Look Before You Leap into Presidential Libraries


Ms. Krusten is a historian and former National Archives Nixon tapes archivist.

The Weekly Standard reported in its Jan. 22 edition on the controversy over housing the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus of the Southern Methodist University (SMU). The Standard called the academics who signed a letter of protest "an embarrassment to scholarship."

If you read the letter signed by some academics at SMU, first mentioned on HNN in December, you can see that they conflated a government administered Presidential Library and a privately funded institute administered by the Bush Foundation.

Faculty members described two separate visions for a Bush Presidential Library. "In the first vision, the Library will be a neutral space. . . . SMU decision makers seem uniformly to hold the first vision. . . We wonder, however, if this model of the Presidential Library will be able to come about. . . . In the second vision, the Library will be a partisan space. . . The Library will hire conservative scholars to pursue a partisan agenda in favor of the President's policies and programs."

But Presidential Libraries are staffed and administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). And the controlling authorities are federal laws and executive orders.

Until Watergate, a President's records were considered his personal property. NARA explains on its website the statutes that cover Presidential Records and discusses the establishment of a system of Presidential Libraries.

Although Lyndon B. Johnson's Presidential Library is on a campus, it differs from the proposed Bush Library. It is staffed by NARA but LBJ was able to select what records he wanted to deposit in it and to place restrictions on access.

Theodore White noted in Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975) that Nixon formed a library committee in 1969. Its members visited Presidential Libraries and reported that " 'starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, every President had emptied his archives and left his files empty.' " LBJ told them that he wanted to get a shredder for his Library.

White wrote that LBJ's attitude caused problems for "the chief archivist at the Johnson Library, who confessed that he did not really enjoy the task of expurgating the historical record that had been left in his care. Historians, observed the [archivist] don't like to work with material that is salted."

Not all the files were emptied, of course. Over time, the donor-restricted Presidential Libraries of Presidents Hoover through Carter have released useful information. Although LBJ placed a fifty-year restriction on his White House tapes, the work of the federally mandated JFK assassination review board in the 1990s and Mrs. Johnson's subsequent decision to allow archivists access to them shook some of them loose.

Until 1974, the idea was that scholars would have to be patient. Professor Clement Vose noted in his article, "The Nixon Project" (PS, Summer 1983), that the practice at donor-restricted Presidential Libraries was to screen innocuous files first. Before Congress passed the Nixon records act in 1974, archivists usually set aside files covering contentious matters so as to allow "the passage of time to dim controversy" related to the highest officials, "including the President himself."

All of this changed with Watergate - at least on paper. The laws governing Nixon's records (the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act of 1974) and those of Presidents starting with Ronald Reagan (the Presidential Records Act of 1978) reversed the concepts of private ownership and of deferred disclosure.

The Nixon act asserted government ownership of Presidential records and called for the disclosure "at the earliest reasonable date" of "the full truth" about "governmental abuses of power." The PRA permits former Presidents to restrict certain information in White House records for a relatively short period -- 12 years -- after leaving office.

Presidential Library foundations fund the construction of Libraries but do not administer them. They can, however, reject the U.S. Archivist's choice of a director of a Presidential Library. The role of these private sector entities in relation to NARA is murky. Former Truman Library director Larry Hackman ("Toward Better Policies and Practices for Presidential Libraries," The Public Historian, Vol. 28, No. 3 [Summer 2006]) and Benjaim Hufbauer (" Archives of Spin,") have called for greater transparency in some areas relating to the nonprofit partners of the government run Libraries.

Having participated in NARA's struggle to release Nixon's records, I was not surprised that George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13233in 2001. The order placed potential limits on the Archives' ability to open records under the PRA. Hugh Davis Graham wrote that Bush gave Presidents and their descendants "full veto authority in perpetuity over public access to documents in their presidential papers. This was what President Nixon tried to achieve in his 1974 agreement with the head of the General Services Administration (which then included the National Archives), a deal that Congress overturned later that year."

For now, E.O. 13233 represents the last word over what scholars and other members of the public will see from a President's records.

