Future Libraries and 17 Forms of Information Replacing Books

Future Libraries and 17 Forms of Information Replacing Books


Question: As physical books go away, and computers and smart devices take their place, at what point does a library stop being a library, and start becoming something else?

Somewhere in the middle of this question lies the nagging fear and anxiety that we see brimming to the top among library insiders.

People who think libraries are going away simply because books are going digital are missing the true tectonic shifts taking place in the world of information.

Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books.

Libraries exist to give us access to information. Until recently, books were one of the more efficient forms of transferring information from one person to another. Today there are 17 basic forms of information that are taking the place of books, and in the future there will be many more...

Gas Station Map

Gas Station Maps

As a young child, I was enamored with the free maps I could pick up at gas stations. Over time I had collected maps for nearly every state and some of the Canadian Provinces.

Along with the early days of the automobile and a generally confusing road system came the need for maps. Oil companies quickly realized that people who knew where they were going often traveled more, and consequently bought more gasoline.

Over time, anyone driving a car soon came to expect free maps whenever they stopped for gas, and companies like Rand McNally, H.M. Gousha, and General Drafting turned out millions to meet demand.

In the early 1970s, when I was first learning the freedom of owning a car, I couldn’t imagine a time when these maps would not be an integral part of my life.

Today, as GPS and smartphones give us turn-by-turn instructions on where to go, printed road maps exist as little more than collectibles for people wishing to preserve their memories of a fading era.

Are printed books likely to go through a similar dwindling of popularity?

relationship with data 755

Our Relationship with Information is Changing

As the form and delivery system for accessing information changes, our relationship with information also begins to morph.

If we treat this like other types relationships, we can begin to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

Gone are the days when we were simply “flirting” with our data, occasionally glancing at it, hoping it would pay attention to us as well.

In school we had more of a “dating” relationship, lugging books around, hoping they would impart their knowledge even though the parts that got read were few and far between. Much like dating a popular person, we became known by the books under our arms.

Once we started working, we became “married” to a relatively small universe of information that surrounded our job, company, and industry. People who became immersed in their particular universe became recognized as experts and quickly rose to the top.

Today we are beginning to have “affairs” with other exotic forms of information such as social networks and video chatting. All of these new forms of information seem much more alive and vibrant than the book world we had been married to for the past century.

Alone, on some dusty shelf, lie the books we had once been married to. On some level, many of us feel like we were cheating by abandoning our past, never getting closure for a divorce that left us with mixed loyalties haunting us on both a conscious and subconscious level.

If you think this is a crazy analogy, many will argue that its not. If anything, information is the heart and soul of our emotional self. Even though we may not feel it touching us like a finger pressing on our arm, a great piece of literature has a way of caressing our mind, adding fire to our inner rage, sending chills down the length of our spine, and giving us a euphoric high as we join our hero to reach a climactic conclusion.

Books of the past remain the physical manifestation of this kind of experience, and without their presence, a part of us feels lost.

Kindle e-book.The slimline Kindle?s electronic ink screen is de

Replacing Books

The transition to other forms of information has been happening for decades. Once we are able to get past the emotion connection we have to physical books, we begin to see how the information world is splintering off into dozens of different categories.

Here is a list of 17 primary categories of information that people turn to on a daily basis. While they are not direct replacements for physical books, they all have a way of eroding our reliance on them. There may be more that I’ve missed, but as you think through the following media channels, you’ll begin to understand how libraries of the future will need to function:

