Oral History NSW
Giving Voice to the Past
Giving Voice to the Past

Oral History NSW Seminar Saturday March 12 - MAKING DIGITAL HISTORY

by | February 10, 2016


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With presenters Brownyn Murphy and Hamish Sewell. For details and to book a place, click here.

Oral History Australia Journal - Call for papers

by | January 22, 2016


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Deadlines for submissions to the 2016 Oral History Australia Journal are within sight - Feb 28 for those who want their papers peer-reviewed, and April 1 for other papers and reviews. For more information and to download forms and a style guide visit here, and for additional inquiries contact the editor, Dr Sue Anderson.

Podcasting oral history as ‘radio’ documentary

by Siobhan McHugh | January 22, 2016


Award-winning oral historian, writer and broadcaster Siobhan McHugh on new ways to present oral history, and a new critical platform, RadioDoc Review.

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When people agree to record their life story, and we do them the honour of listening deeply to it, most people are proud and keen to have others hear it too. That after all is the point of oral history – to create a record that will furnish posterity with the multiple subjectivities of a community, event or era. But who has the time to listen right through an infinite number of four-to-five hour recordings per individual? Almost nobody. The answer, I suggest, is to by all means preserve the original recordings as a ‘raw’ archive – but also, to serve up a digest of the interviews in a palatable format that marries superbly with audio – the radio documentary, a variant on what Michael Frisch calls the ‘cooked’ form, and one that can now easily be shared as a podcast. Later, some pointers on a new outlet for critical analysis of radio documentaries that will help beginners and experts alike see how and why the best radio documentaries have such power and impact. But first, a historical digression.

As a new migrant to Australia in 1986, I was charged by the newly formed Social History Unit (SHU) of ABC Radio with the weighty and wonderful task of charting, in sound, the history of the mighty Snowy Mountains Scheme. This huge hydroelectric project remains Australia’s biggest infrastructure project, to be overtaken only when the NBN is complete. But its role as a feat of social engineering is to me even more fascinating than the miles of tunnels blasted through mountains and the enormous dams and power stations constructed between 1949 and 1974, impressive though they are. That’s because the Snowy was built by migrants from over 30 countries, recently arrived from war-torn Europe, and it became a living crucible for the testing of multiculturalism – an experiment that was a resounding success. I interviewed about 100 workers of 25 nationalities, and consulted some 200 others. The original interviews are preserved at the State Library of NSW, and over the years, scholars and researchers have delved into them for insights into immigration and settlement, occupational safety, family history and other topics. They were the basis for a six-part radio series I made for SHU, broadcast on Talking History in 1987 and a book, The Snowy: The People Behind the Power (Heinemann 1989), which won the NSW Premier’s Award for Non-fiction and provided the deposit for my first home. The book, I am happy to say, is still in print (republished by Harper Collins 1995), but the radio series, though digitised, languishes in the ABC archives, where few will ever hear it. This pains me, because the tapestry of ethnic voices contained in those three hours, and the eloquence with which they describe their transformative journey from ‘bloody Wogs and reffoes’ to proud New Australians, is a rich, moving account of the coming of age of contemporary Australia, and resonates just as loudly 30 years on.  The book is of course a valuable record, and print trumps audio when it comes to analysis and information, but nothing, to my mind, surpasses the ability of audio to connect us emotionally with another human being.  As someone once said, a transcript (print) is a map – but audio is a landscape. Anyone who doesn’t believe that, just listen to this three-minute clip I recorded with an Australian journalist describing an incident she witnessed in the Vietnam war. In an article recently published in the latest edition of the Oral History Reader, I analyse why the audio is so much more moving than the same words on the page. Most of you won’t need convincing.  For a less academic consideration, check out a talk I gave at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, The Affective Power of Audio.

Nothing surpasses the ability of audio to connect us emotionally with another human being.

