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I worry about libraries and the future of music.  Our users simply don’t use music in the formats or the ways that we provide it.   We’re blind to what they want then complain when they try to make what we do have fit their paradigm. You’ve seen people come in, grab a pile of CDs, burn them right there in the library sometimes, then return them and check out more.  Libraries are a source of piracy for sure, but the way we provide music to our users in general has proven to be less than useful as the years go on.  Your CD circulation has dropped, right?  And you’ve probably cut funding to the CD collection too, right?  OK, now think about why you did that and what we need to do next.

Music sales have dropped about 50% in the last decade and while CD sales have tanked, album downloads have grown slowly but single song downloads have exploded to 13 times the number of album downloads (Tom Silverman, Tommy Boy Records).  The advent of iTunes, YouTube, and other music consumption services fundamentally changed the way people consume music.  It’s no longer about the album as a self-enclosed object with liner notes. It’s about the song itself, the music video, on demand when and where you want it.

And let’s face it.  Libraries have crap in the way of digital music.  We can’t just buy a song from iTunes and put it up on our website as a converted MP3 (though we should legally be able to, imho).  We have to buy collections from third party vendors.  There are three major collections in existence: Overdrive (classical, folk, tiny bit of rock), Alexander Street Music (folk, classical, world), and the new Freegal music service (popular music but only from Sony).

Overdrive & Alexander Street Music are very similar.  Overdrive users download a music file in a DRM-protected format that will self-encrypt and be unreadable after the designated circulation period (e.g. 3 weeks).  Update: Alexander Street Music offers -streaming- access to classical, jazz, and folk. And sadly, the selection is not what most of our users want.  Most people aren’t looking for classical and folk music.  Libraries with these services get very poor use of them (according to my anecdotal discussions with other eResources managers), and frankly, I personally don’t think they’re worth the money we pay for them.  Check your usage stats and do a cost per use calculation.  You’re likely to find you might be paying $5/song.  Ri-freaking-diculous.

Freegal is very different.  The songs are popular ones with a lot of well-known artists in different genres like rock, R&B, and country.  And in a lovely change of pace, the songs are provided as DRM-free MP3s!  But — and I stress the but — the library can only offer these in a very limited fashion because of cost.  The library pays for the number of downloads per year they want to fund.  Then divide that by 52, and there’s your weekly cap.  If you hit the cap, then no users can download anything else for the rest of the week.  As a result, Freegal suggests that you limit the number of songs any one user can download in one week.  For our library in San Jose, that number is 3.  Yep, you get only 3 songs per week, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to log on before we hit our weekly cap.  Update/Clarification: SJPL no longer has a weekly cap. So if you want to download an actual album, you have to calendar yourself to come back for at least 4 weeks to get one single album.  How many users are going to do that?  For us to pay for enough songs for our users to access a full album per week, we’d need to spend approximately $500,000 per year.  And that’s not happening, nor should it in my opinion.  That’s a ridiculous proposition for a collection budget.  Is this token offering of popular online music to our users enough to interest them and an attempt at a successful model, or does it merely show that libraries are clueless once again about what our users really want with digital formats?  Again, please check out the cost per use of the service and I can just about guarantee you it’s costing you more to offer songs via Freegal to your users than it would to simply buy them the songs they want directly from iTunes, Amazon, or whatever other service they use. But what other choices do we have?  To do nothing. And that stinks too.

It’s nice that the vendors are trying to provide music digitally to libraries.  They could have just said no, and done nothing.  An attempt is much appreciated.  I’m sure dealing with record companies is a nightmare, and I don’t envy them that job. My first concern is what the residents of San Jose want and will use, and I’m just not sure that this is it.

Stephen Abram asked some excellent questions in his post about libraries and music: Libraries, Music, and the Internet.

1. Are we album or song oriented?
2. Do we create or use search tools for albums, artists and songs?
3. Do we catalogue by genre?
4. Are we oriented to physical formats alone?
5. Can we ‘lend’ a streaming format?
6. Do we use the promotion tools on YouTube like music videos?

