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Today, a gift.

If you live in Tennessee, there's a valuable perk you should know about. In fact, you've already paid for it with a few cents a year of your tax dollars.

I was reminded this week of a hidden treasure called the Tennessee Electronic Library (https://tntel.info/), which is the digital equivalent of a pot of gold.

Just this week, I used the Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL) to:

» Look up census records about my paternal grandfather.

» Read a three-day-old article in USA Today.

» Research the Pyramids of Giza to help our sixth-grader with a world history project. (Try it: It feels good ditching Wikipedia for the World Book Encyclopedia.)

» Help gather study materials for our 16-year-old who plans to retake the ACT.

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Mark Kennedy

Then, there are other parts of the TEL I might someday use: like a career-transitions section that helps with drafting resumes and locating job openings.

I also can learn up to 100 languages or research genealogy records for free through a database called HeritageQuest. A native Middle Tennessean, it was interesting to learn that the entire digital archives of the Nashville Tennessean recently became available on the TEL, too.

The TEL, a collection of 70 databases, will be 20 years old next year. It is maintained through a yearly $1 million appropriation from state government and about $800,000 a year in federal funds, according to Chuck Sherrill, Tennessee state librarian and archivist. Interestingly, former state Sen. Ward Crutchfield (D-Chattanooga) was an original sponsor of the enabling legislation.

Spread across Tennessee's 6.7 million citizens, the cost of the TEL comes out to about a quarter per person per year. If the TEL were a vending machine, people would be lining up to drop quarters.

"One of the big savings it provides is buying in bulk for the whole state," says Sherrill. "If individual libraries purchased access (to the same databases) they would, in aggregate, be paying 10 times more. We can negotiate."

What's the catch?

Well, the only catch for users is that it is available only to Tennessee residents. Through digital magic, the TEL can tell if it is getting pinged by an in-state IP address. If you are accessing from outside the state, you are out of luck. Georgia has a more limited electronic library called Galileo (http://www.galileo.usg.edu/welcome/) .

As a newspaper editor, I used to steer young reporters to the TEL. Don't let the word "database" intimidate you. It just means a collection of searchable information.

The TEL, which has a brand new web page, is pretty easy to navigate once you poke around a little. It can be accessed by home computer, tablet or smartphone; and usage is up. In 2012, TEL logged about 8 million full-text retrievals. By 2017, that number had climbed to 17 million a year, according to Andrea Zielke, TEL administrator.

If you are news junkie, like me, the TEL provides access to several national and regional newspapers. For example, The New York Times, Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution are all part of the "newspaper" section. Articles are presented text-only with a three-day lag, but still, it's a great (and cheap) resource. One day this week, I read a 2015 New York Times article called "36 Hours in Chattanooga." Magazines are part of the TEL, too. I sampled a piece on home-selling apps from the Economist while browsing last week.

So the next time you need to help with homework, or get a job, learn a new language or kill a few minutes reading magazine articles, you know where to turn.

Bookmarking the TEL is a no-brainer for big-brain Tennesseans like you.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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