 We’ve come a long way since the dark days when Columbia University, perish the thought, used to delete and re-use tapes of interviews and preserve only the transcript. Oral historians have been aware of the importance of orality for a long time (Sandro Portelli writes beautifully about it in The Oral History Reader, in a chapter from 1967), but it is only fairly recently, as technology has enabled more ‘lay’ people to obtain good quality audio recordings and use simple editing software such as Hindenburg, that oral historians are going the extra mile and crafting a narrative from their raw interviews. We’ve heard the results on programs such as Hindsight on RN, and with the new ease of podcasting, literally anyone with access to the internet can post an audio work for global listening, using Soundcloud or a similar outlet.

But the question now becomes: which of the myriad audio documentaries and podcasts out there are worth listening to? In fact, what makes one radio documentary compelling, and another not so engaging?

 I’ve been making radio documentaries since 1981, and many have attracted acclaim, but beyond a crash course in logging and editing interviews, no-one taught me how - I evolved my own style through a mixture of instinct, collegial feedback and listening to how others did it.  My very first rookie attempt, a program reporting on what was then a rare species, immigrants to Ireland, was recently placed online and I listened, with some trepidation.  Though I am somewhat mortified at the clunky use of music (why did I not let Bob Dylan SING!) to my surprise, it stands up – because I had a good topic, chose interesting, diverse interviewees, asked pertinent questions, delivered a sprightly narration (in a melodious Irish accent that 30 years in Australia have flattened) and edited the results together in such a way that the program retains pace and texture. Some three decades and 60 radio documentaries on, my multilayered production technique has become more sophisticated, but the other elements remain basically the same. Yet it occurred to me that for all the wonderful – or otherwise – radio documentaries being broadcast, there was very little evaluation or analysis of the form. Just think of the screeds of reviews you can find about films, books, art exhibitions or theatre. But the best radio documentaries of the year?  Apart from the odd newspaper piece, and an occasional scholarly article, very little had been written.

What makes one radio documentary compelling, and another not so engaging?

 That’s why, in 2014, I founded RadioDoc Review. It’s a free online journal published twice a year, with in-depth reviews of some of the world’s best audio documentaries and features. How do we know they’re the best? Because they’re voted for by an international editorial board of top radio producers (most have won audio’s most significant award, the Prix Italia, or equivalent) and eminent academics.  The reviewers are equally highly credentialled. From feedback on social media from both audio makers and listeners, these reviews are highly valued. They free audio from using the language of film criticism, help us understand and appreciate the invisible architecture of the built audio feature form, and deconstruct how it varies across cultures and ethnicity. We’ve reviewed some 20 programs from Australia, US, UK and Europe, in English and other languages (transcript provided). We include the audio link in the review, which you can download as a pdf. And we usually do TWO reviews, to test different perspectives.

 Take the US radio documentary, The Hospital Always Wins by Laura Starecheski.  It was a ten-year investigation, which included several interviews with a man who was a patient in a mental hospital outside New York. He told Starecheski – in graphic detail - how he’d killed his mother, because he was at the time an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.  But now, years on, he was medicated and selling his art to the public, and she wondered why he was still detained (he is very charismatic on tape). 

Reviewer 1, Sharon Davis, a multi-award-winning  Australian investigative producer, was mostly positive, but points out how formulaic it is in some ways – she would have gathered more acoustic scenes to bring the hospital itself to life. Reviewer 2, Michelle Boyd, an African-American academic from Chicago, is a sociologist who has fallen in love with audio and uses it as a way of researching black men’s experiences of police brutality.  She mainly gives it a thumbs up – but she asks why is RACE never mentioned? Because Issa, the patient, is black, and the psychiatrist who won’t let him be released calls him ‘narcissistic’ – a variant on the uppity black, Michelle reckons. So you can see how this level of critique can really deepen appreciation of both the form and its impact.

 I recommend working through the canon of programs – listening to the works and then reading the analysis. All, by definition, are good, but some, that sit at the radio art end of the documentary/feature spectrum, may be of less interest to oral historians – the abstract will provide a clue. Ones that loosely have oral history or at least long-form interviews at the core and which I recommend are:

Poetry, Texas: an exploration of a small rural community (US/Denmark)

The Change in Farming by Adam Goddard and Steve Wadhams (CAN): an innovative play on the interview form itself

Will Kate Survive Kate by Masako Fukui (AUST): the impact of anorexia on Kate and her family

Little War on the Prairie John Biewen’s playful auto-critique of his own This American Life show, which investigates a mass execution of Native Americans in his Minnesota home town in 1862.