  1. Games – 135 million Americans play video games an hour or more each month. In the U.S. 190 million households will use a next-generation video game console in 2012, of which 148 million will be connected to the Internet. The average gamer is 35 years old and they have been playing games on average for 13 years.
  2. Digital Books – In January, USA Today reported a post-holiday e-book “surge,” with 32 of the top 50 titles on its most recent list selling more copies in digital format than in print. Self-published e-books now represent 20-27% of digital book sales.
  3. Audio Books - Audiobooks are the fastest growing sector of the publishing industry. There is currently a shortage of audiobooks worldwide as publishers race to meet demand. Only 0.75% (not even 1%!) of Amazon's book catalog has so far been converted to audio. Last year more than $1 billion worth of audiobooks were sold in the U.S. alone. Over 5,000 public libraries now offer free downloadable audio books.
  4. Newspapers – Online readership of newspapers continues to grow, attracting more than 113 million readers in January 2012. Industry advertising revenues, however, continue to drop and are now at the same level as they were in 1950, when adjusted for inflation.
  5. Magazines – The U.S. magazine industry is comprised of 5,146 businesses publishing a total of 38,000 titles. Time spent reading newspapers or magazines combined is roughly 3.9 hours per week. Nearly half of all magazine consumption takes place with the TV on. The magazine industry is declined 3.5% last year.
  6. Music – According to Billboard’s “2011 Music Industry Report,” consumers bought 1.27 billion digital tracks last year, which accounted for 50.3% of all music sales. Digital track sales increased 8.5% in 2011. Meanwhile, physical sales declined 5%. According to Apple, there are an estimated 38 million songs in the known music universe.
  7. Photos – Over 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day
  8. Videos – Cisco estimates that over 90% of all Internet content will be video by 2015. Over 100,000 'years' of Youtube video are viewed on Facebook every year. Over 350 million Youtube videos are shared on Twitter every year. Netflix streams 2 billion videos per quarter.
  9. Television - According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day, and owns 2.2 televisions. An estimated 41% of our information currently comes from television.
  10. Movies – There are currently over 39,500 movie screens in the U.S. with over 4,500 of them converted to 3D screens. The average American goes to 6 movies per year. However, almost one-third of U.S. broadband Households use the Internet to watch movies on their TV sets, according to Park Associates. That number is growing, with 4% of U.S. households buying a video media receiver, such as Apple TV and Roku, over the 2011 holiday season
  11. Radio – Satellite radio subscribers, currently at 20 million, is projected to reach 35 million by 2020. At the same time, Internet radio is projected to reach 196 million listeners by 2020. These combined equal the same number as terrestrial radio listeners.
  12. Blogs - There are currently over 70 million WordPress blogs and 39 million Tumblr blogs worldwide.
  13. Podcasts – According to Edison Research, an estimated 70 million Americans have listened to a podcast. The podcast audience has migrated from being predominantly “early adopters” to more closely resembling mainstream media consumers.
  14. Apps – There are now over 1.2 million smartphone apps with over 35 billion downloads. Sometime this year the number of apps will exceed the number of books in print – 3.2 million.
  15. Presentations – Leading the charge in this area, SlideShare is the world's largest community for sharing presentations. With 60 million monthly visitors and 130 million pageviews, it is amongst the most visited 200 websites in the world.
  16. Courseware – The OpenCourseware movement has been catching fire with Apple leading the charge. iTunesU currently has over 1,000 Universities participating from 26 countries. Their selection of classes, now exceeding the 500,000 mark, have had over 700 million downloads. They recently announced they were expanding into the K-12 market.
  17. Personal Networks – Whether its LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest, people are becoming increasingly reliant on their personal network for information. There are now over 2.8 billion social media profiles, representing around half of all Internet users worldwide. LinkedIn now has over 147 million members. Facebook has over 1.1 billion members and accounts for 20% of all pageviews on the Internet. Google+ currently has over 90 million users.

Each of these forms of information has a place in future libraries. Whether or not physical books decline or even disappear has little relevance in the overall scheme of future library operations.

Steve Jobs introducing iCloud 673

Steve Jobs introducing iCloud

The Coming Era of the Library Cloud

In June 2011, Steve Jobs made his final public appearance at a software developer’s conference to unveil iCloud; a service that many believe will become his greatest legacy.

As Jobs envisioned it, the entire universe of songs, books, movies, and a variety of other information products would reside in iCloud and could be “pulled down” whenever someone needed to access it.

People would initially purchase the product through iTunes, and Apple would keep a copy of it in iCloud. So each subsequent purchase by other Apple users would be a quick download directly from iCloud.

Whether or not the information universe develops in the cloud like Jobs has envisioned, libraries will each need to develop their own cloud strategy for the future.

As an example, at a recent library event I was speaking at, one librarian mentioned she had just ordered 50 Kindles and 50 Nooks for their library. At the time, she was dealing with the restrictions from publishers that only allowed them to load each digital book on 10 devices. So which devices get the content in the end?

