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The late syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris used to be published in our local newspaper. I loved his columns and looked forward to reading them, which is really saying something since I was in high school when they were published. One of the regular features of his column that I thoroughly enjoyed was called "Things I learned while en route to looking up other things".

Follow me below the fold for details

As the name implies, these columns would feature obscure facts about any number of topics. And I'm sure that one of the ways he learned these facts was by looking through the pages of a volume of a set of Encyclopedias and stopping at a page that looked interesting to him while he was flipping through it looking for something else.

That's the sort of thing that happened all the time with me. Whenever I was assigned a research paper in high school (back in the late Jurassic Era), my first source would always be the complete set of Collier's Encyclopedia volumes on the bookshelf in our basement.

This may come as a surprise to you young whippersnappers, but there used to be a time, way back when, when the internet did not exist. The only way to access information on something was to find a reference book that possessed that information. And that information was not updated every minute. In the case of encyclopedias, it was only updated every year, if then. Information that was in a volume one year could easily be obsolete the next year.

That's my roundabout way of saying that the information I often found in our circa 1960's Colliers volumes was not the most reliable. But the one thing it did do reliably was to point me in the direction of where to go to find what I needed. And I had to invest serious time and energy into following that direction. And the random things I found in pursuit of what I was looking for would often stick in my mind and lead me to other places I never knew I wanted to go but found fascinating once I got there.

That doesn't happen today. Today, if I need to find some piece of information, the first place I go is to Bing or Google, or any of the literally dozens of other search engines available. I almost never find anything that isn't what I was originally looking for.

That's not so bad for me. I have an insatiable desire to learn about things that I don't know. That desire was honed by years of being forced to devote that considerable time and energy to finding out more about things that I wanted to know.

That no longer happens. Anyone who wants to know anything about anything can find it on the Internet in less than 10 seconds. Trouble is, more often than not, what they find will be incorrect, incomplete, or misleading, or even all of those at the same time.

Which is why I miss the fact that bound encyclopedias are no longer our go-to source for reliable information. As out of date as they could be, at least they were exhaustively researched, fact-checked, and vetted until they were as accurate a source of information as they could possibly be. And they were one of any number of things that inspired me to a level of intellectual curiosity that I personally believe has made me, if not a better person, at least a smarter one, or, at the very least, one who wants to be smarter.

I challenge you to give me a better reason to miss them. No, seriously. You are welcome to come up with a better reason, and post same in the comments. I'm sure you will.

Originally posted to ERJ1024 on Sun Sep 15, 2013 at 04:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers and Community Spotlight.


Do you, or your family, own a set of encylopedia volumes, and how old are they?

13%16 votes
16%19 votes
21%25 votes
11%13 votes
12%15 votes
5%6 votes
1%2 votes
11%14 votes
6%8 votes
0%0 votes

| 118 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  I remember, in the 1960s, (12+ / 0-)

    reading all about the Great World War.

    From it being called that, in whatever old encyclopedia version the family had handed down.

    Up until recently, it contained everything I knew about Poison Gas.

  •  A better reason to miss them? I don't have one. (13+ / 0-)

    But I seem to have a much different approach to hunting information on the internet than you do. I'll click a link in a diary here, link to something on that page, see a comment or a title on the side of the page and get curious, and keep going.

    This has ended up with both deeper understanding of the original information than I might otherwise have had, and an introduction to things I might never have found in years, otherwise.

    One such diversion originally led me to Daily Kos.

    At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh.... (Yes, there's gender bias in my name; no, I wasn't thinking about it when I signed up. My apologies.)

    by serendipityisabitch on Sun Sep 15, 2013 at 04:41:58 PM PDT

  •  I've fond memories of (13+ / 0-)

    the World Book and Childcraft encyclopedias Dad bought our family when I was 5 or so. I would spend lots of time poring over their pages and learned a lot. Alas, I no longer have them--when we were moving from a house to an apartment  in 1988 Dad got rid of them. I miss them, especially the World Book.