The National Archives is a subordinate agency within the executive branch. Many of its actions are shielded from view. The public occasionally receives glimpses into archival matters. For example, in 2006, newspapers revealed a secret agreement at NARA that reportedly led to the restriction of some declassified records.

At the same time that the SMU controversy erupted, Rep. Tom Davis (R - VA) released a report on the removal of documents from the National Archives by former National Security advisor Sandy Berger in 2003. The report examined NARA's internal reviews and asserted that an official allegedly was "bullied" into leaving Berger alone in an office with highly classified documents.

The report described troubling disputes among the National Archives' Inspector General (IG), Paul Brachfield, and officials at the Department of Justice. Mr. Brachfield sought unsuccessfully to inform the 9/11 Commission that Berger had been left alone with original documents at NARA during visits prior to the one during which he admitted to removing records. The IG tangled with "powerful and influential" Justice officials but finally concluded it would be "career suicide" to cross them.

Benjamin Hufbauer's editorial shows what a scholar can do if he carefully studies issues related to a President's museum and archives. Because they failed to gather enough data, whatever their actual intent, the professors at SMU who wrote a letter in December provided ammunition to those who believe academics have a kneejerk reaction to anything involving President George W. Bush.

Related Links

  • James F. Hollifield: SMU should say yes to the Bush library
  • Benjamin Hufbauer: Archives of Spin

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    More Comments:

    Maarja Krusten - 3/13/2007

    Dr. Johnson,

    I did not see this comment until March 13. I stand by my article and the comments I posted below it. I cannot control what news outlets, such as the Weekly Standard, publish. Nor can I affect in any way, by diminishing, adding to, or maintaining, the integrity of the academy. Although my degrees are in history, I am not an academic. So I am happy to leave the integrity of the academy to you and to your colleagues in academe.

    Many people study history. Some use their degerees to become professors, others go into public service. It is, as they say, a free country. I chose the latter route and have served 34 years within the federal government. I am comfortable with the way I have handled ethical matters in my career, first as a Federal archivist, now as an historian.

    I have viewed, and still view, academic and government historians and historian-archivists as having a symbiotic relationship. That suggests that good communication between the two is desirable. I recognize, of course, that the work of federal archivists is affected primarily by those within the government, not outside it. Once they achieve degrees in history, if they choose, federal archivists largely can do their work with little contact with academics, except those who come in to archives and Presidential Libraries seeking records. I've always been interested in what people think and why but recognize that that's a want, not a need.

    I believe it is useful to see how those outside the public sector view things. And vice versa. Not everyone shares that view and they need not do so.

    As one of my governmental bosses once said, "Maarja, you're ever the idealist." But I did learn something from your post so it was useful for me to read.

    Susanne Johnson - 2/19/2007

    Before you spout off again about faculty members at Southern Methodist University and paint them as 'confused', I suggest that you take your own advice and "look before you leap." President R. Gerald Turner kept faculty members in the dark about the fact that the prospective George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is to include a partisan political institute. We faculty members learned about this required component not from our very own university president but rather from the New York Daily News! That is unconscionable. Moreover, our letter to the president made clear distinctions between the two entities, calling into the question the problemmatic of including a partisan institute within an all-in-one package, take-it-or-leave-it demand from Bush's own Library Planning Committee. For fear of losing the library and museum, our president easily acquiesced to George Bush's demands. We faculty members are not--and since you leap before you look, I will say it once again for your sake--we faculty members are not protesting the prospective library and museum. We are prepared to embrace it. We are protesting the unprecedented demand for a partisan political institute to be dovetailed into a presidential library. The Carter Center in Atlanta is non-partisan, and while associated with Emory University is not even located on the Emory campus!! If you had any integrity, instead of attempting to make us into buffoons, you would be standing in solidarity with us. Academic freedom and open inquiry not only are under assault and threat at SMU, but also for the entire academy. Moreover, through this ridiculous demand, George Bush also will sully the future integrity and the original intent of presidential libraries as places of open, academic inquiry and scholarly integrity. May I suggest you stop conflating and conflabbing your own thinking on this profound issue, and begin, instead, to speak out in protest against George Bush's plans to establish a political think tank on the campus of Southern Methodist University. By doing so, you will better serve your readers, better keep faith with your pofession, and better ensure the future integrity of the academy, and of the presidential library tradition in this country.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2007

    Latenight comics already having jumped into the fray, we now also see comic strips such as Doonesbury address the Bush Presidential Library issues.