Over time, it’s easy to imagine a library with 350 Kindles, 400 iPads, 250 Nooks, 150 Xooms, and a variety of other devices. Keeping track of which content is loaded on each device will become a logistical nightmare. However, having each piece of digital content loaded in the cloud and restricting it to 10 simultaneous downloads will be far more manageable.


This snapshot in time could have been preserved by your local library.

The Value of the Community Archive

What was your community like in 1950, or for that matter in 1850 or even 1650? What role did your community play during the Civil War? How active was it during the Presidential elections of 1960? How did local people react to the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

We have access to plenty of history books that give us the “official story” of all the major events throughout history. But understanding the intersection of our city, our village, or our community with these earth-changing events has, for the most part, never been captured or preserved. In the future, this will become one of the most valuable functions provided by a community library.

Libraries have always had a mandate to archive the records of their service area, but it has rarely been pursued with more than passing enthusiasm. Archives of city council meetings and local history books made the cut, but few considered the library to be a good photo or video archive.

Over time, many of the newspapers, radio, and television stations will begin to disappear. As these businesses lose their viability, their storerooms of historical broadcast tapes and documents will need to be preserved. More specifically, every radio broadcast, newspaper, and television broadcast will need to be digitized and archived.

With the advent of iCloud and other similar services libraries will want to expand their hosting of original collections, and installing the equipment to digitize the information. The sale of this information to the outside world through an iTunes-like service could become a valuable income stream for libraries in the future.

Final Thoughts

Libraries, much like any living breathing organism, will have to adapt to the complex nature of the ever-changing world of information. As information becomes more sophisticated and complex, so will libraries.

Libraries are here to stay because they have a survival instinct. They have created a mutually dependent relationship with the communities they serve, and most importantly, they know how to adapt to the changing world around them.

I am always impressed with the creative things being done in libraries. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” There are a lot of beautiful dreams taking place that will help form tomorrow’s libraries.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

28 Responses

  1. I’m not very happy about video becoming such a prime source of information. In most cases it is a horribly slow way of transmitting information. I never view the video, if there is a transcript. I never view videos for information, if there is a printed source. Videos are better for action, illustration and advertising.

  2. Frances M

    What I find alarming is that people for the most part do not know how to evaluate what they see in videos and pictures. I work in a library, and I try to teach this skill. I have students raise their hands as I ask where they get their news: radio, newspaper, TV, Internet. Most get it from the last two. I point out that these are visual media. When I ask how many have been taught to evaluate visual input, it’s lucky if there is one person out of 25. This leaves them open to manipulation that they are totally unaware is taking place.

  3. admin


    I agree that finding the salient points in a video can be painfully slow, but it is a medium that can convey information that text cannot. Each of these forms of information has their own advantage/disadvantage, and their own audience. That’s why each are getting so much traction.

    Thomas Frey

  4. Grant W

    I don’t think the libraries of the future will be limited to serving as archives of statically structured information as described in your list. Libraries may also function as dynamic central data warehouses served through the Cloud. Knowledge is not always statically organized. Much of the “Structured” knowledge of today and the future is dynamically updated in “libraries” such as Wikipedia. Even more of the knowledge of our world resides in the dynamic analysis of “libraries” of raw data. Models enable the dynamic analysis, but the raw data must be warehoused (libraried) in a digital database. I think many of the most valuable “libraries” of tomorrow will be dynamic libraries of constantly evolving raw data, which dynamically output structured information with the help of sophisticated data analysis models.

  5. Spikosauropod

    OK, I have cut out all the brand names.


    I’m glad you mentioned audio books. My brother is a non reader. I bought him a tablet computer a couple of months ago and eventually showed him how to access audio books. Now he is a reader. Go figure!

    When the first tablets came out, I bought one for my 85 year old mother. I got it for her as an experiment to see what she would do with it. Now she lives on it. She uses it to read books (she actually reads them), she uses it as a cookbook, she plays online games with my niece, she uses it to control her TV, she uses it as a navigational device, etc. She would never go anywhere without it. I have come to refer to her as “a person of the tablet”. Her tablet has probably added years to her life.

    I once envisioned a world where everyone walks around in a flowing toga with a “magic scroll” tucked under one arm. With their magic scroll they could access any information in the world at any moment.

