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I tried the solution to "Dissolving shapefiles but retain attribute fields" but my original shapefile (3000 rows in attribute table) has many duplicate values in the field that I want to retain so that the merge overruns the field width. Is there a way to merge only unique field values in the merged attribute field?

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Take a read of the article HowTo: Identify duplicate field values.

From there do the following:

  • set your definition query for the layer you made to FIELD NAME = 0(this will identify all values that are unique.
  • run your dissolve function on the data
  • What will happen to shape associated with field=1 ? – FelixIP Sep 4 '15 at 1:52

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