    So many books--so little time. Economic Left/Right -7.88 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian -6.97

    by Louisiana 1976 on Sun Sep 15, 2013 at 04:59:43 PM PDT

    •  I remember World Book (9+ / 0-)

      That was always my first stop when I went to the library to do research for a school assignment. So much information!

      •  I was kind of a nerd when I was a kid. (4+ / 0-)

        (and still am!)

        My older brother used to tease me because I would just read World Book volumes for fun...not looking stuff up but reading them from cover to cover. This was in the 60s.

        I loved Loved LOVED our World Book encyclopedia and fondly remember the yearly update volumes.

        I don't mind straight people as long as they act gay in public.

        by internationaljock on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 06:23:30 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I too read the World Book like a book (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Kevskos, RiveroftheWest, SteelerGrrl

          No work of fiction could have been more engaging.

          And the damn things could take you places! When I became a Boy Scout and enamored of camping I could look up Yosemite and find references to the wildlife, the geology, the weather, then look those up. The accidental learning was incredible. (Imagine me imagining strato cumulus building over granitic Half Dome).

          I remember laying on the floor of our living room as the Ed Sullivan Show played on TV and reading through random entries between performances by Topo Gigio, Woody Allen, deft handed magicians.

          As I grew older and began to outgrow childish things, the Encyclopedia Britannica came into my life. I had to go to the library for that. You might encounter the cute, smart girls from your class there and, "I've got to look something up in the Britannica" was always a free pass out of the house.

  •  I spent much of my childhood (12+ / 0-)

    surrounded by volumes of the encyclopedia.  We had a 1962 or '63 set of World Book and I kept looking up cross-references.  I've got several sets of old encyclopedias that I inherited from my mom and I'm not getting rid of them.

    I would like to have a new set though.  A bound encyclopedia is much more fun than Wikipedia is.

  •  I had to vote no (8+ / 0-)

    because they are long gone. But as a kid, my family had an encyclopedia set that I used to love to browse. It was called World Book of Knowledge, or something similar, 20 volumes from the 60's (they were new, then) that I loved.

    Marry the one you love, not the one a bigot says you're allowed to love.

    by lotac on Sun Sep 15, 2013 at 05:57:24 PM PDT

    •  Same here (8+ / 0-)

      My wife won a full set of Encyclopedia Britannicas when she won a regional spelling bee as a young teen and went on nationals.

      Along with a large book collection we have, we lugged that set of encyclopedias through six moves in the first 10 years of our marriage.  Though it was increasingly outdated, we valued it.

      Finally we needed the bookshelf space and we wanted to move them on to someone else...but it was virtually impossible to find a home. Couldn't donate them, couldn't give them away. Plus, they were now 20+ years old.   A family without a home computer did come and take them.    They were glad to get them and I think we were more glad we didn't have to take them to a dumpster. (Couldn't find a recycler to take books.)

  •  My mother didn't have money for a college (10+ / 0-)

    education, but she was a life-long learner. She bought our family a set of World Book Encyclopedias as soon as we could afford a set, educated herself and instilled in me a passionate love of learning.

    Although we had World Books, I always coveted a set of Britannicas. In the mid-80s Mom found a used set of Britannicas at a garage sale. Remembering that I always wanted them as a kid, she bought them for me as an adult. I still have them, although they are currently in storage. Just can't let 'em go.

    I'm with you ERJ1024, one of my favorite pasttimes before the internet was to browse through an encyclopedia.

    But I am still addicted to the random new thing on the internet, too. I'm always clicking my way down a rabbit hole. You can learn the darndest things! Just today I went looking for dogemperor (a formerly prolific dKos writer) and got lost among no-longer-quivering-ex-fundies debating the wisdom of "betrothal" for teens. Had to yank myself back with a rope.

    Thanks for an interesting diary!