    Now, that world actually exists. On the down side, the magic scroll looks like a bar of soap and it is used primarily by shabbily dressed little girls to share pictures of their latest crush. Of course, there is always a downside.

    P.S. I love your site. I discovered it because one of your articles was summarized with a link on Ray Kurzweil’s site. You are part of the process of killing the magazine industry.

  6. As a Survival Teacher, the loss of physical, printed books in homes is frightening. I’ll mention ‘the worst case disaster’ scenario Because if humans can survive this any temporary disruption is easier. This DOES tie back to libraries.

    I’m about to appear on National Geographic TV’s “Doomsday Prepper” (S1 E9) “around March 27″ 2012. Here is the scenario this “Reality Show” directed me to focus on.

    In 1859 a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) set fires around telegraph poles and burned down some offices across the U.S. & Europe. Do you know ANY buildings or vehicles with wiring? IF – yes it’s extreme but – IF one these solar flares hit our techno world, in one billionth of a second all computer chips (not protected) will fry.

    Who knows how long Multiple-Power-Grids around the world might be down? Books are suddenly everything for reference from surgery to engineering. Entertainment returns to reading. Education is books. Survival is in Print. All homes should have 1st aid manuals, “The Ship’s Medicine Chest”, medical dictionaries and “Grey’s Anatomy” – in print. Mini-libraries would be vital.

    Even in a short term power outages, books have allowed people to performs emergency surgeries and procedures.
    Hail to the Library both grand and humble.

  7. Spikosauropod

    To Jack Jobe:

    The extreme case of your precaution is described in Larry Niven and Edware M. Lerner’s Destroyer of Worlds. The Pak libraries consist of books printed entirely on copper so that they can survive any calamity. It is noted by the author that this is done with indifference to the difficulty with which the information is retrieved.

    I agree that durable printed materials should exist both in some sort of central storage facility and in personal libraries. I live in an area where the power goes out a lot, so I am very conscious of the need for emergency preparations. The question is, how far do you take this?

    If you put information on CD’s it will at least be preserved until devices are available to extract it. CD’s are more durable than paper. At home, people can print things they may need for survival with personal printers. With 3D printers and similar devices, it may soon be possible to print large volumes of data on fire proof materials. It may soon be possible to make an entire printed book that is indistinguishable from the books we are familiar with but that is virtually indestructible.

  8. admin


    Thanks for bringing up the “digestiblility” factor. People who are great readers can’t imagine a life where people have difficulty reading. All of these other forms have opened huge doorways into the world of literature and research for slow readers and the illiterates. I only started reading myself when I discovered comic books as a kid, and I know I’m not alone.

    Information is not just visual or audio. It involves the sense of touch, smell, taste, tactile sensations, perception, discernment, and so much more.

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

    Thomas Frey

  9. I agree that libraries are here to stay. We need them. But how can we stop all the library cuts made by municipalities? How do we get our towns and cities and counties to show they care by keeping libraries funded?

  10. J Cagle

    I agree with Jack Jobe as I recently took a class in Astronomy and learned about Mass Coronal Ejections from the sun. It is very possible in the near future that we will be blasted with radioactivity that will shut down our electronic world for days, weeks or even months when it burns out major parts of the Power Grids that municipalities rely on. A physical library is a very necessary part of archiving all sorts of information sources and not just the local community! All libraries should be sources of various types of information depending on their size and location. They should get physical copies of important works whenever possible and historical facts also. I foresee a time when that is all we will have again for a time or for much longer. Libraries are very important and so is the printed word! Children should still be introduced to actual books along with the tablet!

  11. Ian Johnston

    Digitised information is just a tool. Libraries will remain sanctuaries where information will be held and can be accessed, hopefully at no charge as a public service. Libraries could develop as locations for social learning, ie learning from and with other human beings

  12. This is a very informative and interesting article. Dr. Thomas Frey’s conclusion that there are a lot of beautiful dreams taking place that will help form tomorrow’s libraries is really very encouraging for millions of librarians all over the world. Articles like “Future Libraries and 17 Forms of Information Replacing Books” enhance the thoughts of those librarians hoping for a bright future.

    Many thanks Dr. Frey. All the best.