Crafting audio narrative out of oral history works best with strong, emotive personal narratives

 Crafting audio narrative out of oral history works best with strong, emotive personal narratives and I’ve brought oral history and radio documentary into conversation in many works over the years. Some I am proud of include Beagle Bay: Irish nuns and Stolen Children, about the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families: when it aired on RN the day before the Reconciliation Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the stories were so moving, people wrote in asking why they’d never heard the personal experiences before, just academics and politicians discussing it as policy; Minefields and Miniskirts, in which 25 Australian women recount their hitherto overlooked and often extraordinary experiences of the Vietnam war; and Marrying Out, a two-hour series based on 50 oral history interviews with people who experienced bigotry from being part of a ‘mixed marriage’ in an earlier Australia, when the Catholic vs Protestant divide was much like the Muslim vs Western binary of today. The original Marrying Out interviews are preserved at the National Library of Australia, as part of their excellent strategy of making unexpurgated time-coded audio available to browse online, subject to rights and permissions. 

So, go forth and podcast your oral histories as beautifully wrought audio narrative! For more of my musings on oral history, check out my website

Below: Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator National Museum of Australia, Prof Ian McLean, art historian, University of Wollongong, and Dr Siobhan McHugh, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, University of Wollongong researching a forthcoming oral history of contemporary Aboriginal art. 


End of the Line

by Craig McPherson | December 13, 2015


A piece of NSW railway history is captured in this award-winning oral history project centred on a now decommissioned signalling system on the Kiama-Bomaderry line.

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The ‘Electric train staff’ (ETS) system is one of the earliest railway signalling systems in Australia, employing  a unique system developed in England and introduced here in the early 1890s. Designed to prevent two trains travelling in the one section along a single line, the system requires a ‘staff’ to be physically handed to a train driver to allow them to pass.

On the Kiama to Bomaderry railway line in NSW, the last remaining ETS system on the NSW passenger network was still in use in 2014 after providing almost 100 years of service along the line. As part of an ongoing program to modernise signalling systems across the NSW railway net, the system was to be decommissioned and replaced with a modern computerised signalling system.

Local staff had raised concerns about the future of the equipment associated with the ETS and  the loss of knowledge following its proposed removal and replacement with a modern system. Graham Duke, Station Manager at Bomaderry, when interviewed for the project remarked about the removal of the equipment:-

‘That was probably something that is quite unique, that’s part of history that has gone now. It will be strange for the train to be ready to leave without somebody actually asking, ‘Has the driver got the staff?’ I have never sent a train without the staff, and that is our basic safe working system, it has served us well.’

Recognising the railways as a large workforce with a rich engineering history suitable for oral history collection, it was felt an oral and video project was the most appropriate way to capture the history of this technology while still in use.

The oral history component included both audio and video interviews with key staff who were involved in the operation of the system. Interviewees included current and former staff of the NSW Railways (Sydney Trains, NSW TrainLink, RailCorp) including the Director of Operations, the former signalling Chief Engineer, station managers at Berry and Bomaderry, a train driver, a train guard, two signal electricians, a train controller, a trainer at the Railway Training College and rail historians.

The interviews with staff and experts asked them to talk about their personal experiences using the equipment, offering views from different roles and responsibilities from design and compliance through to network operations and customer service roles. The interviews uncovered the history behind the introduction of the equipment, its failures, success and reliability.  Bob Donovan was 72 when interviewed for the project, and was a train driver who had started his 55-year long career in the railways during the dying days of steam trains. He explained that:-

‘It used to be hard yakka in the old steam days, you know. When you done your job firing up to Sydney, or whatever, driving from A to B, and then you had to put the engine in the loco and then you had to do the fire and shovel forward and things. It was hard work, but we never whinged because that was the job and we were fit too, then.’

The interviews allowed staff to reflect on their careers and share thoughts on changes in railway technology, as well as uncovering the social significance of historical railway practices and technology within a large organisation.