    "Let us not look back to the past with anger, nor towards the future with fear, but look around with awareness." James Thurber

    by annan on Sun Sep 15, 2013 at 07:23:04 PM PDT

    •  It's just a different path but the same knowledge (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, ER Doc, pixxer

      But especially in the realm of images the Internet can lead us... In paper books you're stuck with whatever images the editors chose - even with Art books
      But with Google and Tumblr I see many things I would have never thought to seek.  Sometimes important things like WWI posters about the symptoms of gas warfare, or paintings by Caravaggio that aren't in any of my books.

      Armed! I feel like a savage! Barbarella

      by richardvjohnson on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 02:02:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition. (12+ / 0-)

    The wiki is founded on it. I also have the twelfth and thirteenth editions which are still copyrighted.

  •  Encyclopedia Americana (8+ / 0-)

    My parents bought a set on subscription when they started our family, believing it to be a sound investment in our collective future.  I have to say it worked as intended: a reliable source of information at the level detail that we needed, more expansive than the American Heritage Dictionary but less cumbersome than a walk to the town library.  They kept up with yearbooks for quite some time, and my brothers and I have fond memories of looking up our birth dates to see what might have been going on.

    One point that deserves mention is that the purchase of an encyclopedia was affordable, while not cheap.  This constitutes a different category from cheap, while not free, which is where most people would place internet access.

  •  I fondly remember last century (9+ / 0-)

    when I earned top pay because I knew how to look stuff up in books, the University library and archives, and so on.

    When I had the flu as a kid, I tried to read the World Books A to Z.

    These days, Wikipedia doesn't even dismiss the existence of the Loch Ness monster, although it states the evidence is "speculative."

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Sun Sep 15, 2013 at 10:11:17 PM PDT

  •  Dictionaries (11+ / 0-)

    I used to have the same experience when looking up a word in a large dictionary; something would catch my eye and I'd read that on the way to the intended definition. For that reason, I still have (and use) our huge Random House Unabridged Dictionary. It's a beautiful book.

    I'd also love to find a set of the 11th Edition of Britannica; that was one of the very first encyclopedias where the articles were assigned to top-notch scholars who really did some remarkable work. Even today, it's great to leaf through.

    Yes, I know you can probably find it online. But then you lose all that wonderful serendipitous learning.

    "Certe, Toto. Sentio nos in Kansate non iam adesse!"

    by guerrillascholar on Sun Sep 15, 2013 at 10:16:24 PM PDT

  •  "Fact Checking"? What's that? (8+ / 0-)

    That is what we will eventually miss the most, the presumption that it is OK to have a lag time between concept and publication that should properly be used for the aforementioned fact checking.  Otherwise, we continue to force everyone to sort through masses of unsupported detritus, many of whom are not good at sorting.  A related  concept that has fallen away is that it is OK to have true, validated knowledgable 'experts' -- and that that individual may  not be the person you see in the mirror every morning.

  •  My reflections (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, CorinaR, ER Doc, pixxer

    Though I loved encyclopedias growing up (we had many different sets, and I still have a cherished  small set of science encyclopedia for kids published before Apollo 11).

    I also love the tangential aspects of happenstance finds while looking for a specific topic.  I have poignant memories as a college undergrad of doing research, scouring the college library's open stacks, and finding books not germane to my interest but really intriguing...and lamenting the coursework pressure and that I didn't have time to browse those unexpected finds.  I looked forward to the time after I graduated when I could have more time liberty and pursue those tangents.  And I do...I still love looking for a book in the library and then checking out the books on the shelf nearby. Some very wonderful finds!


    I am not as disdainful about finding valid information in the Internet (btw: it's capitalized)....same old, same old--you have to understand your sources, and you need to cross-check.   There are some sites now I won't touch because they are so bad with riff raff information.

    As noted in the diary, the key problem with printed encyclopedias is that sections can be out of date before the printing presses even start to roll.  I would rather have information that can be literally  up to the minute, and on a larger scale, more information available to people who cannot afford an encyclopedia or don't have the resources to go to libraries often.