I would add two questions to that list:

  1. Is it better to offer -something- in the way of digital music, even if it’s poor, or should we hope for better library-friendly digital collections or, better yet, a legal ruling that exempts libraries from DRM restrictions on digital content?
  2. Would any library be willing to take the legally risky (but perfectly rational) chance to burn its physical collection into MP3s and then start providing the files online for free to users with a library card log-in?

If your library has not had a serious discussion about music content and its place in the library’s physical and digital collections, I highly suggest you do so.  The future has already moved on without us and we are struggling as a result.  Be intentional in your decision-making, because what you invest in today will affect your users’ opinions of you tomorrow.

I do also think that this is a general problem related to digital content.  Downloadable movies have the same problem as other commenters have pointed out.  For movies & music, people want to get what they want when and where they want it.  That means digital.  Multi-device-compatible formats.  Platform-neutral access.  And to do it successfully, this probably means a streaming model, a cost per access model, and an “everything under the sun” model for libraries.

I have a few ideas of how we could potentially solve this problem, but it would take a government mandate that would likely piss off publishers, record companies, and movie moguls.  Too bad for them.  I’m ironing out the details of that idea now with some really smart people.

I feel firmly that we in libraries are doing the music thing wrong.  We’re not providing the formats, collections, or songs to our users in the ways that they want to consume them.  I believe streaming is the future — and as Abram asks, where do libraries fit in that model?  Do we pay for a community-wide Rdio license?  I think that’s the answer, or at least the best one I can come up with so far.  If you have your own ideas, suggestions, or additional rants, please post them in the Comments section.  Let the arguing begin!

“Music in Libraries: We’re Doing It Wrong”

  1. KMD Says:

    Is there a reason you didn’t mention DRAM or Naxos as online collections? I don’t think they are limited to academic libraries. Of course the issues in academic music libraries (and I work in one of the largest in the country) are very different than in public ones, but to a degree similar. Our circulation of physical recordings in all genres is high, as is our patrons’ use of our streaming tools (ASP and DRAM). But we struggle with content that is only availble to individuals via itunes and via groups’ or labels’ websites for dowload. The Music Library Association (of which I am a member) has been discussing this issue for years, but are no closer to convincing labels etc to play more nicely with libraries in the way they distribute their music.

  2. Sarah Says:

    I didn’t mention DRAM because I had no idea it existed. I didn’t mention Naxos because I have been told by my academic librarian counterparts that it simply is not a major player. I guess you’d probably disagree then?

  3. Esben Fjord Says:

    The Libraries in Denmark has established BibZoom. BibZoom is a musicstreaming service for Libraries, where libraryusers can stream music in almost the same way as in commercial streamingservices like Grooveshark, Spotify or Rdio.

    There are more than 2.4 million tracks from alle the mayor labels and there is a webservice.

    You can read the last pressrelease here: (google translate)

  4. Bobbi Newman Says:

    Are you using Freegal at your library? We are. I’m probably not at liberty to publicly comment on it, but feel free to email me.

  5. Brian Downing Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I like reading your blog. I think library land benefits from this sort of thing.

    I think what you have said is very intelligent. I think the issues with music transcend music though. I think we are in the beginning a a very interesting and transformative time for libraries. There is a storm of budget cuts and format changes, and no one knows how the shake out will look when it is over. There is a real problem in getting premium online content for libraries, and it mainly has to do with the fact that library budgets are smaller than the economic effect of big websites like Amazon. How does a small, free-to-consumer market offer the same content as the big consumer sites? Not easy. This factor will effect how libraries are able to acquire music, movies and maybe even ebooks.

    My 2 cents here, for whatever it is worth, is that I don’t think libraries are doing it wrong right now. I think libraries are experimenting and the models that are on the table now are not necessarily the models that will be available always. So be patient! : ). There are libraries that are in the arena, like your’s, and there are libraries sitting on the sidelines. Better to be in the game and influencing the outcome!


    Brian Downing
    Library Ideas (a.k.a. Freegal Music)

  6. Jeff Scott Says:

    Thank you for this post!

    It seems that when libraries first provided music, they mostly had classical music or jazz. (I remember going into libraries 10 years ago and that being the case). Now I can find the latest music (depending on you budget). Digital music in libraries are following the same pattern, classical, jazz, world, etc. I had that same problem with Overdrive and spoke to someone who ordered for the consortium and was given the reply, “I’m ordering all that is available.”