    Today's Doonesbury comic strip by Garry Trudeau takes a look at the future Library and the proposed think tank.


    See also
    which takes you to the day's daily strip (will only work if you click on this on Sunday, I believe. After that you would have to be able to access the strip for 1/28/07 in the Archives section.)


    Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2007

    Actually, I don't think this one is part of Times Select, you may be able to access it even if you are simply a registered user of the online edition.

    I saw on another blog a student ask why it mattered if the former President chose to withhold “a homeland security” document. Most of you probably have read Hugh Davis Graham’s article, linked to in my piece above. So you know the question of what is withheld involves predecisional documents dealing with deliberative, policy advice, the so-called P5 category documents.

    Issues related to the Presidential communications privilege covered by Executive Order 13233 deal with a different section of the Presidential Records Act than the one that covers national security matters. These executive orders and statutes are publicly available. The fact that the privilege described in E.O. 13233 is intended to cover non-national security information is evident in the fact that the order claims the right to convey it to members of a President’s family who never worked for the federal government.

    There is a much older Executive Order, 12958, amended several times since President Nixon (yes, Nixon started the systematic declassification process) issued it initially, which covers national security information. See

    Members of a President’s family, like other private citizens who don’t work for the government, wouldn’t be authorized under E.O. 12958 to look at all the information in a President’s records. If you look at 12958, you can see that it carefully protects access to classes of information that should not be disclosed. So members of a President's family could not assess some types of information in order to claim the communications privilege.

    If I understand it correctly, E.O. 13233 is intended to give former Presidents a chance to look over what the National Archives’ archivists already have marked for public disclosure. In other words, information that by federal archival standards appears releasable.

    Those of you who have been reading HNN for a while already are familiar with my own experiences at the National Archives in dealing with former Presidents' representatives in preparing Nixon's records for release. The issue came up during Stanley Kutler's lawsuit for access to Nixon's tapes and received some attention from journalists such as Sy Hersh and Jack Hitt.

    For me as a former archivist, there are interesting echoes in a number of issues that recently have received press coverage, including Sandy Berger's visits to the National Archives in 2002 and 2003. Berger served as a representative for former President Clinton. Some editorial observers have criticized the Archives for showing too much deference to Berger. R. Emmett Tyrrel even charged that Berger had "corrupted" Archives' officials, a charge with which I do not agree. My own view is that President Clinton and Mr. Berger would not now be the subject of so much speculation in the blogosphere, had the Archives followed good research room practices. Rep. Davis' report states that Berger allegedly "bullied" a senior official into leavinhg him alone with sensitive documents. I would have handled that differently, as anyone who has read about my Nixon experiences might guess. But it can be enormously difficult to deal with power players.

    As Glenn noted above, archivists receive little attention and the environment in which they work largely remains unknown, even to historians.

    As I discovered on H-Net in 2001, historians are more likely to question what is happening with other executive branch agencies whose actions do not directly affect the writing of history than they are to examine the National Archives. Something makes many of them hold back or react with passivity or indifference to many matters related to NARA but I haven't figured out the cause. I do not accept Hayden Peake's view expressed on H-Diplo in 2001 as the final word ("There is no need to gain insight into NARA's problems, it is the solution to the scholars' problems that require attention. The need is for NARA to act and make its records available without bureaucratic quibbling.")

    The interesting book published in 2006 by Benjamin Hufbauer about Presidential Libraries focuses mostly on the museum side, as he is a professor of art history.

    As the HNN week ends, let me just express my thanks to those who did stop by and read my article. I hope it provides some context for what you are reading in the newspapers now about Presidential Libraries.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2007

    for an editorial in the Week in Review by Dorothy Samuels, Editorial Observer. I'll quote two sections below to give you a sense of the piece, since many people cannot access Times Select.

