post on this topic here:

November 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Koval

Please read Jeri Hurd's post that is linked as a reference!

Hi Jeri,

You said many things more clearly and forcefully than I was able to in regard to this petition. Thank you for your clear thinking.

I was disappointed but not particularly surprised by the tone of some of the comments on my blog post. (I had been reading similar ones on Buffy's post.) Like you acknowledge, I think it is mostly fear talking here and we'll se if a soft word will turn away wrath!

Do you know yet if you are going to EARCOS in Bangkok this spring? If so, hope to see you there.


Hi Pam,

I appreciate the words of support. As you can tell from the comments that follow, this is a "hot" subject with the profession.


Hi Pam,

Indeed I might have another view if I was a California librarian, although we in Minnesota have suffered our own library cuts and I fight for positions in my own district every year. I have no doubt the petition was well intentioned - just wrong headed.


Hi Richard,

I am not sure why you intentionally misspell you comments - I am not sure it helps make your point.

I agree that there are laws (mandates if you will) regarding human behaviors, especially those impacting health and safety such as speed limits, driving on one side of the road, and a prohibition against murder.

I would argue, however, that mandating a library program would be more like requiring all drivers to own blue card or take a single route to work than to drive on one side of the road.

I have been working as a librarian or library supervisor for over 30 years and I only cheer the demise of ineffective library programs and reactionary librarians who reflect badly on the rest of the profession.

Thank you for your comment,


Hi Stephen,

I am genuinely humbled by receiving a comment from you. I am a very big fan and recommend your The Power of Reading to every librarian I work with. (Is there a new edition in the works?) A few year ago I had hoped to get you as a speaker at our state library conference, but you were unable to attend. (Jeff McQuillan was great, however.)

Unfortunately, we'll need to disagree, not on the importance and impact of libraries, but how we achieve keeping them as vital forces in schools. As much as wish a magical mandate might provide quality libraries for all children, I believe our efforts are better spent working locally to make sure our programs fit the needs of individual schools.

Thanks again for the comment and best to you,


Hi Kate,

I wouldn't suggest that all we need to do is toot our own horns, but I do believe we need to find ways to have others speak on our behalf of the important role we play in schools. I agree that the school board is most often the deciding factor in library staff. This is why is it is so important we have parents, students and teachers who will advocate for us - not us advocating for ourselves.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment,


Hi Mlaiuppa,

Well Advocacy 101 won't be the first class I have flunked. My sense is that we just take different approaches to the topic. If you are genuinely interested in my experience building advocacy for school librarians read:

If not, that's OK too. Thanks for having the passion to write to me with your ideas.


Hi Linda,

Since you did not leave an email address to respond to you personally, I will only make a couple comments. First both Buffy and I did post your comment. I don't think either of us are afraid of disagreement (I actually try to provoke it for the sake of discussion!)

I don't the argument here centers around whether libraries are important, but how we assure their presence in all students lives. We're not in disagreement about the goal, only how we achieve it.

You sound angry and afraid. I do feel bad for all librarians who find their positions in jeopardy. And I feel worse for students who are not getting quality library programming. I hope we all work in what ever ways we feel are best to provide good service to students.

All the best,


November 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thanks, Bob. As always a great comment.

How does the old expression go - when two people agree it means one isn't thinking?


Hi Connie,

What a great comment! You make the case FOR mandated library program very, very well and you've made me re-think my position. I hope you and others who are committed to this approach to assuring librarians are there for all students keep working on it. I just hope that no one depends on this as their program's salvation (a little like depending on the lottery to finance one's retirement rather than saving for it!).

Again, thank you for the articulate argument. I hope many readers see it.


HI Annette,

Thanks for the comment.

I believe that Richard is adopting the voice of an illiterate to make some sort of point. I've looked at enough badly written student work to tell!

Again, I don't think we have any disagreement about the importance of effective libraries in student's lives - it's whether mandates are the best way to insure their existence.

All the best,


Thank you, Anna, for the link to your post. You (and Connie) speak very persuasively for pro-mandate position. I think it is great that librarians get a chance to read a variety of views on this topic. Heaven knows that I have far more opinions than answers!


November 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug,

I've been thinking about this post (and Buffy's) for awhile now. Now that the hullabaloo has died down and the petition has failed, I'll throw my 2 cents in. :)

Before Buffy wrote about the issue at greater length on her blog, she posted about it on Facebook. There, I participated in the conversation by saying, basically, that the federal government already mandates minimum standards for the funding of teachers in a variety of environments. This includes per pupil allotments, TAs, hours of physical activity, etc. All of these are meant to be minimum standards that simply insure that individual school districts are not allowed to, say, do away with all science teachers at the whim of a state level/local school board, (which, let's face it, happens). The important thing to note is that, in none of those instances, do these mandates speak to teacher or program quality – rather it is left up to the local level to a) hire the best people they can find and b) craft quality programs to meet the needs of students. Obviously, in a lot of instances, they fail at this task. However, to follow the science teacher analogy a little further, I think we all know at least one "highly qualified" (or credentialed) science teacher who isn't cutting the mustard. I don't think that means the federal government should stop mandating that students have access to a highly qualified science teacher/education.

All of that said, I agree with you and Buffy that teacher/program quality is a huge issue that needs to be addressed in all aspects of education – both in traditional classrooms and in the library. Further, I know that mandated a credentialed anybody is NOT the solution to this problem. However, in the context of a mandate being a minimum/starting point for local governments, then I support having libraries included in that mix.

As far as the books per pupil language in the petition goes, that was a bone of contention for me from the start. However, I looked at the petition as a conversation starter, knowing that, in the end, whatever legislation might have resulted from the effort would look much, much different from the original petition. Perhaps it is naïve, but I wanted to believe that the petition could at least get people talking about library services as being an essential part of what we think of as a basic education.

In the end, what bothered me most about this conversation is the way it seemed to pit librarians against one another - as though people who didn't support the petition were anti library, while those who did were anti quality or rigor. I'm pretty sure neither of those things is true. I supported the petition and asked the 4 people who follow me to sign it - not because I think mandates are the answer, or because I care more about quantity than I do quality, but because I felt getting the issue in front of someone was a good starting place.

Again, I know this conversation (like the petition itself) is dead, but I've been chewing on it since you posted and wanted to let you know my thoughts. Plus, I think it's important to model how to offer a dissenting view without shouting or insulting folks. ;-)

As always, thanks for giving me lots to think about.

December 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Hi Jennifer,

Great thoughts here. We are all too ready to jump into the fray when an issue like this comes up - me included. A bit of reflection and conversation first might be better. Thanks for you calm response!

I am not too sure we can write off a poorly worded and conceived proposal as a "conversation starter," however. Why not start a positive conversation with a more well-conceived idea???


December 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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