    If we talk about how publishers are skittish about e-book models in libraries, the music industry would feel that we are proposing to take the remaining pennies they have left.

    I wonder when we will have this discussion with downloadable movies from libraries :) (I know Overdrive and others do this now.)

    (and we balked on Freegal for that very same issue, if it’s popular then no one can use it)

  7. Alberto Santaballa Says:

    I actually worry that we’ll see the same trend with books in the next few years as we turn more to electronic readers. Many people are going to be finding that they just plain want the electronic format. It’s nice to be able to borrow a 1.5 pound hardback when going on vacation. But it’s REALLY nice to be able to take 4 or 5 books easily on a 1.5 pound electronic reader. Our library here has something interesting where we can borrow some DVDs electronically with protection. Hope we see the same in books soon. I’ve been a huge library fan since I was 8 and hate to see them lose the wonderful ability to be able to provide reading to anyone.

  8. Sarah Says:

    Esben, I am so jealous of what you are doing in Denmark. It does seem that Europe gets services (especially digital content & mobile-friendly ones) before anyone else does. Your tech infrastructure supports it, as do your copyright and digital content laws. Unfortunately here in the U.S. the companies are hampered by ridiculous legislation and corporate interests that seem to supersede the interests of the greater good. Thank you ever so much for sharing your service information with us!

    And Brian (aka Mr. Freegal), thank you for your comments. I do think it’s fine for libraries to experiment, but when a lot of money is spent on a product that makes more people annoyed than happy, it’s difficult for me to be proud of offering it. Worth a try to see if it works? Sure. Worth potentially damaging the library’s reputation with our digital customers? I’m sorry to say, but I don’t know, and I don’t personally think so in this case.

  9. Nick Says:

    Hi. Interesting post, I responded on my blog:

  10. Mark Says:

    I think that Brian is right to an extent about libraries only being able to use the tools that are out there (in fact, I say something quite similar to that in an upcoming article on Freegal in YALS).

    On the other hand, I really sympathize with Sarah’s basic point, and I think at some point libraries need to work in a more unified way (on a national or state level) to push for changes in the technology available, instead of just waiting around for a good product to come our way.

  11. Cathy Says:

    I am just smiling remembering when I was a kid, and I couldn’t believe my public library only had LPs (not CDs). They did have a pretty good collection style/genre wise, but until that moment I didn’t realize you could get such new music on LP. I assume they did this because that was the format they had “always” bought, and their in-library equipment probably did not include CD players. Seems things are rolling right along one step behind and one day late.

  12. Music in Libraries « The Catablogger Says:

    [...] Music in Libraries Jump to Comments [...]

  13. Brian Downing Says:

    Hi Sara,

    I would challenge the implication that Freegal “annoys more people than it makes happy” (a slight paraphrase) and “damages a library’s reputation” (another paraphrase). We have lots of libraries live and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Even from your library! When customers on the fence call around, they always end up signing up because the libraries say good things. Don’t take my word for it, call around.

    I do understand the point that it is not cheap, and of course the layoffs are incredibly painful. Better days ahead for all, I hope.

    Brian (also informed and opinionated)

  14. Sarah Says:

    Brian, all I can tell you is what I’m hearing from our library customers as the “digital stuff” manager for SJPL. I’m sure that some libraries are able to put enough money into it that they are able to meet customer demand. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case for us and we don’t have any other options to make it better. I respect your desire to defend you product. And as I did say, it’s certainly worth a try and better than nothing for many libraries. I do also encourage customers of all products to call around to other libraries who have the product – just do a web search for the product name + the word “library” and start calling.

  15. Peter Says:

    “Your CD circulation has dropped, right?”

    Nope. Up 4% so far this year.

  16. Brian Downing Says:


    SJPL is not using our limiters on the service. No one has been turned away for a download. The library is meeting the demand and is on pace to stay within the budget it set for the year without turning anyone away. We had a staff meeting with the SJPL recently and no one mentioned about the patrons being “more annoyed than pleased”. Quite the opposite, the people at the meeting praised the service.

    I’m not purposely trying to argue with you, but I’d be doing my company and other libraries a disservice if I didn’t step in here.

    As a customer-service oriented company, I would like to hear some specifics on the complaints, because the data does not seem to support it.