As part of the study, new facts and historical information about the equipment were also uncovered, including the original date of installation of the equipment, which was had been thought to coincide with the opening of the line. A clearer historical representation of the history of the equipment and its use along the South Coast railway line also emerged.

Warwick Allison, former Chief Engineer for Signals and Control Systems, in one of his interviews for the project summarises the change of technology:

‘As a Signal Engineer you tend to appreciate the history that has gone behind all these systems and why they are there. The equipment itself is very solid and it has an aura of its own. It is definitely Victorian engineering and it is Victorian engineering which has survived into the modern age, so because of that it has a certain attraction. The fact that the instruments are painted bright red, for example, and they have large levers and bells and clunk when they operate is quite satisfying. From the point of view of a Signal Engineer though, providing a safe operation to the railway, they really have had their day. In terms of improving train operations by putting in modern signalling, not only do you make it safer but the trains no longer have to waste time changing staffs and you can provide a better service for the travelling public.’

The final project included an 18-minute video, a 47-minute compilation audio CD, transcriptions of all interviews and a summary report. The use of multi-media formats to present the historical information allowed the project to cater for a wider range of audiences with different access requirements,  and is particularly aimed at younger generations for whom short video formats are easily accessible and can be viewed online.

The completed project has since been recognised through two industry awards, receiving a highly commended heritage award for research and publications at both the NSW National Trust ‘Heritage Awards’ and the Engineers Australia ‘Colin Crisp for Excellence in Engineering Heritage’ in 2015. The completed project, titled ‘End of the Line’, is now available for free public viewing and download on Sydney Trains website:




Oral history with immigrant narrators

by Carol McKirdy | December 9, 2015


Practicing Oral History with Immigrant Narrators, just published in the US, is a new title by Australian oral historian Carol McKirdy.

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In my professional life I have two great loves: my work as a teacher of adult second chance learners and my work as an oral historian. I’m also a trained history teacher and enjoy teaching it immensely. I became an oral historian as a direct result of teaching my adult students, most of whom have a recent migrant and second language background. Through formal educational interviews and during class I heard their stories. Their histories were important, not just personally, but for a broader audience because they were often illustrative of how people experience major world events such as war, diaspora, poverty, civil unrest and resettlement. For numerous reasons, some students wanted to formalise the telling of their stories and oral history is an ideal means, especially for emerging English users. A book I’ve recently had published by US publisher, Left Coast Press, Practicing Oral History with Immigrant Narrators, is based on my experiences with immigrant narrators. The book is part of a series Left Coast Press has on oral history for specific scenarios. For example, US academic Sharon Raynor’s book, currently being written, focuses on interviewing war veterans.

Practicing Oral History with Immigrant Narrators is a practical guide to interviewing people with an immigrant background. My first oral history project collected histories of students from diverse cultures and was published as both oral recordings and as literacy and language learning materials, based on the narratives and mapped to curriculum, for other second chance learners. I expanded my oral history work with several projects with narrators for whom aspects of immigration are irrelevant. Through working as an oral historian I realised that for immigrant narrators and communities there are important considerations and I describe them in Practicing Oral History with Immigrant Narrators.The book covers features that I believe are essential when working with immigrant narrators: how to engage effectively with a unique community and cultural variances, trauma and its impact on an oral history interview, the importance of being acutely aware of the English language, its vagaries for emerging English speakers and the way it is used in an interview, how to use an interpreter and using images effectively and creatively. There is also an introduction to oral history, a guide to executing a project step by step, five case studies from the USA and Australia including the extraordinary work of Denise Phillips with Hazara people and the vast and groundbreaking documentation of the history of Greek people in Australia by Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis. A case study of an oral history project with a Cambodian narrator who experienced life during Pol Pot’s regime is included to demonstrate how such a complex interview can be effective within a framework of language difficulties and the presence of trauma.  

The book’s photos illustrate the text. I love all the photos but my favourite is the picture of a narrator’s wife. The photograph has seawater stains from his time spent as a refugee in an overcrowded Vietnamese fishing boat adrift in open ocean before being rescued by a passing American ship. The original photo is one of the narrator’s most treasured possessions and I am so grateful he allowed its publication.

