from the Library of Maura

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse: Thinking about OERs and Textbook Affordability

March 31st, 2017 · No Comments

I am on sabbatical this semester, and one of the things I’m working on is a qualitative study of undergraduate attitudes and practices around their course reading. I’m interviewing 10 students each at 3 CUNY colleges to learn more about how they get access to their course reading, what their process is when they read, and how they prioritize and manage their reading assignments. A preliminary literature search last year as I was proposing this project revealed lots of sources about strategies to encourage students to do the reading, and recent reports by the Student PIRGs among others have discussed the link between high (and increasing) textbook costs and student access to course readings. But I wanted to learn more about the nuances in students’ reading practices from students themselves.

I’m nearly finished with interviews though I still have transcription, coding, and analysis to go. But one particular data point that many* students shared has been nagging at me so much that I’m not willing to wait to write about it: the requirement in some courses for students to purchase access to an online bundled textbook/homework platform in order to take the class. Some of these platforms include additional tutorials or other curricular materials. Some offer a few pricing tiers, e.g. a lower cost for homework only than for homework + etextbook than for homework + etextbook + print textbook. All are required, that is to say that students must submit their homework via the platform in order to participate in the class.

* How many? I’m not sure yet, I haven’t analyzed the data! But more than one.

This is not a completely new thing in textbook publishing, and indeed is the topic of a PIRG report from last fall (which is on my to read list). And I’m fairly far away from my own college experience at this point, too, so I’m willing to concede a little bit of the fear of the newfangled in my reaction. But I’m frankly horrified by the potential for increasing reliance on these textbook/homework platforms. Among my many concerns:

– Ultimately, some students will not be able to take classes in which these platforms are the only way to access their required homework/assignments, because they cannot afford to buy access to those platforms. This is especially relevant at CUNY, where 58.3% of our undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants and 38.5% have an annual household income of less than $20,000.

– College students are (and have ever been) savvy about getting their course materials. I’m hearing a wide range of strategies from the students I interviewed, from buying their books used at online or physical booksellers, to buying from other students, to borrowing from friends or classmates, to renting an online or print textbook. There’s no way to borrow a homework platform code from your friend, or to sell the code to another student after you’ve finished the class.

– Many college libraries don’t offer course texts for their students, but at CUNY most of us do. At City Tech we have some (not all) textbooks on reserve for in-library use and we move older editions into the circulating collections for students to check out for longer periods. There is no way for the library to offer access to homework platform codes, since they are tied individually to each student.

I know, I know, publishers gotta publish, and capitalism exists. But textbook prices have risen well above the rate of inflation, and with the rise of open educational resources (OER) it’s clear that publishers are exploring alternative ways to keep their profits up. Earlier this week I had an exchange on Twitter with a few library colleagues about a column on Inside Higher Ed that suggests that OERs are not nearly as effective as are personalized learning systems (another flavor of textbook platform). The author posits that:

[I]t is misguided to assume that the difference between open educational resources and paid resources is merely one of cost. […] The reality is that there are simply no open resources that are as flexible, reliable or impactful as the newest generation of education resources.

I was not surprised to see that the author is on the advisory council of a large textbook publishing corporation. I would counter that the negative impact on graduation rates when a student cannot take a course required in their major because they cannot afford to pay for the textbook platform code is far worse than the lack of personalization features in freely-available OERs. Our students are literally paying the price, and it’s a price that many of them cannot afford.

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What’d You Do This Summer?

August 27th, 2013 · 1 Comment

It’s that time again. Classes at City Tech start tomorrow, and amidst all of the prep for the returning students (and orientation last week) I’ve started to take stock of my summer. It’s all too easy to take a glance at that (perhaps overly) ambitious summer scholarly to do list and feel mopey about all of the things that didn’t get finished. And with the competition inherent in academic life, the slide down into “but I didn’t get nearly as much done as everyone else did” -itis is a quick and easy drop.


But not this year! Last week University of New Orleans Sociology prof @drcompton tweeted an alternative strategy for dealing with those late summer academic doldrums:

I like this strategy. I like it a lot. So much that I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now, mentally assembling the items for my list. Focusing on the dids rather than the didn’ts has been a welcome antidote to the beginning-of-the-semester jitters.