  17. Dan Nieman Says:

    Hi Sara,

    Thank you for dealing with music in libraries in a serious manner. Until we have legislation to exempt libraries from copyright infringement here are some ideas for libraries being relevant in the digital music world.

    1. Use Creative Commons music downloads as a basis for a library creating a digital music page on their website.

    2. Link to musical presentations from the Library of Congress. This will give the library’s digital music collection a good core collection.

    3. Use social networking sites to build library streaming radio sites. is highly social and is compatible with Twitter. Pandora allows one account to have up to five channels. Use these to connect your library with genres that are popular in your community.

    4. Build a low cost library radio station using a service like Live 365. They will handle the music licensing as part of the monthly fee. Allow local business to have input into music format, for a tax deductible contribution. This would also assure that library news, as well as city and community news gets regular airlplay.

    Those are just a few ideas. Thanks again for the post.
    Dan Nieman
    The Antiquarian Librarian

  18. Violet Says:


    Have to agree with you about Freegal. IMHO, it’s a great idea, but terrible execution. If I remember correctly, the maximum plan still cost $1.05 per song. There was no way that I could take that to my board for approval when Amazon is offering whole albums of popular stuff for $5.00 and songs for $.99 each. If Freegal could get their prices down to be competitive with Amazon and iTunes, we’d sign up in a heartbeat. As it stands, I’d rather buy 10-15 copies of the newest Janet Evanovich or James Patterson — we get a discount and the SAME item can be checked out to multiple people. Maybe Freegal will wake up and smell the library funding or someone else will.


  19. Scott Says:

    Another excellent post Sarah!

    By imposing DRM (and all the barriers it creates) on libraries the medai companies have missed a huge chance to provide a structured, somewhat controlled alternative for people. So instead, people have turned to bittorrent, direct connect, and other networks to obtain the music, videos, etc. that they want, without compensation of any kind to the companies (or the artists that they supposedly represent.) The result has been that instead of a “win”, the big media companies have created a lose – both for themselves and for libraries.

    I’d like to think that the media companies would rethink their approach, and start looking at alternatives. But I’m not seeing a lot of signs that this is happening.

  20. Myles Says:

    I’m with Peter above–Jan-Aug circ stats are up 10% over the previous year. People seem to be enjoying checking out music CDs here. I’m not sold on the Freegal model personally myself, but I agree that public libraries need to have the abiltiy to offer music in formats that customers want (and at a cost effective rate). Really, converting from CD to mp3 or another digital format is so easy that I’m sure that is why our CD circ numbers are up.

    “Would any library be willing to take the legally risky (but perfectly rational) chance to burn its physical collection into MP3s and then start providing the files online for free to users with a library card log-in? ”

    One would be skating on VERY thin ice if they recommended their library system to this. I’m no lawyer but I have done extensive research and reading on copyright and I don’t think “108″ of the copyright code could be interpreted to allow this. Format transfer is generally considered derivation, and derivation is one of the exclusive rights of the copyright holder.

    I do like Dan Nieman’s suggestions and wish I had time to implent them myself :)

  21. Links post: September 10, 2010 « A Modern Hypatia Says:

    [...] in Black has a great post about the challenges of music in libraries called “Music in Libraries: We’re Doing It Wrong.” Really nice summary of the current options out there, and how all of them have some real [...]

  22. Liz Dutton Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Many thanks for your mention of Alexander Street’s Music Online resources and for starting such a lively debate. I did just want to clarify a few points, however, about our publishing model. Unlike the Overdrive model, which, as you point out, is a download model, Alexander Street’s focus is on streaming. We do offer some recordings that patrons can purchase for their own personal use, but all of our music listening collections are available online in streaming format, which makes it possible for users to access hundreds of thousands of recordings anywhere, any time—from a computer or from a mobile device—without any special software and without worrying about digital rights management or copyright infringement. There’s also no danger of running out of download allowances with a streaming model; we offer unlimited simultaneous user packages that are extremely affordable, even for very small and very large libraries.

    Because we offer a wide variety of genres (including classical, jazz, world, folk, popular, etc.), and because we license from many of the major labels, we find that public library patrons are very happy with our selection of content. On the question of whether public library users only want popular music, our usage statistics suggest they’re interested in a much broader range of content than that. The usage levels for classical and jazz content is often used just as high in public as in academic libraries—and sometimes even higher!

