The Soul of a Library

The Soul of a Library

Every line I’m about to say has already
been written. Written long before I started this script. Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel contains
every book, article, and poem ever written. It has the script for every one of my video
essays. It has every diary entry you’ve ever scrawled, then torn up out of embarrassment. It also has everything that will ever be written.
The best selling novel of 2029, the acceptance speech of the next president of the united
states, the perfect plot analysis to Death Stranding 2. But mostly, it has a near-infinite amount
of…nonsense The rules of Borges’ library are simple.
Each room is a hexagon, 4 walls filled with shelves. Each wall of shelf holds 160 books.
Each book is 410 pages, each page has 40 lines, each line has approximately 80 characters.
The walls that aren’t filled with books open onto other galleries, identical in dimension. The books have a defined alphabet, spaces,
and periods. And that’s it. Every single tome, 410 pages of those characters, haphazardly
smashed together, from cover to cover. And the library contains every single combination
of letters possible given that ruleset. Are you getting it now? Starting to understand
the scale of this thing? A thousand monkeys smashing typewriters for a thousand years
is a grain of sand on the beach that is The Library of Babel. And as such, the library
has the answers to everything that has ever been wondered and everything that hasn’t. One which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit
fifteen ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line
to the last. Another (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters,
but the next-to-last page says Oh time thy pyramids.
Somewhere in this collection, there is a book that tells your exact future, every event
that will ever happen to you for the rest of your life. As a matter of fact, there are
millions of copies of this book, each separated by a single typo or choice of phrase. There’s
also, somewhere, a perfect guide to the location in the library of the location of the book
that tells your future. Of course, there are also billions of books that will erroneously
claim to be that perfect guide. In Borges’ short story, the library is all
that exists. And, as far as the narrator knows, all that has ever existed. The Library exists ab aeterno. The universe,
with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes…can only be the work
of a god. The Library of Babel is the logical endpoint
on a sort of spectrum of libraries. On the other side, we’ve got the ones we typically
interact with in real life. They’ve got computerized search systems, or card catalogs,
or the dang dewey decimal system. There are librarians who work there but even without
any people, the buildings themselves are designed to facilitate you finding the knowledge you
need. Modern libraries don’t actually want to
have every book ever written available. That would be logistically unmanageable, prohibitively
expensive, and- maybe most important of all- completely unhelpful to people who actually
come to the library to learn things. A big part of the upkeep of a library is actually
taking books out of circulation, what they call “weeding.” There’s actually a hilariously
apt acronym for this process: MUSTY “M is for Misleading, or factually inaccurate.
U is for Ugly S is for Superseded by a new edition or a
much better book, and they last two letters are
T for Trivial and Y for Your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book.
Because they really want this acronym to work.” Public libraries, tending to their paper garden,
are in a constant process of reviewing, removing, and preparing for future growth. This is good!
And necessary! MUSTY books are almost never works in high demand- many haven’t been
checked out for years. But even still, I have a hard time not seeing this process as a little
sad. Even if it’s a history book that refers
to America’s great 48 states, it’s something that someone put sincere time and effort into.
Yeah, it’s probably misleading and ugly and superseded and all of that, but it’s
also something that someone poured their heart into, and that’s hard for me to just cast
aside. There are libraries that agree with this sentiment,
that literally every book has value- though not all of them are real. When I was a kid, I thought the library of
congress had a copy of every book ever written. I desperately wanted that to be true. I didn’t
really care about every book, but I was extremely interested in the fact that they might have
a copy of the animorphs book that was never at my own library. I mean, if anyone is gonna
have a copy of Alternamorphs 2: In the Time of Dinosaurs, it’s gotta be the library
of congress, right? (oh my god it does)
It also has 14 million photographs, 5 million maps, 72 million manuscripts, 8 million pieces
of sheet music. It doesn’t have everything. But I feel like I’d be hard-pressed to think
of something that I couldn’t find in their collection- I mean, they have Alternamorphs
2!! The library of congress is actually held in