Here’s my I Did List for summer 2013:

– thoroughly outlined the second half of our book, finished a chapter, began work on the final chapter (woo!)

– prepared and sent two book proposals to university presses

– hired our Data Visualization Assistant and began work on visualizing the data from our study of student scholarly habits

– met with coauthors to kick off work on two new articles, and started writing a draft of my part of one of them

– attended the JustPublics@365 MediaCamp workshop on writing op-eds and essays (which was fantastic!)

– wrote an op-ed and sent it to the New York Times (they rejected it, which was stinky, but writing it was good practice)

– made the last revisions with my coauthors and finished an article about open access policies, and submitted it to a journal

There were other things too — leisure reading, library and other work tasks, and even some vacation. But it’s super satisfying to see all of my completed scholarly tasks in one place. Of course there are still lingering items on the list that haven’t been crossed off…yet.

Image by Johan Hansson

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Space Matters

May 11th, 2013 · 3 Comments

One of my college experiences that I’m most grateful for is the opportunity I had to do my academic work in a wide variety of libraries and other spaces. These days my research and writing mostly happens in two locations: my office, sometimes before the library opens (though my office is in a very quiet part of the library, so even with the door open it’s never loud), or at home, where I have a laptop and vary my workspace slightly based on the time of day (mornings are sunny in the living/dining room, afternoons sunnier in the bedroom where my desk is). I know I can work in other places — my laptop is heavy, but not too heavy to take to a public library (we have so many wonderful library options in NYC), a coffee shop, etc. — but usually I don’t. Those places always seem so far away, and I have a hard time convincing myself to spend time and money commuting just to vary my study location, especially when I only have a few hours for that work.

But college was different. I was reminded of this not too long ago when I learned about a nifty libraries promo at the University of Chicago. They’ve made a set of small buttons with the name of each of the 6 libraries on campus. (Full disclosure: I had a radio show in college so these buttons also make me happy because they remind me of my youthful DJing and show-going days.)


I tweeted a photo of the buttons which sparked a quick conversation with friends and other alums about the places we studied. One of my favorites as an undergrad was Harper Library’s reading room, a very traditional space with high ceilings, tall narrow windows, dark wood tables, and bookshelf-lined walls. I loved Harper — it was the perfect environment for sustained reading and taking notes (from what I understand it’s now no longer a lending library but remains a study space). For more utilitarian, everyday schoolwork I went to the Regenstein, the main humanities/social sciences library on campus (also where my friends hung out). By third year I had a locker and a favorite carrel just adjacent; my then (and current) partner worked in the coffee shop on the lower level. If I had serious, uninterruptable work to do I’d sometimes go to Crerar, the science library. It was farther away from my dorm (and then apartment) than the other libraries, and it’s main advantages were that it was utterly silent and it was unlikely that any of my friends would be there, so I wouldn’t be tempted to socialize when I should be studying.

I’m a librarian so of course I love libraries, that’s no surprise. But as we’re heading into finals I’m reminded again about space: finding adequate space for academic work (and how lucky I was to have so many options). I walk through the library and students are everywhere. Every seat is filled, at carrels and tables, and students are even perched on kickstools in-between the stacks — though to be fair, many of them are seeking electrical outlets, which are occasionally located on pillars throughout the stacks. I love to see the library so full, but worry that we don’t have enough space for our students or enough different types of space.

Space is a luxury, it’s true, and City Tech has a small campus in a dense part of Brooklyn. What can we do in the libraries on our space-constrained campuses? Are there small steps we can take to ensure that students have the space they need to do their academic work? That’s one of the things my research partner and I are thinking about and grappling with right now as we write up our study of CUNY students’ scholarly habits. I’ve been cheered to read about a small academic library that established a silent study room — might there be space for something like that at our library? Could we rearrange or remove stacks to create quiet and less quiet zones? I’m looking forward to pulling together (and sharing!) these recommendations from our research.