One of the ideas behind the Practicing Oral History Left Coast Press series is that someone without experience should find the series’ books comprehensive for their particular need. My book is practical rather than academic in tone. It is, however, professionally academically referenced and also has an index, glossary, resources list and practical appendices. Since writing the book I’ve continued my work in this field; working with the Chinese community in the Sutherland Shire to create an oral history legacy and currently I’m recording the voices of people from the various countries in South America who have made the Sutherland Shire their home. I’ve also been working with narrators from Cambodia.

For more details and to buy the book, visit here


Brand new - a third edition of The Oral History Reader

by Alistair Thomson | November 28, 2015


A welcome update to this classic title

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Rob Perks and I have just published the new, third edition of The Oral History Reader, a comprehensive, international anthology combining major, ‘classic’ articles with cutting-edge pieces on the theory, method and use of oral history.

Twenty-seven new chapters introduce the most significant developments in oral history in the last decade to bring this invaluable text up to date, with new pieces on emotions and the senses, on crisis oral history, current thinking around traumatic memory, the impact of digital mobile technologies, and how oral history is being used in public contexts, with more international examples to draw in work from North and South America, Britain and Europe, Australasia, Asia and Africa.

Here’s what reviewers had to say…

'The Oral History Reader continues to be an invaluable resource for students and teachers of oral history, covering a broad range of themes and providing a comprehensive source of theoretical and practical information for, and from, oral historians around the globe.
– Sue Anderson, University of South Australia and President of Oral History Australia

'The first two editions of The Oral History Reader have been a key text for successive generations of oral history students and practitioners. The thoroughly updated third edition will have the same essential status with today’s interviewers. Comprehensively covering all aspects of oral history theory and practice, Perks and Thomson ensure that the classics of oral history writing sit side by side with the best of contemporary scholarship.'
– Andrew Flinn, University College London, UK

'An accessible text suitable for any university-level oral history course, The Oral History Reader condenses oral history’s full complexity through a range of articles, some classics in the field, others pushing new boundaries. All ask provocative questions that will engender important discussion and critical debate, and will well prepare students who venture out into the field.'
– Elise Chenier, Simon Fraser University, Canada


More information and ways to buy here.

Positive feedback for OH NSW workshop

by | November 28, 2015


OH NSW's most recent Capturing Memories workshop received enthusiastic reviews.

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'As an active member of my local historical society, I have interviewed people about their recollections of places and landmarks of historical significance within the community. The workshop was an ideal opportunity to broaden my understanding of oral history and enhance my interview technique. The mock interviews were a fantastic way to put into practice the knowledge and skills acquired over the course of the day. In the future, I hope to establish an oral history project in my local community. Conducted in a highly professional manner, I would recommend the workshop to anyone who has an interest in preserving local history.'

That's feedback from Kathryn Millar, a participant in the Capturing Memories workshop conducted by Janis Wilton, Andrew Host and Sandra Blamey on October 10.  Some other comments:

'I gained a greater understanding of how to conduct a recording and the importance of ethics.'

'Great refresher on preparation for interviews.  Handbook and resources notes very useful as reference tool.'

'I gained reassurance that my interviewing processes are on track and also an appreciation of the broader context of oral history.'

This popular practical workshop will be run again in 2016.

Robert Moynhan interviews Kathryn Millar at the workshop. Photo: Sandra Blamey

USA Oral History Association Annual Meeting

by Carol McKirdy | November 27, 2015


Carol McKirdy was at the conference this year, one of three Australians who made it to Tampa, Florida for this major event in the OH calendar.

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America’s major oral history conference (known as the Annual Meeting), organised by the USA Oral History Association, was held October 14-18 in Tampa, Florida at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel. I was one of three Australians to attend and I also gave a paper. After a plane delay which then caused a missed connection, it took me over 30 hours air time to get there but it was worth it. I’d love to go again.