a bunch of off-site locations, which makes sense, but I kinda wish it was just one superstructure
of books and records and everything else. In my imagination, the library of congress
is built like The Duke’s Archives in Dark Souls- a groaning tower of books, not built
to be read or categorized or understood accessed. You don’t walk into this room in Dark Souls.
You’re held captive in it. You’re killed, but unlike every other time in the game where
you come back somewhere you’ve been before, this time you wake up in a jail cell in a
tower. And while the key to the cell is fairly easy to get, stepping out of your cell means
reckoning with the colossal weight of the knowledge held here. The Souls games tie a pretty close connection
between unmitigated access to knowledge and madness. In Dark Souls lore, The Duke’s
Archives was given to the dragon Seath the Scaleless, who betrayed his brethren-dragons
and spent his life searching for immortality. And he succeeded! At a price. Somewhere among
the hundreds of thousands of books locked away in the Duke’s Archives, his mind slipped
away. Protecting his own eternal life, and his eldritch collection became the only thing
that mattered. So much so that he turned parts of his library into a prison. Seath isn’t the only victim of his library.
Big Hat Logan, a legendary wandering sorcerer you encounter several times, takes up residence
in the Duke’s Archives. As you could imagine, the draw of all that knowledge was impossible
to resist for a scholar like him. “The tomes stored in these archives are
truly magnificent. A great pool of knowledge, the fruits of superior wisdom, and an unquenchable
desire for the truth.” But just like Seath, he couldn’t handle
it. It’s hard to know how many books he consumed before the last of his sanity left
him, “Or, were you just here? This fascinating
place defeats my sense of time…” but we do know where he ends up- at the peak
of the tower, naked, having abandoned his life’s work under the weight of what he’s
learned. Bloodborne is a game full of unhinged characters,
but no one more than Micolash. “Ahh, Kos, or some say Kosm, Do you hear
our prayers? No, we shall not abandon the dream” Micolash is a scholar who locked himself away
in a nightmare, but it’s no coincidence that your fight with him leads you in maddening
loops through his dusty library. In Bloodborne, you have a counter called “insight”
that ticks upward as you discover more about the hallucinatory world you’re fighting
your way through. With enough insight, you can perform techniques that are more or less
indistinguishable from magic. With enough insight, you can see the monsters that cling
to the spires of the city, hidden in plain sight. It’s not hard to imagine that with
enough insight, you’d end up just like Micolash; cackling among his stores of knowledge, screaming
his supplications for more eyes to learn with. “Grant us eyes, grant us eyes, grant eyes
on our brains to cleanse our beastly idiocy” The opportunities hidden in these massive
stores are irresistable. A few years ago, Harvard discovered that it
had a copy of “Des Destinees de l’ame,” or “Destinies of the Soul,” that was bound
in human skin. There’s actually a term for this: Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. The book in question actually even had an
inscription by the author This book is bound in human skin parchment
on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily
distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human
covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. What’s chilling about this discovery is-
well, everything. It’s a book covered in skin. But what really gets me about it is
Harvard obtained this book in the 30s! Did no one realize what they were holding? Or
did someone know and tucked it away regardless, waiting for nearly a century before it was
discovered again? There have been attempts to catalog every
book. The most recent, and maybe most promising, was by that friendly face who definitely has
never done anything evil, Google. Around 2004, Google started borrowing books from libraries
by the truckload. One by one, a person would flip through the pages of a book while some
very specifically-designed equipment scanned the pages. They did this with 25 million books. Their stated goal was to scan all 129,864,880
books in the world- and that was in 2010, presumably there are more now! But, as often
happens with these enormous tech companies and their perceived-as-unlimited power, they
didn’t check with uhh, laws first. Under the crushing weight of concerns from living
authors, and the inability to figure out what to do with dead ones, Google eventually shelved
the effort. The compendium would have to wait for another time. But here’s the thing- it’s not like they
deleted those 25 million books. Google has billions of perfectly scanned, searchable
pages of rare books and out-of-print ones and maybe even Megamorphs 2: In the Time of
Dinosaurs, and they’re just sitting on a hard drive somewhere. James Somers, who wrote
this fantastic piece in The Atlantic, described it just as I imagined- like the end of Raiders