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The Data Left Behind

March 10th, 2013 · 4 Comments

As my research partner and I have been wrapping up our research project I’ve been thinking about all of the data we have that we’re not going to use for the book we’re in the midst of writing. We have transcripts from interviews with 178 students and 63 faculty; we have photographs from 60 students and maps and drawings from over 100, as well as syllabi and assignments from faculty. We have a LOT of data. And then I read a great post not too long ago by art historian Renee McGarry on a similar theme, about the objects she’s researched that haven’t made it into her writing.

Such is the nature of research, though maybe studies like ours, in which we started by asking open-ended questions of the participants, are more susceptible to it. It’s good to have lots of data from our study, certainly better to have too much than too little. We’ve ended up with some “extra” data: stuff that’s not necessarily relevant to our plan for the book. It’s not a ton of data, certainly the minority. But sometimes I get a little sad when I think about it. Collecting data is time-consuming; we spent 2 years traveling around CUNY talking to students and faculty, experiencing, just a little bit, the commuter scholar lifestyle of our students. I’m also a no-leftovers, waste not want not kind of person, so it pains me a bit to think of the insights from interviews and images that we won’t include in the book. Our participants shared so much with us, and I want to be sure that we do justice to them and their stories.

But those data aren’t necessarily irrelevant either; they all say something, even if those somethings don’t fit into the narrative we’re weaving together for the book. We can return to some of them–the side conversations and explanations, the material culture in photographs and drawings that doesn’t primarily speak to students’ lives as scholars–later, after the book is finished, and analyze them further. To this end I’ve started a list of the very beginnings of ideas I have about some of the information we gathered, ideas that don’t work for the book but could turn into something else, maybe. The list has made me feel a bit better about the data left behind. It’s not going away, it’s just waiting, patiently, for us to have a chance to think on it more thoroughly, and to give it the respect and consideration it’s due.

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We Make the Game By Playing

March 22nd, 2012 · No Comments

Recently we were at housewarming party for our friends and one of their son’s games caught my eye: Rivers, Roads, and Rails. It’s a simple matching game consisting of cardboard tiles each depicting a combination of a river, road, or rail segment. Players start with 7 tiles and go ‘round placing tiles to match the segments on the floor. The instructions in the box were sketchy, so we added that if a player can’t place a tile, draw from the facedown pile, place it if you can, and keep it in your hand if not. The game is physically lovely as well: the cardboard tiles are thick and sturdy, and the illustrations are pretty and whimsical.

Interestingly, we couldn’t convince any of the kids at the party, aged 2-10, to play the game with us, so gameplay involved 5 of us, all adults. And a rollicking good time was had by all: we found ourselves telling little stories about the segments and associated pictures on the tiles, and ended up being more interested in the possibility of connecting every tile to the board than of someone winning (we had decided that the first person to place all tiles in their hand was the winner).

One aspect of Rivers, Roads, and Rails that I really enjoyed is that the game board is created in the process of gameplay. Carcassonne, one of my favorite board games, uses the same mechanic: players draw tiles with segments of cities, roads, and fields, then place their pieces (called meeples) to claim features, each with different point values. The game ends when the last tile is placed and whomever has racked up the most points is the winner. It’s a fantastic game: the basics are easy enough to grasp to make it fun for beginners, but there’s also real strategy possible which keeps more experienced players engaged.

But what does any of this have to do with the library? I’ve been thinking lately about ways to incorporate more games and game mechanics into my library and information literacy instruction, and speculating on the possibilities for games that could help our students with their research assignments. Because the mechanic described above, which I like to think of as “we make the board by playing” (a riff on the title of a book designed for first year experience coursework called College: We Make the Road by Walking), is so interesting to me, I’ve found myself considering how to use it in research instruction.

In some ways the experience of building a game space as you play the game is very similar to the process of doing research for an assignment: you begin with some parameters (taking your turn or coming up with a research topic), you take an action (draw a tile, start your search [engine]), you figure out what to do with what you get (place your tile, use or reject your search results), and then you adjust accordingly the next time around. In a tile matching game the landscape shifts with every turn, just as it does in the research process as topics broaden or narrow, and the iterative nature of research means that the sources we find mold and change our topics, which feeds back into how and where we search for sources.