  13. Ayesha Al Bahar

    Library in future is a combination of digital and physical items, however, the technological devices will provide the leading using services in libraries. The future libraries will be changing to a digital libraries, however, the need of books is essential for special and particular people. The use of libraries will be easier in the future and libraries will have the efficient qualities and services for the clients. I see the future of Libraries is motivating and challenging.

  14. Carla Caforio

    If we want to keep libraries funded, we need to keep them relevant. The idea that books will be more of an artifact than a source of information and pleasure is sad to me, but it is a reality that is nearly upon us. Most under 30’s just do not have that attachment to the book and they are the ones that will decide whether libraries are relevant in the future or not.

    To me, a public library should deliver information in whatever form that meets the needs of the public it serves. They will need to shape shift constantly to keep up with the rapidly changing trends, planning far into the future to keep pace with the age demographic. As the baby boomer generation disappears, so does the book. Of course, we must plan for potential disaster..that’s why we have print repositories. And as the printed book disappears from the library shelf, we all must pay much more attention to providing and environment where a copy can be safely preserved.

    I am not a librarian. I am a business person that works out of a home office. We all know that this is a growing trend all over the country. My public library would become much more relevant to me if they considered serving this rapidly growing demographic by offering space to conduct business that they may otherwise not be able to conduct in their home or Starbucks. Perhaps conference room space with video conferencing technology available by reservation or rental. Business centers, much like you find in most hotels that cater to the business traveler. I would think that younger professionals with children at home could greatly benefit from such resources on days when a quiet environment is necessary to conduct business.

    This is just my personal perspective on how libraries can remain relevant. It may not be something for every public library, but I’m sure there are many ways that libraries can creatively adjust to find new ways of delivering information and providing contemporary service to the public. The debate about the fate of the book is over…we all need to look into the future and find ways to keep the public library funded or the day may come when the public library is no more than a kiosk where you drive up, plug your device in and download your read.

  15. Ron Abate

    Libraries of the future will be entirely digital. Borrowing e-books will be done over the internet. Accessing information is readily available from the Web or cloud at any time from any place.
    The cloud has been around for some time – well before Apple’s announcement. It will continue to expand; however, families may chose to keep digitized records (DVDs, memory modules, etc.) in their homes as backup.
    The one function that libraries can preserve is a place for human contact, e.g. social events, lecturers, clubs, etc.

  16. Matt Angiono

    It is definitely apparent that libraries as an information source will go mostly digital. But there is something else to consider, and I think it is difficult because our current paradigm keeps us thinking so surely that we need to own everything. I often feel overwhelmed both by the hoards of information being pumped online and shared (which is ever increasing), and by the number of things I acquire and eventually find sitting on the shelf.

    I think as we shift our understanding of how to operate efficiently, we will realize that it is wasteful and unnecessary to keep so many possessions as our own, and can instead start to utilize ‘libraries’ as centers to keep physical tools or things that we only need on occasion. I would happily give away many of my things that are rarely used in exchange for the access abundance of all those that I can’t afford to store.

    There is much evidence to support the idea that we will soon need to act much more efficiently in order to preserve our planet in a sustainable matter. Instead of throwing things away all the time, we could have a location where all physical objects are readily abundant for use as needed, much as the library acts with books. I do realize that this will require a new way of thinking about property, but it seems that the current economic model is already proving why this might be an important shift to make. Let’s use our incredibly versatile minds to welcome in a future that makes sense and sustains our planet, while sharing the abundance we’ve created with all. Otherwise I fear the days when we are drowning in our own waste!

  17. “We have access to plenty of history books that give us the “official story” of all the major events throughout history. But understanding the intersection of our city, our village, or our community with these earth-changing events has, for the most part, never been captured or preserved.”

    I have to disagree with the statement that these things have never been preserved. They may not have been preserved in a library, but have you checked your local historical society or museum? Not only have museums saved books, they’ve also saved all sorts of other forms of information, including photos, videos, cassette tapes, records, maps, newspapers, magazines, reel-to-real film, ledgers, digital data, documents and three-dimensional artifacts (which also are containers of information). And most small museums are primarily concerned with the history of a specific geographic area, so you’ll find the local history there, more than you might find it in a library or large museum, which has to appeal to a larger, more general audience.