    Ms. Samuels focuses on E.O. 13233 and on fundraising. Of the former, she urges that SMU insist that it be rescinded. She notes that

    "Under this early exertion of presidential power, both sitting presidents and former presidents (and even their heirs) can indefinitely postpone public release of sensitive material past the law’s usual 12-year waiting period by simply denying a request for access. No explanation is required, and there is no provision for appealing the denial to a trained professional archivist."

    Her concluding paragraph reads, "Dozens of theologians and S.M.U. faculty members have objected to locating Mr. Bush’s library and institute at the university, saying among other things that his awful record on civil liberties, the war in Iraq and the abuse of prisoners should preclude any university affiliation. They have it wrong. But so do those who would minimize the university’s duty for making sure the highest standards of scholarship, openness and ethics govern the entire enterprise."

    Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2007

    Thanks, Dr. Johnson. After reading your note, I did go back and take a closer look at your blog. And posted on it Friday and this morning. You'll have to forgive me if I'm a little skittish about where to speak out and how. My experiences as an historian and archivist have differed from those that the rest of you have experienced in the academy. In both the public and the private sector, one has to weigh carefully the risks of speaking out. And take some time to think about how best to do that. Having looked in on this site for three years now, I have a pretty good sense here on HNN about what professors think is worth speaking up about. I've largely concluded that the professors who read and post on HNN and I differ in what issues we spend professional currency on. That's fine, we all have limited capital to spend and our interests are as differing as you'll find in any group of historians. But, since I cannot afford to make snap decisions, I needed some time to think about your blog. Now that I've taken the plunge, I'll see you around the new blog! Thanks for taking the time to post here.


    Glenn Rodden - 1/26/2007


    Thanks once again for your thorough response to my post. It is aways interesting to hear from someone in the archival profession because academics tend to forget that side of the history profession. I am also interested in reading the SMU blog about the Bush Library controversy because I would like to hear directly from people involved in that controversy.

    Thanks again for your contributions to this forum.

    benjamin h johnson - 1/26/2007

    I am the editor of the blog http://bushlibraryblog.wordpress.com. As Krusten would have figured out by clicking on "about," I am a history professor at SMU; many of my colleagues have weighed in on the blog, and I've also posted academic resources about presidential libraries and related issues in an effort to make this a forum for serious and thoughtful discussion.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/26/2007

    The January 26, 2007 edition of the New York Times carries a letter from Verne Newton, former director of the National Archives' Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

    He comments on Benjamin Hufbauer's op ed, "Archives of Spin."

    Mr. Newton writes that "Part of the problem is that for the National Archives, a tiny federal agency, planning a president’s library is about the only access to power it has in Washington." He provides his perspective on some of the challenges and concludes, "Franklin D. Roosevelt established a system to make sure presidential papers are preserved as a public trust. But it is no longer necessary to scatter them around the country to achieve this."

    For those of you able to access the NYT, the link is

    I discovered last night that a blog has been set up to discuss the Bush Presidential Library. See http://bushlibraryblog.wordpress.com/

    I have not decided whether I am going to post anything there or not. My preference is to discuss these issues in a relatively neutral setting, with people trained in history and having some familiarity with archival issues. Or at least with people who have done research in primary sources. Such a forum has been surprisingly difficult to find and I have largely given up on looking for one.

    When I joined the National Archives in 1976, the public documents commission had just finished its work and there was a lot of interest among historians and even some members of the general public in the preservation of and future access to President records. Except when historians write about what they seek for their own research, I see little discussion of such issues these days. The challenge of looking at these things from the perspectives of different stakeholders and finding a solution that is acceptable for everyone admittedly is daunting. For now, it rests mostly with those inside the National Archives, it seems. Whether others join in the debate or not, I for one continue to wish the government archivists who work with a President's records well, I know what it is like to walk on the path they are on.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/25/2007

    Hi, Glenn,

    It may not be clear in my quickly written article, which I tried to keep to about 1,000 words but wish I could have fleshed out some more in a few areas, but I actually take no position on whether SMU should accept the Library. Perhaps the somewhat choppy narrative, into which I crammed a lot of facts, does not make that clear.