It’s all very well to point out the similarities between the research process and a tile matching game, but how can we actually use that to help students learn how to do research? I’m not convinced that creating a game to teach research competencies that is itself separate from students’ research needs, most often determined by the requirements of the research projects assigned in their courses, is the best way to proceed. But I wonder whether the research journal connects well with the tile matching mechanic?

Sometimes students are required to keep a journal of their research process, which they may have to hand in along with their research paper, presentation, or project. At its best the research journal forms a kind of story of the journey students take as they do research: the hesitant beginnings, wrong turns, forks in the road, unexpected shortcuts, and (hopefully) the successful outcome of completing the research needed to finish their project. And we hope that students find it useful to reflect on their own research process, and that they begin to understand the iterative nature of research, that it’s not just a straight line from point A to point B. What if we asked students to create a game that tells the story of their research rather than keeping a research journal? Would students achieve the same goals of recording and reflecting that they do with a traditional research journal? I’m not sure, but I’m considering giving it a try the next time I teach my department’s research and documentation course (and I’ll report back if I do).

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Making a Pledge

October 23rd, 2011 · 8 Comments

I’ve been an open access publishing advocate ever since I first wrapped my head around what’s often termed the scholarly communication crisis. To briefly sketch out an admittedly complex issue: researchers write and peer review articles, journals publish them (without payment to the researchers), and libraries buy back the journals at prices that have increased a staggering amount over the past 30 years. I was late to the OA advocacy game, and am somewhat ashamed to admit my utter ignorance of the economics of scholarly publishing when I was completing my degree in anthropology many years ago. But when I went back for my degree in library and information science it suddenly became so clear that the current subscription journal-based system of publishing academic research is not working anymore, not for the libraries with shrinking budgets, not for the researchers who want to share their work with as wide an audience as possible, and certainly not for the taxpaying-public who are funding many research studies yet cannot access the articles about their results.

Open Access Week begins tomorrow, the 5th year for this international advocacy event. In honor of OA Week I’d like to share my personal open access pledge. It’s not original — lots of other scholars and researchers are doing it, from institutions like Harvard and Kansas State and Oberlin, to library faculty members at Oregon State University and Gustavus Adolphus College, to individuals like danah boyd and Jason Baird Jackson. It’s a small step, but I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do, both for my own research and my participation in the broader scholarly community.

1. I will not submit articles I have authored or co-authored to any closed, subscription-based journals.

2. I will not undertake peer review for any closed, subscription-based journals.

3. I will not join the editorial board for any closed, subscription-based journals.

4. I will not accept the editorship of any closed, subscription-based journals.

5. I will make my own research and scholarship available online wherever possible.

As I was tooling around online tonight I found a nifty website called Open Access Pledge where everyone can make a pledge to support open access publishing. If you’re interested, head on over and sign up, it only takes a moment. And get ready for Open Access Week: there are lots of great events right here at CUNY — check out the Open Access @ CUNY blog for more details.

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Into the Field

October 15th, 2010 · 1 Comment

This year my research partner and I are expanding our qualitative study of student scholarly habits, so this semester I’m taking one RT day a week for fieldwork. We spent some time over the summer working on a preliminary analysis of last year’s data, and it’s great to get back to collecting data and interviewing students again. Though my field days can be long and tiring it’s completely fascinating to learn about students’ lives at school and beyond.

Last year I collected data at my own college (City Tech), but this year I’m working at another CUNY school: City College. I expected that the surroundings and students would be different — many of our programs at City Tech are unique in CUNY, and CCNY has grad students, while we don’t at City Tech. But I hadn’t anticipated the many other ways that fieldwork would be different this year.

In a sense I’m like a new student. I don’t know where anything is, though posting fliers to recruit students helped me start to internalize the layout of the college. CCNY has a much bigger campus than City Tech, so at the beginning of the semester I constantly underestimated the amount of time I needed to get from one place to another. Sometimes the cafeteria is so crowded that it’s hard to find a spot to eat lunch. I can’t ever seem to find an outlet to charge my phone and netbook when I need it. And until I scored a guest wifi password last week I was (guiltily) jockeying with students to use computers in the library (I have trouble typing lengthy emails on my phone).