    One more: The Internet gives me more opportunties to browse new topics:  I have a bookmark folder that's called "To Read" and it has over 100 links that I'll check out later...and is always growing!

  •  i have written a whole chapter in my (6+ / 0-)

    book about encyclopedias.

    i don't want to reveal my name here, but you can kosmail me.

    i find that i do the same thing with the innertubes -- go everywhere.

    serendipity is one of the best things about being alive.

  •  Unfortunately, bound encyclopedias aren't reliable (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, ER Doc, greatferm

    Which is a fact that harvey Einbinder wrote at length about in his 1958 book, The Myth of the Britannica. (There is a recent review of that book here, written by yours truly.) Einbinder's first chapter is full of examples of details in various articles which one must conclude are either complete fabrications or just wrong. And from his passing comments on the Encyclopedia Americana, Einbinder is less happy with EB's competition.

    A secret of the encyclopedia business is that the chief cost of an encyclopedia is in writing the first version--which is often copied from an earlier encyclopedia. The first edition of the EB was heavily plagiarized based on Diderot's Encyclopédie, which was heavily plagiarized based on Chamber's Cyclopedia. Once that text is created, the publisher makes his profit from revising as few articles as possible; this encourages most articles to be tagged as "stable", & thus are rarely reviewed or brought up to date. (Well, the fact that Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, if ever, so why bother to revise the article about that ancient Roman?) When "stable" articles are reviewed, it is with the goal to shorten them & make room within the finite size of a bound volume for new articles on current or hip topics.

    All that said, I admit that as a kid I, too, would follow links in several print encyclopedias. From what I understand, the reason that Wikipedia is considered such a time sink is because of all of those hyperlinks luring all but the most disciplined to pursue irrelevant, but fascinating & entertaining, trivia.

  •  Our family had (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, ER Doc, Munchkn, Amber6541

    a set of Collier's from approximately 1953 and a set of World Book from the early-to-mid 1960s, with yearbooks until the early 1970s, when I graduated high school.  When my daughter got to about the fourth grade in the mid 1980s, I bought a set of Collier's and got the yearbooks until we got a computer and Internet access in the mid 1990s.  Then I got Encarta, with a subscription for monthly updates until 2007.

    A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon. -Bill Clinton

    by PSzymeczek on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 10:41:48 AM PDT

  •  Hyperlinks (8+ / 0-)

    do help find things that you aren't necessarily looking for. Sure, I google pretty much everything I'm seeking, but rare is the day that I don't also find out something that's totally unrelated to my original search.

    It's kind of the same thing, only faster. And before you call me a "whippersnapper", I'm also in my 50s.

  •  Great diary. (7+ / 0-)

    I miss encyclopedias too.  

    "Optimism is better than despair." --Jack Layton, the late Canadian MP, liberal, and Christian.

    by lungfish on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 11:55:02 AM PDT

  •  I should tell you... (7+ / 0-)

    I should tell you that not too long ago, I was in a college library, and I saw two students looking at encyclopedias that were still on the shelf.  

    The thought also occurs that there's no reason you or anyone else can't still enjoy looking at an old encyclopedia; no, the information isn't current, but it can still be fun to browse or get ideas for further study there, and you can then go to the internet if you really need more current information on the same topic.  

    "Optimism is better than despair." --Jack Layton, the late Canadian MP, liberal, and Christian.

    by lungfish on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 11:58:37 AM PDT

  •  Oh, yes! (7+ / 0-)

    Some of my fondest memories from childhood is reading Compton's Children's Encyclopedia. I made my way from A to Z and discovered things I had never thought of and things I thought I did not know.  since it was a children's version, it had cute stories to illustrate the information.

    I also miss card catalogues at the library ... when one thing lead to another and you branched out to learn things you did not know existed. And dictionaries ... I would open the great big one (at one time I had an OED) and just find fun words.  Wonder where I found the time to do that ...