of the Lost Ark, where these petabytes of data are just rolled into a warehouse and
left there. “What’s standing between us and a digital
public library of 25 million volumes?” Somers asks. A google engineer answered. “You’d get
in a lot of trouble but all you’d have to do, more or less, is write a single database
query. You’d flip some access control bits from off to on.” As powerful as our stories of hoarded libraries,
however, are the tales of their destructions. Most famous of all is likely the library of
Alexandria, a true site that has taken on absolutely mythic status in the hundreds of
years since its destruction, once home to anywhere between 40,000 and 700,000 scrolls. Alexander the Great did not found the library
of Alexandria, although he was the city’s namesake. He was, historically, not a big
fan of them. Alexander’s wars and quest for cultural dominance led him to do stuff
like burn the massive collection of books in ancient Persepolis. The founder of the library came about after
Alexander’s death, thanks to a guy named Ptolemy Soter. And we…honestly, don’t
know a ton about the specifics of the place. It is definitely more real than the Duke’s
archives or the library of babel, but its hyperbolized place in history, its just as
hard to fully understand. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s heard that we
would be livin on mars, sippin space martinis with robot butlers, if only the library hadn’t
burned to the ground. Well, big news! The library didn’t burn
to the ground! Not really. There was a time when it kind of burned. Not
intentionally! See the thing was, there were just too many ships in the harbor and Caesar
was like “what’s the best way to get all these ships out of the harbor” and obviously
the answer is to burn all the ships, and then some floating ash drifted over and landed
on the library and torched some tens of thousands of scrolls. Not great. But the library continued
to function! And the other stories, of crusades by Christian
fanatics or a ransacking by Amr inb al-as and his invading dudes…lemme just say, rumors
of the library’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It’s kinda fun to think of
it as some great tragedy, eons of knowledge destroyed by a stray match. But things just
aren’t that exciting. Most likely it was just a casualty of the
general de-emphasis of Alexandria as a world-important city after it came under Roman rule. There
were other libraries, and so having this one store of all knowledge just wasn’t a priority.
It was eventually destroyed, in one of those good ol wars between people with names like
“Aurelian” and “Zenobia.” But by that time, many of the scrolls had most been copied
or just given away. In Borges’ story, there are cults that live
within the bookshelves that sought to rid the library of all gibberish- that is, almost
the entire library. They would preserve the books that they could comprehend. They would
throw every book into the bottomless void that exists between floors, ridding themselves
of the undeserving in a crusade-like quest for meaning. “Others…thought the first thing to do
was eliminate all worthless books. They would invade the hexagons, show credentials that
were not always false, leaf disgustedly through a volume, and condemn entire walls of books.
It is to their hygienic, ascetic rage that we lay the senseless loss of millions of volumes.” But, as the narrator in the story muses, there’s
no number of books they could destroy that could actually affect the library. When it
comes to almost-infinity, millions of books don’t even qualify as a footnote. But the reason the semi-fictional “destruction
of Alexandria” is so magnetically tragic, the reason I still get a little pang of sadness
when I read about people throwing nonsense books into a void, is that libraries are important
for reasons more than just practical day-to-day knowledge. They’re a way of preserving who
we are, and were, and could be. In our modern day though, there have been
threats of catastrophic losses of libraries- and heroes who have stepped in. In 2013, a group of men swept into the Ahmed
Baba Institute in Sankoré, Mali, a government library. They grabbed thousands of centuries-old
manuscripts threw them into a courtyard, and torched the whole lot of them. The attack was predictable, at least to one
man, named Abdel Kader Haidara. He knew that Al-Qaeda had been sweeping through the region,
incinerating the written history of Mali. He knew that the arson wouldn’t be an isolated
incident. And he that Timbuktu’s Mamma Haidara Library, a collection of manuscripts he fought
tooth and nail to save, could be next. So immediately he starts buying…trunks.
Thousands of trunks. He buys every trunk in Timbuktu, and then he gets metalworkers to
tear apart oil barrels and start welding them back into trunks. Why? Because he’s going
to save his entire library. Some backstory: from around 1500 to 1600,
Timbuktu lived in an absolute Golden Age of writing and research. Scholars wrote endlessly
on astronomy and medicine and law and how to have good orgasms (which was, seriously,