Like many CUNY students, my commute is long: 1+ hrs each way, whether I come from home or from work. I need to carry what sometimes seems like a ridiculous amount of stuff: reading material for the commute, notebook, consent forms and instructions for students, disposable cameras (sometimes), voice recorder, netbook, stapler, tape, lunch, water, jacket (and–perish the thought–sometimes it rains, so add an umbrella to the list). A colleague in the library has graciously offered to let me stash my outerwear at her desk when I’m up at City, but it’s so different from last year, when I could meet students at my own desk.

As I’ve interviewed students I’ve found that I’m learning a lot from them that’s not only great project data but also immediately useful to me. Where are the best bathrooms in the NAC Building? What’s the quietest spot in the Cohen Library, esp. during the very crowded afternoon hours? What’s the best food in the cafeteria? Where are the working electrical outlets?

It’s interesting to consider my own experiences as project data. I’ve kept a research journal since last year so I can keep track of how things are going in the study. Last year it mostly included personal thoughts and notes about best practices for data collection method, but this year my journal could be an additional data source, too.

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Big News in Scholarly Publishing

June 11th, 2010 · No Comments

By now everyone’s probably heard about the storm a’brewing in scholarly publishing this week. I don’t want to repeat what’s been very ably said in many other spaces on the internets, but as an open access advocate I couldn’t let the week end without at least collecting together some of the high points of the discussion.

In brief, the University of California system libraries are resisting outrageous price increases for the Nature Publishing Group’s scholarly journals. This situation is, sadly, a familiar one for academic librarians, and this is not the first time that a large consortial group has pushed back. What’s new is the scope of the resistance: unless NPG comes down in price, U Cal faculty are being asked (among other things) to decline to peer review or submit articles to NPG journals.

This is huge, and a huge step in the right direction. As a librarian, a faculty member and a researcher I am absolutely thrilled to see this happening, and I’ll be following the situation closely as it evolves.

Here are some great places to go for more info:

  • The Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s article U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs provides a thorough introduction to the boycott.
  • Dorothea Salo, Institutional Repository Librarian at the University of Wisconsin who writes a fantastic blog about scholarly communication and open access (among other things) over at The Book of Trogool, has been covering the story since early in the week. (It was actually a tweet from Salo that first tipped me off to this situation late Tuesday night.)
  • Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, wrote a great post called Fight Club Soap that, among other things, includes a powerful discussion of the relationship between scholarly journal pricing and scholarly monograph publication.

Good stuff, all. Go read it!

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This is Not a Library Skills Course

May 28th, 2010 · 9 Comments

The information landscape has changed dramatically in the past two decades. It sounds hackneyed and idealistic, but the ability to research and use information in a critical, well-considered way is a life skill that’s increasingly valuable. Our students need to be able to deal with these changes and navigate information resources, even (especially!) those students who aren’t going on to graduate school.

Information literacy is the term used by librarians and others in higher ed to describe these competencies. We teach information literacy to students in many different settings: at the Reference Desk, in one-on-one appointments, via online tutorials and guides, and in “one-shot” library workshops, to name just a few. While there is evidence that these instructional strategies are useful for students, many librarians feel frustrated that our interactions don’t afford us enough time to address much more than the most basic information skills.

There is another way: the information literacy course. With the luxury of a full semester of classes, instructors can work with students to explore the lifecycle of information in depth. Questions for framing the course might include:

  • Where does information come from, how is it produced, and by whom?
  • Why are some information sources privileged and respected while others are not?
  • How can we negotiate complex information issues like access, preservation, privacy, and ethical use?
  • How is information organized (and who does the organizing)?
  • How can we develop strategies for searching and finding relevant information?
  • Why do we evaluate the quality of information? Should we?
  • What are the reasons for documentation and dissemination of information?
  • What role does information play in our lives, in college and beyond?
  • What is the future of information?

This is not a library skills class. We do not spend 15 weeks teaching undergraduates how to act like librarians. Yes, we teach students how to use the online library catalog and databases, but that’s far from our primary goal. In these courses we have the time to encourage thoughtful engagement by students with a wide variety of information and media, as both content producers and consumers.