    I do appreciate the Google, etc, but I miss meandering into unknown places. Now I occasionally just get in my car and drive until I have no idea where I am ... then I take out my trusty paper map (remember those) and find my way back.  I have had some of my nicest adventures that way.

    Glad to know another person that loved the adventure of browsing the encyclopedia.

    "I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night." Greg Martin, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida

    by CorinaR on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 12:19:48 PM PDT

  •  I remember Syndey J. Harris, too! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, ER Doc, Munchkn, pixxer

    I loved his work, I would read them in the newspaper, too.

    I wonder if his past columns can be found somewhere?

  •  Reassuring that no one responded what's an (7+ / 0-)

    encyclopedia.  Most of us remember the Jiminy Cricket experience with the 1978 Britannica is that it's very reliable for knowledge which hasn't changed (forget subatomic physics or genetics).
    And yes the serendipity of finding what you're not looking for is a good thing but it can also happen with Google...a slight misspelling can lead to the same kind of epiphany...

    Armed! I feel like a savage! Barbarella

    by richardvjohnson on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 01:49:29 PM PDT

  •  Dictionary (end encyclo) diving! My obsession (6+ / 0-)

    in grade school. In 3rd grade, perhaps, we got introduced to the library and were given little pins showing a question mark and the slogan "We never guess. We look it up." I still have it, I think. In 5th grade, I was put on the side of the classroom next to the World Book. After I was caught once too often reading it instead of listening to the teacher, I was put clear on the other side of the room. I could get lost in the encyclopedia or dictionary--something would catch my eye, and then I'd turn to that, or think of something else mid-turn and get lost again. It happens with the infallible Wikipedia (pronounced "time-swallowing vortex") as well.

    Never had a set of Britannica--that was too rich for our blood, but the library had one, as well as a fascinationg aerospace encyclopedia, "Above and Beyond." I was able to get a set of that when the Museum of Flight in Seattle did some housecleaning. Woo-hoo! It's quite dated, of course, but I love it anyway. I get Britannica on DVD each year, but it's not the same, although my real objection is that it does not automatically download and incorporate updates.

    And for those of us who remember "Laugh-In," look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls!

  •  Great diary. Thank you. I used to hate it when (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, ER Doc, Munchkn, pixxer

    teachers would give people a hard time for not using the index words in the dictionary or encyclopedia.

    While it's less efficient, it's a lot more fun to browse the words on the page, and see if something catches the eye.

    We had a Mid-60s World Book, which was my 'go to' book until one of my 8th grade teachers suggested it was too general in scope.

    In the Mid 80s my mom bought a 1946 Encyclopedia Britannica.
    That was fun to read.

    Anyway, maybe we should go look up 'Brontosaurus' in one of those old books.

    I ain't often right, but I've never been wrong. Seldom turns out the way it does in this song.

    by mungley on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 04:52:06 PM PDT

  •  My mother was purchasing a set... (5+ / 0-)

    ...of Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedias, but that stopped in the g's.  so I'm an expert on things like Buenos Aires, Burma, Dostoyeski, earthworms, and germanium.

  •  As a librarian, a couple things: (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc, pixxer, greatferm, timethief

    Internet, you're doin' it wrong. If there is a single thing that that the internet does indisputably better than any print encyclopedia, it is letting you stumble across random information and making cross-connections between information. Physical media can't possibly hope to have the interconnected nature of even a geocities website circa 1998. One could argue that these connections are the entire point of the internet.

    Secondly, encyclopedias were never the gold standard of "exhaustively researched, fact-checked, and vetted" information that you seem to think they were/are. Or maybe you think that. You also say they weren't that reliable, so it's hard to know. Sure, they gave you that illusion, but that's all it was. Wikipedia has generally fared fairly well on comparisons of accuracy to print encyclopedias. Throw in hyperlinks and up-to-the-second currency, and it simply blows any print encyclopedia out of the water in terms of usefulness. Encyclopedias, both print and digital, are great for looking up quick facts, and giving you a primer on a subject you might not yet know much about. But I would never recommend any kind of encyclopedia to someone who was serious about researching a topic, and I would caution against using it as a cited reference for any kind of scholarship, from middle school on up.