groundbreaking.) And the pages that they wrote on were gorgeous too, with way more flourishes
than your average science textbook. They used different colors of inks, filled the margins
with geometric designs, occasionally even pressing the pages with gold leaf. Timbuktu’s
writers were using the Koran as a jumping-off point to explore basically all the mysteries
of the universe in a legitimately beautiful and expansive way. BUT, as always seems to happen, the golden
age came to an end. Morocco took over Timbuktu and demonstrated a willingness to destroy
books that pushed bibliophiles into hiding. Later, French Sudan occupied and colonized.
Soldiers frequently stole the manuscripts and took them home to display in museums and
private collections. More damaging, though, was the language itself- French became the
language taught in Timbuktu schools, and as such, the manuscripts- written in Arabic-
became inaccessible to more and more people. But there were people who remembered and appreciated
the meaning of those pages, people like Haidara. And after years of convincing folks that the
manuscripts were worth saving, him and other collectors slash librarians were able to compile
a genuinely inspiring collection. And then, after yet another occupation- this time, Al
Qaeda, they realized that the centralized nature of those libraries made them targets.
To save the manuscripts, they were going to have to break up the library. So Haidara and volunteers buy every trunk
in Timbuktu, and then he and other volunteers start packing them. And remember, these aren’t
bound books as we think of them, they’re much closer to stacks of really delicate papers.
But Haidara and helpers are just tetris-ing hundreds of thousands of them into these chests.
AND they’re doing it at midnight, because this was all extremely not cool with the bad
guys and they knew if they were caught, the whole plan- as well as the manuscripts- would
go up in smoke. Eventually, they get everything packed up,
and Haidara sent one of the volunteers- his nephew- to Bamako, with a jeep loaded with
5 chests. The nephew gets harassed at checkpoints and thrown in jail twice along the way, but
eventually makes it all the way to Bamako. He distributes the chests among private houses
in the city, people who have promised to keep them safe and secret. And then he drives back,
and does it again. And again. And again. He drives the 600-mile, checkpoint filled round
trip 30 times. Eventually, even that trip was made impossible
though, and Haidara and the volunteers realized they had only one other option- sending the
manuscripts down the Niger river. You know, a river. Made of water. You ever dropped a
book in the bathtub before? You ever done that with a centuries-old manuscript? 791 trunks got sent down the river, paying
bribes and dodging literal attack helicopters the whole time. But they all made it. Every
single trunk, by land and by sea, made it to Bamako, kept safe by people who willing
to literally risk their lives to protect these books.
The first time I got to pick out a PG-13 movie for myself was at the Morris Public Library
in Minnesota. I was visiting my grandma there over the holidays. I picked out Men in Black. The first time I got to pick out an R-rated
movie to watch for myself, it was also at the Morris Public Library. This time, it was
The Matrix. Though I was usually only up there once a year, that library has power over me.
I wandered around the shelves when it was -15 outside. I spent hours pouring over their
movies. I checked their collection to see if they had the Animorphs that my local library
didn- YES I’M STILL ON THIS BEAT. A few months ago, I was back in Minnesota
and went into the library and literally just coming out of the winter air and smelling
those stacks was like being hit by a uhh, nostalgia truck. I don’t think I realized
how much of myself now is based on the time I spent in these spaces as a kid. And that’s just me as a dorky kid, I can
only imagine the meaning, the self-defining, that could come from a library like the one
saved in Timbuktu. I understand why someone would risk attack helicopters and imprisonment
to save it. In Borges’ story, everyone has defined themselves
by the library they live in- of course they have, there’s literally no world outside
of it. But the philosophies that arise from living inside an infinite library are…weirdly
relatable? Sheer joy at the thought that the answers we’re looking for are out there,
already written down. Followed by the realization that the answers aren’t the hard part, not
really. It’s understanding that infinite collection, wrapping your brain around all
the pieces of information we’ve already discovered, already have access to. Libraries can be intimidating, exclusionary.
They can be MUSTY! But they are, overwhelmingly, beautiful. And
if you’re lucky enough to spend time in one, it will help you know yourself. the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary,
infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible,
secret. My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