    By making it possible for a library to acquire hundreds of thousands of recordings with a single subscription—for a fraction of what it would cost to purchase those recordings individually—our model saves libraries money, collection development and acquisitions time.

    Thank you again for hosting such a lively conversation on this topic. Please feel free to contact me directly if you have any other questions about Alexander Street’s music services.

    Liz Dutton
    Music Editor, Alexander Street Press

  23. Mary Says:


    What a great discussion about music in libraries; thank you!
    My library went live with Freegal 12 weeks ago; our patrons love it! We’ve heard comments like “our library looks smart, forward thinking and just plain cool” as well as “thanks for being willing to try something new.” The service is so popular that our weekly allotment of downloads is usually gone by the first day or two; the good news is that we are not getting complaints; patrons just create their wishlists and wait for the next week. Our Freegal users represent all ages from teenagers to seniors, including new patrons, long time patrons who use us all the time as well as patrons who’ve had cards but weren’t actively using the library. While Freegal may look a bit different than a lot of things we offer, it does what we strive to do — meet the needs & wants of our taxpayers.

    Mary Ludlum
    Grandview Heights Public Library,

  24. Scott D Says:

    I think this is a great post and discussion! I have to say that the Freegal model still makes me rather uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea that the library is basically supporting Sony by buying their songs and giving them away to customers. Libraries have traditionally been lending institutions. They don’t buy materials to give away. That traditional model may have to change to deal with electronic downloads, but I’m not sure that this is wise. I think it will become a hard sell to funding sources when money is tight (or not tight). I’m sure that Freegal is a service that the public is extremely happy about – who wouldn’t be happy about free music – but once they realized what the library is doing, they may change their minds…

  25. Anarchivist Says:

    I don’t see that libraries are doing anything wrong. The industry is going toward formats that are fundamentally incompatible with a library’s mission, which is to provide free access for all. It’s happened with magazine databases, now with music, and it’s coming with movies and e-books. If everyone starts wanting to stream all their video insted of renting physical DVDS, is the industry going to let libraries provide that service for free when they can set up the technology so each user has to pay full price for the privilege? Frankly, if the technology had existed to prevent vinyl LPs from being copied onto cassette, or even lent to friends for a couple of days, the music industry would have used it then. They didn’t have that ability, but with digital formats, they do. Now the public wants the convenience of digital formats, but the use of digital formats means that the companies can control how they’re used in ways that weren’t possible before. This is hardly a library’s fault.

  26. Bill Taylor Says:

    I’m with Scott D: I have a big philosophical problem with public libraries paying for Freegal for their customers. To me, the essence of a library is the sharing of the collection by the entire community. By using Freegal (or any other similar service) a public library is buying songs to give away permanently to a limited number of individuals. Of course the customers love it! I’m surprised there hasn’t been much protest from library funders — county governments, library boards, etc. If I were in their position I would look askance at this use of community resources.

    Over many decades, public libraries have carved out a beautiful and very useful model of communal ownership. Let’s keep working on ways of applying that model to online content; I really don’t think buying the stuff to give away is the answer. The Danish service that Esben Fjord mentioned looks like a great idea. I’d love to know more — what’s the business model? How is it administered? A quick Google search doesn’t turn up very much written in English about it — let’s hope we’ll hear a lot more.

  27. Chad Mairn Says:

    The mainstream music industry has failed and other industries can learn a lot from their mistakes. They probably won’t unfortunately. Nonetheless, it is better for music lovers, in my opinion, because now there are many ways to discover and share excellent music that exists way outside the mainstream. If you are interested in music culture and media then definitely check out Bob Lefsetz. I think he is brilliant and you can read some of his writings at Anyway, I have not yet seen a good music subscription model for libraries. I use Rhapsody and absolutely adore it because I can listen to most anything at anytime and unlimited for less than $15 a month! I wish libraries could have a similar model, but I don’t see that ever happening. It has been said many times, but OverDrive’s music collection is horrible. I’ve looked at the other services mentioned and quite frankly they are pretty bad too especially when you are a music snob like me. ;) It will be impossible to compete with iTunes, Google’s soon-to-be music store, Rhapsody, Spotify, Mog, and the many others out there and our vendors know it.