  •  I own the 1955 set of the World Book (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Munchkn, RiveroftheWest, pixxer, Amber6541

    that I read voraciously as a child. When I was in middle school, I told my father that we needed a new set, and he sent me to the home of the high school teacher who sold encyclopedias on the side to pick out the new set. I think that was the only time that happened to that teacher. My older sister took the new set to her house after I graduated from high school.

    -7.25, -6.26

    We are men of action; lies do not become us.

    by ER Doc on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 07:33:21 PM PDT

  •  Britannicas. We own a set from the mid-seventies. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Amber6541, RiveroftheWest

    It was/is great. We bought that one, having a young son who we knew would need a good reference work in the home. I grew up with the Britannica circa 1950 (anyone remember "SARS to SORC"?) My favorite article was "Gem" b/c it had a full color plate with cut stones on it.

    We also own at least two copies of the fabled 1911. Out of date information can be truly fascinating!

  •  I have a set of the "Book of Knowledge" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Amber6541, RiveroftheWest

    cira 1935 that is fabulous. It replaced an even older set (cira 1915) that I truly miss, damaged in a flood and beyond saving.

    Some of the things I liked, and that made me continue to page through, were the oddities, like Aesop's fables, and parlor tricks and such. The older set had a color plate that showed a cutaway view of a big ocean liner (Titanic?)

    As a child living in a rural area with limited access to a library, these books were a treasure beyond just money. They opened windows into strange and mysterious worlds.

  •  when I was a kid,my mom got a job selling EB (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    she sold enough Encyclopedias to pay for a set for us,
    then she promptly quit.

    She encouraged us to read them, front to back, I think
    I read as far as T, but i had such a storehouse of facts,
    i'm still a bit of a trivia resource.

    I like wikipedia but it's so easy to look stuff up, that it creates a scattered view,  and, it's not possible to read
    even all articles that start with A.

    As a kid and  a speed reader, I could read all of one letter
    in a weekend, and have a sense of accomplishment.

  •  The Encyclopedia is to the internet (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kevskos, RiveroftheWest

    As my old brace-and-bit is to my electric drill.

    Still useful in special cases.

    But for serendipitous discoveries, the internet is way better, broader, deeper and more various and more up to date.

    Far more links, different results just from rephrasing, access to actual debates, dated information (date of the information),  contacts.

    Example, a recent project I did on Omar Khayyam. The Encyclopedia thinks it is all about Fitzgerald's translation, the Internet gives me 8 different, and sometimes warring, versions, right away I have 8 times the information and multiple viewpoints, reviews and criticisms. There would have been an advantage to a 2 page project, instead of the the 20 + page monster I must now somehow edit, but I'll take the data.

    Reality is a good thing to know about, as long as you keep it separate from the Opera we live in

    by greatferm on Tue Sep 17, 2013 at 08:03:51 AM PDT

  •  Britannica (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Yeah.  the 11th is IT.  I am lucky enough to own one.  Today it's rare to be able to find one for sale.  When I wanted one for a wedding present for my son 4 years ago for his wedding, I ended up buying it on disk.  Thank goodness it's still avAilable that way, But it's not nearly as much fun to browse.

  •  Yes A beautiful set of Encyclopedia Britannia 1938 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, BusyinCA

    I inherited this beautiful red leather bound set of Encyclopedia Britannia with elegant typeset print and beautiful graphics, in its own wooden and worn bookshelf.  I used it, my friends kids used it.  It is a lovely piece of work.  I have been trying to find a home for it for years now, free to anyone who wants it.  I have considered making art out of of it .  Does anyone have a suggestion for a home?  I have moved to a 650' cottage and every inch is valuable.  Still I have found a space for it.  right now the cat sits on it to look out the window but I need art space.

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