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  1. I'll be releasing a full-length video "Director's Commentary" on my patreon for this vid, including lots of ideas that didn't make it in the final cut AND many ramblings on Animorphs.

  2. With respect to the Human Skin book, just consider how many books were bound in leather, especially books older than the 1930s. Why would it be immediately distinguishable as 'human' as opposed to another mammals skin? Our skin without the rest of us is not so unique– just creepy af because of what it is to us.
    To be honest, because animal skin bindings are a pretty regular part of old book collections, I'm more curious why they did notice. (I'll probably look it up and see if someone says)

  3. I read Megamorphs 2: In the Time of Dinosaurs in elementary school! I actually read it before the first one, for some reason. My librarian took alot of personal time and money to track down books that were popular with the kids and put them in the school library for us. She fought for copies of all the Harry Potter books back when they were selling on black markets for thousands of dollars. Librarians are the real heroes

  4. Loved the video! I've always been obsessed by archives and books and libraries and I've always found comfort in being surrounded by books.

    Also, why you gotta hit me with that To the Moon track at the end there?? It was very fitting but also most tracks from that game will make me tear up quite quickly!

  5. Some googling and.. . If that site is true, does that mean we have , the actual near infiniite library of babel O.O ?

    I think its probably generating the entire book clientside but still , its cool !

  6. In just a few years, every person who was alive to tell the tales and horrors of WW2 would have died. The only proof WW2 happened after that period would have been their children, grand children, documents and newspapers written in that era. But who's to say all those documents aren't fake, forged? We have no time machines. Did World War 2 happen, after the day anyone left alive to prove it did died?

  7. I just want to say how I appreciate that you have been incorporating precolonial, colonial and contemporary african history in your most recent videos. I am latin american myself, but studying some of the continent's history in uni had me really intereste lately

  8. I think the topic of preservation in general is really interesting. It would be very nice to hold onto everything, but at some point you run out of space to build the present and future. This is only a practical question with certain kinds of art though, particularly architecture. It also raises the question of how much of a piece's original context needs to be preserved. My hometown was one of the ones where a confederate monument was put up in the 1910s. Part of the 'art' of a statue is where it is placed, but sometimes the cost of keeping something where it 'belongs' is too much. Thanks for giving me a lot to think about with this video.

  9. Jacob, you make some of the most inspiring things about humanity's accomplishments and hardships no one ever talks about. You were the quickest youtube who became one of my favorites

  10. As someone who has worked (and now, as a student, essentially lives) in a quite a few libraries, this actually made me tear up. Libraries are the best and I really wish they were appreciated more

  11. Oh gosh this was an excellent video. I’m lucky enough to actually work at a library, not any big, fancy, important one, just a regular old town library, but it’s nice to hear one speak with such regard to libraries and their place in society from the past to the present. Well done sir.

  12. You know, libraries are all well and good, but I forgot everything you said once For River started playing in the background and my eyes started sweating

  13. Okay what the fuck.

    I see so many internet folks that I like mentioning Animorphs. I always thought that series was really, really niche. But apparently way more people have read those books than I thought.

  14. yet there may be one knowledge above all else that can help save more knowledge than imaginable. ones that are thought to be unsavable, lost forever. how. to do. time travel. to. the. past.

  15. You made me think of the last Animorphs book I read, where all I remember is on the last page it tells of a person who morphed into a cockroach falling (from.. a UFO?) from an impossible height.

  16. i just learned of this strange "library of babel" recently and it just so happened that you would upload this video the next day. youve answered my first questions into a greater mystery. so thanks.

  17. Haidara and his crew be like:

  18. Haidara and his crew be like:

  19. when my anxiety first got really bad, the thing that blew me away about libraries the most was that… they don't have any loitering rules. it's the only public place where you are allowed to exist without serving a purpose, spending money, being a customer, etc. for someone who was convinced that they could not serve a purpose, that's the most comforting concept in the world.

  20. The library of Babel has a book on things such as world peace, infinite energy, and the cure to cancer or every disease for that matter. The sad part is that even if we came across these books, we might not recognize what they are.