What could an information literacy course look like? I taught one recently, and during the course we:

– Contrasted publishing in traditional print media like newspapers, magazines, books and scholarly journals, with digital publishing in all forms, from text to audiovisual media.

– Examined and experimented with the opportunities and challenges of participatory media through our interactions both in class and on our course blog, which was openly available on the internet.

– Used our discussion of complex information issues to shape each student’s development of a topic to explore in depth via a research proposal, annotated bibliography, and research paper.

– Investigated the mechanics of information organization in print and digital media, both human-generated and machine-based systems, and experimented with tagging as a classification tool for our course content.

– Applied our knowledge of classification systems to create strategies for searching various information sources successfully. One student remarked that she knew she’d found the most appropriate keywords to use to search for information when she discovered an article on nearly her exact research topic.

– Obtained information on students’ research topics from scholarly, journalistic, and general internet sources, analyzed this information, and presented the results in a research paper.

– Collaborated in pairs to synthesize the results of each student’s research topic, and used an online publishing tool to share the findings. Students chose wikis and blogs for this project and used these spaces in ways that exceeded the requirements of the assignment, for example, to communicate with each other and share notes and resources while the project was in progress.

– Analyzed and documented the process of working on the collaborative project, and presented both the project and documentation to the rest of the class for discussion.

The library doesn’t hold a monopoly on information literacy, of course. Similar work to what’s covered in this course happens in other courses and other departments as well. But information literacy competencies must develop and strengthen over time, and a course can provide our students with a solid foundation on which to build. An information literacy course can help our students hack the new information landscape and prepare for the future.

(Submitted to Hacking the Academy.)

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Bad News and Good News

May 3rd, 2010 · 6 Comments

Lately I’ve been thinking about how students, faculty, and librarians use academic libraries. It all started last month after the latest Ithaka Faculty Survey results were released. Many survey responses seem to indicate that faculty use of academic libraries is decreasing. Of course there was much discussion of the report all over the higher ed (the Chronicle and IHE) and library (ACRLog and Library Journal) bloglands.

I read these articles with interest but not surprise. In my past life when I was in graduate school for archaeology I was a heavy library user, but it was while working with my advisor that I learned about the major scholars in my field of specialty. I mined the bibliographies of the articles and books assigned for my courses, searched the library catalog for books, and browsed the stacks in the call number ranges for the subjects I researched. I belonged to the scholarly societies for archaeology and anthropology (and got their journals), and sometimes I browsed the table of contents in other relevant journals in the library’s current periodicals section. To be honest, I don’t think I ever consulted with a librarian at my university’s library the entire time I was in graduate school.

I suspect that my process from many years ago is not all that different from the ways faculty and graduate students do informational research today. It’s so much easier to use online indexes that I’m sure researchers search their specialized databases, but they do so with preexisting knowledge of their field, both the vocabulary of their subject matter and the major players in their discipline. However, as others have noted (e.g., William Badke’s comment on IHE), students approach information-based research for their coursework very differently. They don’t usually have deep knowledge of the disciplines and topics that they’re researching, and they don’t know the prominent scholars or publications. Many students, especially freshmen, are also unfamiliar with library databases and even physical libraries.

Since the faculty research process doesn’t necessarily include librarians, that’s likely one reason why faculty see the library more as an information storehouse and less as a location for academic consultation. But our students really do need help to learn to make sense of the information landscape and do research successfully. It can be difficult for experienced researchers–both faculty and librarians–to put ourselves back into the novice researcher mindset of our students. Information literacy instruction can help students learn to do information-based research for their courses and to begin to evolve into more advanced researchers.

Of course, there’s a huge variety of academic institutions, and variety in their libraries as well. I’m at a college library and coordinate our instruction and information literacy program, so working with students is always on my mind. But there’s also some good news out there as a counterpoint to the Ithaka study. Barbara Fister just published the results of her survey of academic administrators and found that they all value the library for a wide variety of reasons. And while many mentioned that academic libraries will continue to change and evolve in the future, none envisioned them disappearing.

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