  18. Martin

    “In school we had more of a “dating” relationship, lugging books around, hoping they would impart their knowledge even though the parts that got read were few and far between.”

    Why should someone who couldn’t be bothered to study except when he was forced to, get to shape the format of study areas. Maybe you should reflect that spoon-fed information produces spoon-fed thinkers, who are not good for the development of society as they tend to get carried away with whatever line they are fed from above. Somewhat like this article, which misrepresents the situation for the benefit of those who would run the new libraries and receive the public funds for this.

    “Today, as GPS and smartphones give us turn-by-turn instructions on where to go, printed road maps exist as little more than collectibles for people wishing to preserve their memories of a fading era.”

    Except for those that cannot afford them, and so use road maps as a perfectly useful and not-at-all obsolete form of information, one that can be cheaper, more visually and sensually pleasant to deal with, and will not instruct you to go the wrong way – any mistakes you make are your own, with no chance to lay your blames on someone or something else. Good life-lesson, that.

    This is a very disingenuous, ‘Colin Powell’-type article, in which the writer claims to be in one camp, but cannot resist the lure of the other, more realistic camp that he tries to pull others over to as he goes. Just be honest – you want digital libraries, set some up that work in this way and stop trying to be totalitarian about it and convert existing facilities to your dream. Make your mistakes on your own watch, and then let us import the results into libraries so that they are stronger for it, not you.

  19. Skippy

    It’s great people are thinking and writing about the future of libraries, but the things you’ve talked about are already here, and we’re already using them (at least at my library.) The library of the future that I’d like to work in would have spaces for information creation–digital media labs, maker spaces, etc. To me, remaining “relevant” means finding new ways to engage the community. I’m not talking about finding ways to get books into hands. I’m talking about bringing people together to learn and create knowledge. I continue to be troubled by the linking of “information” and “books,” as well as the linking of “libraries” and “books.” I’m sorry that for so many libraries, that’s their entire identity. Please just know that many of us librarians are really all about information, in any form we can find it for you.

  20. Elliott

    Though the mission of libraries will never be obsolete, perhaps, despite its richness and resonance the derivation of the term and tight association with books has rendered it obsolete. At the risk of offending traditionalists (myself included) could we find another name for the repository, preserver organizer and disseminator of information in its many forms? For example,Informatory,as a noun. Some such terms, initially jarring, become integrated into common usage.

  21. leader

    I will forward this to my friend we were just talking about this recently!

  22. I found this article very interesting and would just like to contribute that information workers in libraries need to adapt the skills that they have been taught and that these skills need to be integrated into the future training of librarians. I find that many librarians dont have the skills to navigate information on the web or have particular understanding of how and what tools to use.

  23. Tony

    Please let me know how do libraries use the ebook?

  24. admin


    Libraries are quickly acclimating to ebooks. Not all of them have them yet, and there are a number of issues showing up like the number of devices a specific book can be on simultaneously. Its a learning period as we find out what works ad what doesn’t.


  25. Tony

    Thank you Tom for your reply.
    Could you send me names and e-mails of libraries who lend kindels? How does it work?

  26. […] Harvard librarian argues against Jobs’ statement.  Futurist Thomas Frey presents a balanced assessment on books as we know them, and how reading will exist in the future.  Frey’s approach and perspective […]

  27. There’s something irreplaceable and romantic about curling up on the couch near the fire, licking your index finger and turning over page one to unleash the vintage scent of that old classic and new adventure. And what happens when the protagonist is on a fist clenching cliffhanger and your Kindle suddenly runs out of battery? Maybe it’s just us anti-technology oldies talking, but I don’t think books will ever be completely outdated.

  28. I love how much technology has taken over what we do. Before it would have been a good book to read at night,now it is all about small games and even worst movies.

  29. Good article, but I think a key function of libraries has been overlooked a bit. Libraries also fill a cultural and community education need by offering free concerts, movies, guest lectures, author visits, and classes. “Real” books may be replaced by e-readers and other forms of information may take priority over books, but again, those are only one function of a library. A library is indeed access to information, not just books on shelves, but it is more importantly, access to much needed educational tools, and each library fills the needs of its particular community.

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