  21. the library in my town has nothing but empty shelves and homeless crack heads when they did have books years ago they would charge you on returned books and yell at when youd ask for help i still love library's and my dream is to one day have enough books whether they have been read or not to create a private library of my own i adore books just the same as i adore this video keep it up your videos rock

  22. I recognize that last piano piece… That's from the game To The Moon! What an amazing game that was. A third installment is in the works to be released soon!

  23. I quit my job as a handyman because we had started flipping houses that people had died in, that the family couldn't come claim or afford, and so were left with all of the person's belongings. The marching orders were to always save what could be sold, which felt scummy enough on it's own, but then we got a house of a retired Air Force Captain, who played the trumpet, had a degree in chemistry and dentistry, and just had hundreds upon hundreds of notebooks filled with these weird poems about chemistry, and astronomy, biology, music, war, and how cruel we are to each other.

    I wound up making a giant stockpile of them, and when the guy we were working for came around he got on my case because "Those would never sell at an auction or a yard sale."

    When I explained that I just wanted to save them because it felt wrong to just throw his life away, he went off on me because they were worthless and unless I was going to buy them, he wanted them tossed.

    So, that's how I wound up with dozens of some weird dude's writing sitting in piles in my house, $400 dollars poorer, and unemployed for a while. But it felt right.

    Also, props on a good use of the Gris soundtrack.

  24. As a lifelong reader and library worker since middle school, I absolutely adore this video.

    I'm just disappointed you didn't bring up that one professor in Avatar: The Last Airbender who stayed in the creepy spirit owl's library along with the Dark Souls characters. He's the first character that came to mind when you brought that kind of situation up.

  25. There's something almost surreal about standing amongst the stacks of a library or used book store. For me the intensity of the feeling is directly proportional to the age of the books and chaotic energy of the space. Every cover, every spine wishes to be gently held, to be seen once more by curious and caring eyes.

    I . . . I bought three books at the second hand book store when I simply intended to poke my head in.

  26. great vid as always but extra props for the choice of music, including any track off of chrono cross enhances any form of media tenfold

  27. Abdel Kader Haidara, I shed a tear or two hearing about the drives, then the river shipping, what a man, what a community

  28. Look, if you still want to read Megamorphs 2, then there's an online library which contains exclusively Animorphs pdfs, and it has every novel. Including the awful choose your own adventure ones. have at it friend

  29. I work at a public library, so seeing someone speak passionately on the subject is always meaningful to me <3 As someone whose job description often includes weeding, I admit to having trouble withdrawing books for condition. I have a coworker who will mercilessly mow down a dozen books a day or more, but I'll often give them second chances if they're a little yellow or only kinda bent, haha. And at least in our case, books like that get sent to our fundraising dept and then we sell them for like 2 bucks a pop to raise more money for the library! So in some ways the books continue on, people buy them and they get to enjoy them for a while longer!

  30. Am I crying over the efforts of people trying to save very old books? Yes, most certainly. Being a classicist, saving very old text is quite touching. Literally any old text.

  31. Sometimes I remember I will die without being able to read even half of all there is out there and get so so sad – the thought of there being any place that could hold anything ever written is so amazing, but terrifying. Beautiful video, as always! There's always something touching and haunting about them.

  32. I'm so glad you talked about Google scanning all of those books, more people need to know about this. Yes, what Google did was illegal, and they also scanned recent books without the author or publishers permission, but I don't think what Google were doing was completely corrupt.

    Scanning all the books in every library in the world, and putting all that knowledge onto the internet where everyone can access it, allowing the knowledge to live on forever… even if all we got were old and out of print releases, I'd have loved to see this be a reality, allowing old works to live on with easy access to what those pages hold.
    Perhaps some things are worth breaking the law for.

  33. your channel is always so thoughtful and wonderful & your videos are some of my favorites out of all time's pyramids. thanks for another great 25 minutes that made me feel really smart but also incredibly sad but in a good way!

  34. Beautiful video, Jacob. The final message made me reminisce over times when my younger self would be at his most excited knowing he would get to visit his favorite library.

  35. That to the moon soundtrack at 22:50 gave me goosebumps before i even realized what it was and i had to stop the video to remember from where i heard it.

  36. Weirdly, the only animorphs book I have read is the second. I got it randomly at a book sale and was never able to find the others…

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