    So, what should libraries do? Should they offer music downloads that aren’t very appealing and that dissolve after 2 weeks? I don’t think so, but I could be wrong and it wouldn’t be the first or the last time. :)

    One easy thing that you can do is digitize your CD collection and create music listening stations. Of course, it takes time but it is mindless work. I have ripped several thousand songs into iTunes and connected 2 cheap PCs together so that they can share 1 music library. Anyone can access the collection (up to 5 simultaneous users) via our wireless network too if they have iTunes installed. So, library patrons can listen to music before they check out the CDs similar to the way Borders, Barnes and Noble and other stores do. By the way, I did lock down these PCs so that our users can’t copy our entire music collection; but, of course, they could rip the CDs anytime they want to. I wrote a blog post on this project back in 2008 if you are interested: I recently added Pandora, Last.FM,, and other free music services on these listening stations so our users can discover new music and either acquire it on their own (I don’t ask questions) or simply ask us to purchase it on CD. Don’t laugh, but yes we still buy CDs. FYI: I am revisiting the clunky web page that I created using the iTunes .xml file and XSLT so that users can listen to 30 second music samples of our CD collection from outside the library. I may use Orb too. Who knows? As we all know, there are so many free tools out there to help bring visibility to vanishing CD collections. Oh, and I want to include links to these samples in our OPAC.

    There has been some excellent ideas mentioned here and I look forward to more.


  28. Dorothy Sieradzki Says:

    We’ve just acquired Freegal, using Friends of the Library funds. We made the decision before Freegal announced unlimited downloads. I’m no more troubled about “giving away” music as I am with many Overdrive titles that can be burned, or with the resources spent on the few patrons who take advantage of ILL. It’s a new world out there we can either be part of it or bury our collective heads. Next year (I bet) Freegal will have competition.

  29. Jason Says:

    BibZoom looks like exactly the kind of service that libraries would want – streaming, major label input and it looks like a good simple interface from the videos on YouTube. It’s a pity my Danish is about as good as my Kazakh. Does anyone have any idea what it is about Denmark that has enabled them to get something like this up and running?

  30. Sarah Says:

    @Jason – Denmark & other countries in Europe (Belgium, Netherlands, Iceland) have some seriously awesome stuff happening, largely because they don’t have the same type of copyright laws to compete with as we do in the US, nor do they have as huge a market (so it would seem recording companies & movie companies are more willing to do business with non-consumer markets). That’s my guess!

  31. Diana Miranda Says:

    Thanks for starting this discussion and your other post about Freegal. I am wondering: is there such thing as paying for music streaming? Is there a provider that would let us do that?

  32. Diana Miranda Says:

    Thanks for starting this discussion and your other post about Freegal. I am wondering: is there such thing as paying for music streaming for library patrons? Is there a provider that would let us do that as a library?

  33. Pioneer’s Steez Music Players - Making Music Says:

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  34. Thomasina Says:

    Thanks so much for this discussion! As a patron, I do not expect my library to provide music for me to keep for free at their expense! But music I can only keep a few weeks makes little sense either, unless I was just previewing songs I may want to purchase on my own. What feels right to me would be if the library could offer unlimited streaming on my computer and smart phone, perhaps in combination with an optional download service that limits the number of “checked out” downloads at a time to a reasonable number if we think in terms of albums (so maybe 30-40 songs) and which expire after several weeks.

  35. Music: a place for libraries | Library Lander: a production of Katherine Kerber Says:

    [...] Houghton, S. (2010, September 6). Music in libraries: we’re doing it wrong. Librarian in black. Retrieved from [...]

  36. sarah Says:

    Why are you anti- DRM? I know nothing about it, but it seems like thats the answer. If I want music permanently, I buy it. If I want to, says borrow an album for a week and see if like it, I go the library and return it after a while. The problem with the system now is that there is nothing offering that service for mp3s. I use freegal to download music I already know I want permanently, not music I don’t know but want to try out, which it seems to me is where the library come in. If I could digitally borrow music for a set amount of time, that would solve the problem for me. isn’t that what DRM does?

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