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Sir James Murray initiated his first Appeal To Readers in April 1879 (two more were to follow in June 1879 and January 1880), and so set in motion a process which is still undertaken today, albeit in a modified way.
Readers were invited to read books from a list supplied and send in examples of the words they encountered, the ‘raw materials’ as mentioned in the Appeal. Further suggestions of works were also welcomed, in order to get as broad a coverage of the language as possible.
Nowadays we have resources available to us the likes of which the original editors of the OED could only have dreamed. Yet the OED has continued to use Reading Programmes which work in a similar way to the original Appeal To Readers, with a combination of paid and voluntary readers scouring various publications for new words, new senses of words, and, of course, antedatings.