The meeting theme on the power of oral history to uncover links between political and cultural change and to inspire civic engagement interested me greatly because of the projects I do in my own local community. I proposed a paper based on my work as the oral historian for an oral history project with Sudanese refugees and the various sectors in the community who helped Sudanese people in their new Australian environment. It matched the conference theme and was selected. Presenting the project and its important issues of trauma, cultural awareness, and language as it affects an oral history project and involving children among others was an honour in an atmosphere of professional camaraderie.  I loved being with like-minded professionals passionate about oral history and I sensed genuine interest in all the presentations. There was a real sense of aiming for excellence in the field and working with, and learning from, other professionals. The conference tone was academic but not pompous; it was learned but practical as well.

It was also a fun meeting. There was a complimentary Newcomers’ Breakfast which offered a great chance to network with a range of participants including some of America’s most influential people working with oral history. I especially loved the Speed Networking session; I was a bit nervous about it because Speed Dating is definitely ‘after my time’. I had no idea how it worked but it turned out to be a great way to learn about different aspects of oral history and meet and make new oral history friends and colleagues … fast. Being moved on approximately every five minutes was amusing and made us speak concisely. The various performances based on oral history were fabulous. My favourite was a movie called Trash Dance based on oral histories with Austin, Texas garbage collectors. There was a poster displays event with visual representations of projects and book and equipment exhibitors. There were optional tours, special interest group meetings (I attended K-12 Education) and workshops that were an additional cost. I attended Introduction to Video History and learned a lot. Sessions started at 8:30 !! with doors closed a few minutes later. There were 116 sessions to choose from in addition to keynote speakers, several plenary events and the performances. There were many hundreds of attendees and we were very busy, I managed to leave the Marriott Hotel once. The conference was expertly run.

Overall, possibly the nicest part of being in Tampa for the 2015 Annual Meeting was its friendliness. At every session I attended strangers introduced themselves. Being in an exciting setting of learning more about knowing someone’s story and preserving it was great.

I was successful in receiving an international scholarship from the conference organisers and that was a much valued fantastic help because as we all know the Australian dollar isn’t so friendly at the moment for Aussies in the US. International and American scholarship recipients were acknowledged and congratulated at the Newcomers’ breakfast and also online on the US Oral History Association website - a kind and appreciated touch.

A book I wrote and published with US-based Left Coast Press, Practicing Oral History with Immigrant Narrators, was released in October so my publisher organised a launch and book signing at an associated event at the conference – that was very exciting and an added personal bonus of attendance.

Attending the conference was professionally rewarding in so many ways; I added to my skills set for practising oral history, made many new and valuable contacts and I was inspired. If you get the chance to attend, I highly recommend attending the US Oral History Association Annual Meeting. In 2016 their meeting also celebrates 50 years as an organisation. The Meeting will be in Long Beach California from October12-16 at the Renaissance Hotel. Calls for proposals open online in November - you'll find details here.

Australian Copyright Council Seminars May 9-11

by | November 25, 2015


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For content creators and copyright managers, social media managers, librarians, archivists, educators, museum and gallery professionals and more - all the infomration you need to manage the complexities of copyright. Book by March 4 for earlybird discount. Find all the infomration you need and download a brochure here.

Family Memories - a seminar with Anna Green

by Scott McKinnon | October 15, 2015


OH NSW's last seminar for 2015 was presented by Victoria University Associate Professor Anna Green. 

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The last OH NSW seminar for the year was held at the Mitchell Library on October 15. Associate Professor Anna Green, Victoria University of Wellington, discussed her recently completed project, Memories within Intergenerational Families. The project explores the importance of family memories to the ways in which the public connects with the past.

Green described the findings, pleasures and challenges of the project, in which she and her colleagues interviewed members of 12 families in the southwest of England. Through separate interviews with family members in differing generations, the researchers explored the stories that were passed down through families and the forms of narrative that provide families with a sense of shared history. 

Although public memorials, heritage sites and other forms of public memory-making have been a significant focus of examination, Green argued that historians have largely ignored the role of family memory in the development of historical consciousness. Her fascinating research encourages us to think of family memories as an important venue for imagining the past.

Audio of the seminar can be heard here.

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