    Nor do I assume in what I write that the people who raised questions about the Library all had a particular ideological outlook. You'll notice that although I note that some members of the faculty were characterized in certain ways by the Weekly Standard, and wonder in my conclusion whether they might have avoided that, I don't take a position myself on the motives or reasons for action by anyone at SMU, on any side of this issue.

    My area of expertise is governmental, not academic, and I prefer to write narrowly about what I know about. That doesn't mean I'm not interested in hearing how those with an academic perspective view the way this issue has played out since the original letter was written in December by some faculty at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU. I'm sure others can speak to that aspect of this issuse far better than I.

    My article was written to clarify the distinction between a Presidential Library and a think tank or institute. And to point out that although Presidential records once were under private control as personal property, that has not been the case since the passage of the Presidential Records Act. However, there are unresolved issues related to the Presidential communications privilege which can be applied to certain records.

    In terms of the statutory authorities which provide access to Presidential records, it makes no difference whether President Bush's records are transferred into the National Archives in the Washington, DC area, into a Presidential Library not associated with a campus or an institute, or into one on a college campus. By law, neither academics at a university nor scholars at a privately funded institute would be able to affect what is released from President Bush's records. Those decisions are inherently governmental and consequently are handled by employees of the National Archives. There only is one mission for the archival side of the Library: to process the records in a nonpartisan, objective manner as required by law. As Benjamin Hufbauer has pointed out, the museum side of a Presidential Library varies from library to library.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my article, I do appreciate that. Having once worked there, I am fascinated by issues related to the National Archives, the nation's record keeper, but have no way to gauge how broad is the general public's interest in this little studied and rarely written about agency within the executive branch.


    Glenn Rodden - 1/25/2007


    Thanks for your comments about the proposed Bush Library at SMU, but I wonder if you are being fair to the people who oppose this project.

    First, this is not a simple case of "liberal" professors opposing the library project. A group of Methodist Ministers have also signed a petition against placing the Bush Library at SMU because they "believe that the linking of his presidency with a university bearing the Methodist name is utterly inappropriate." I encourage you to read their petition at http://www.protectsmu.org to find out why.

    Second, the petitioners are opposed to this project because it is an all or nothing proposal. SMU must accept the library and a well-funded partisan think tank that will be run by the Bush Foundation and not SMU or the National Archives.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/24/2007

    I've posted a number of comments on the New York Times' website in response to law professor Stanley Fish's column there. His blog entry, "All the Presidents' Men," and posters' comments only are available to Times Select subscribers. Why am I posting on numerous forums, including here under my own article. Well, it is clear to me that there is a huge amount of confusion over the question of access to President Bush's records. This shows up time and again in almost every blog, academic or general, which I have seen.

    Here are some additional thoughts from me on the subject of Presidential Libraries, as copied from the MS Word document in which I created them. This same text was posted on Dr. Fish's blog this morning under my name, not anonymously.

    "As a former employee of the National Archives’ Office of Presidential
    Libraries, I’m fascinated by some of the postings here. A few observations.

    The U.S. is a nation of law. The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 controls your access to President Bush’s records. Its application is the responsibility of government archivists.

    The interpretation of laws is a judicial function. As long as the
    courts uphold a former President’s right to privilege, such will and
    can be applied. To date, courts have held that the privilege erodes
    with time, that the confidences of higher office will not necessarily
    be protected forever. The PRA establishes a 12-year limit to some
    restrictions. President Bush’s executive order claims the right to
    exert privilege in certain cases in perpetuity. At some point, a court
    will issue an opinion. Absent such dispositive action, the Executive
    Order is the controlling mechanism.

    I know something about archivists who work with Presidential records,
    having been one. If a President claims privilege and stops release of a document, even if an archivist personally believes that the information is disclosable, and knows that similar classes of information have been released from the records of other Presidents in the past, s/he will withhold it from the public until the matter is resolved. And no one outside the Presidential Library will find out what is in it.

    It has to work that way. You, the public, rely on the National Archives
    to employ people of personal and professional integrity. In fact, the
    courts depend on it and have pointed to this.

    Nixon’s were the first papers over which the government asserted title.
    Nixon raised questions about privacy and the idea of “hosts of people”
    that he had not chosen being permitted, as independent government
    archivists, to screen his materials to see what could be released. The
    litigation triggered by the Presidential Recordings and Materials
    Preservation Act of 1974 went all the way up to the Supreme Court.
    Justice Brennan noted in the majority opinion in Nixon v. Administrator
    of General Services in 1977 that “the Act’s sensitivity to appellant’s
    legitimate privacy interests, the unblemished record of the archivists
    for discretion, and the likelihood that the public-access regulations
    to be promulgated will further moot appellant’s fears that his
    materials will be reviewed by ‘a host of persons,’ it is apparent that
    appellant’s privacy claim has no merit.”

    So you can be assured that government archivists will abide by the law
    when they work with a President’s records. No toadies involved there,
    just people schooled in history and regulations and case law.

    You, the public, as citizens . . as scholars or other researchers, do
    have options. You can educate yourselves about how Presidential
    Libraries work. Or not. You can seek access to materials from the
    future Bush Presidential Library. Or not. If items are withheld, you
    can . . . use available mechanisms to appeal withholding, depending on
    the basis of restriction, or otherwise seek relief. Or not. But
    suggesting that President Bush’s records should be housed in Baghdad or an outhouse or suggesting that the cause of public access is so
    hopeless that their handling is unimportant does not seem useful from
    my perspective as a former archivist.

    As for me, I would have liked to have seen Dr. Fish write about the
    Bush Presidential Library from the perspective of Nixon V.
    Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425 (1977) [which settled the first case in which title to Presidential records was asserted by the Federal government]. Or to draw on the work of the U.S. National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials (1974-1977), commonly known as the Public
    Documents Commission. Its work set the stage for passage of the PRA of

    Unfortunately, he chose not to write about the ongoing transition from
    private to public control of a President’s records, thereby passing up a chance to shed light on a subject about which even many academics seem to be confused and searching for answers."

    Maarja Krusten - 1/23/2007

    Readers looking for a lively debate among academics, the general public, and experts such as Benjamin Hufbauer may want to take a look at Professor Stanley Fish's (Times Select subscribers only) January 21, 2007 blog entry, "All the President's Libraries," and the posted comments on the New York Times' website. See

    Professor Fish's column has drawn many comments from posters, including Dr. Hufbauer. The column and comments represent some interesting and differing viewpoints from inside and outside academe.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/22/2007

    A few links and suggestions for further reading. Some of the issues are complex, especially as they relate to a President's right to assert privilege. I am not taking a position here or in the article above on privilege nor am I posting any links for reading on that complicated subject. The matter has come up in various court cases. However, I do not have time this morning to compile a comprehensive list for you. Since the potential for a lawsuit was mentioned in Hugh Davis Graham's article, I am including a link to Public Citizen's website, as its litigation group is involved in the lawsuit that was filed by AHA regarding E.O. 13233.

    I know of no book that has taken an in depth look at the archival side of the National Archives’ administration of Presidential Libraries. There is one which focuses on the museum side. There also are a number of articles available about Presidential Libraries and the Presidential Records Act.

    “America’s Pyramids: Presidents and Their Libraries,” Richard J. Cox,

    “Monumental Ambition: Presidential libraries are history and hagiography, archival mother lodes and gift shops pushing star-spangled dish towels,” Paula Span
    The Washington Post magazine, February 17, 2002

    “Source material: Nixon's ghost haunts the presidential records act: the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations,” Bruce P. Montgomery, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, 2002

    _Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory_, by Benjamin Hufbauer



    Wim J Dankbaar - 1/21/2007



    Wim Dankbaar

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    The Secret Government's unseen hand in the coup is laid bare by a private assassination paper trail that has never surfaced until now. You won't find these documents in the National Archives or the redacted files of the Assassination Records Review Board.

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    This DVD also chronicles an assassination paper trail: private correspondence between agents and assets of the Secret Government regarding the logistics of removing President John F. Kennedy from office in 1963.

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