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Learning to Let Go: Changing Patterns of Participation and Learning through the Digital Collections of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS)

Michela Clari, University of Edinburgh, UK

Philip Graham, RCAHMS, UK


For over 100 years RCAHMS (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland) has been charged with recording, interpreting and sharing information on the built heritage of Scotland. In recent years the institution has been involved in a number of online initiatives, both independently and in partnership with other organizations. This paper reports on findings from doctoral research conducted at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with RCAHMS, which investigated over a period of two years, from 2009-2011, the institution’s approach to digital innovation and online practices. In the first part of the paper Michela Clari, who conducted the research, reflects on insights from the study. In the second part, Philip Graham, RCAHMS’ Public Engagement Manager offers an institutional perspective on how the research fed into the institution’s approach to digital innovation, and reports on an range of recent online initiatives which embody the RCAHMS’ new vision.

Keywords: RCAHMS, Canmore, Digital Archive, University of Edinburgh, social media, The Commons on Flickr 


1.  RCAHMS: a study of changing patterns of participation and learning through online engagement with digital collections

RCAHMS ( is an executive non-departmental government body which was established in Scotland by Royal Warrant in 1908. Based in Edinburgh, its brief is to record, interpret and share information on the architectural, industrial, archaeological and maritime heritage of Scotland. RCAHMS is a multi-faceted organization: it is an archive hosting a national record; it is also a museum, in so far as it holds and occasionally puts on display material from its collections. RCAHMS is present on Scotland’s territory through survey activities and active engagement with local communities; also, its publishing function has now expanded beyond its traditional academic usership.

RCAHMS’ overarching vision, as articulated in its current corporate strategy, is ‘connecting people to places across time’ (RCAHMS, 2010, p.3), and one of its key strategic priorities is to widen access and reach a broader usership. In recent years the institution has been involved in several online initiatives, independently and in partnership with other organizations.

Between 2008 and 2012 a doctoral research project, conducted by the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with RCAHMS as part of the multidisciplinary AHRC-funded programme Beyond Text (, investigated the institution’s approach to digital innovation and online practices.

RCAHMS’ first forays into online activities date back to the nineties with the launch in 1997 of the institution’s website and the creation of Canmore, the Scottish national online database of monuments, an integrated computerized heritage information system. A pioneering initiative at the time, Canmore offered then, as it does today, free online access to a wealth of data from older and recent surveys and research, and to an integrated catalogue of RCAHMS' collections also networked with other online resources. Over the years Canmore has grown in size and scope: at the time of writing it includes information about approximately 300,000 archaeological sites, ancient monuments and buildings, maritime and industrial sites throughout Scotland. The archive also contains over 150,000 digitized images from the collections. 

In the summer of 2009, as part of a comprehensive redesign of the RCAHMS’ website, Canmore was upgraded to include, for the first time, Web 2.0-type functionalities enabling the public to contribute original material in the form of comments and digital images; public engagement with the archive is further supported through a link with the photo-managing site Flickr where user-contributed photographs are stored.

Figure 1: Canmore home page

As part of the doctoral research the author (MC) carried out an ethnographic study of RCAHMS and a virtual ethnography of Canmore. This involved the observation of the site over an 18-month period, a visual analysis of the environment, and a qualitative analysis of user contributions over the period under study. All text entries and images uploaded by the public were reviewed, and findings from this work were complemented by quantitative data generated by RCAHMS.

Two main questions guided the investigation: they concerned, first, the nature of the material contributed by online users; second, the quality of contributors’ engagement with the original and new content, with other users and with the institution. A broader question was what could be learnt through an analysis of Canmore, arguably RCAHMS’ most representative digital environment, about the institution’s approach to digital innovation at a time of change and transformation.

Canmore: for the public, by the public  

Canmore was born as an online catalogue; as such, it is site-based, which means that all the information relating to a particular location is organized around that particular item’s record. There is no image browsing facility across records. Anybody can consult Canmore, however, registered users can now access the MyCanmore facility, which enables them to upload comments and images, customize searches, review past contributions and edit or delete images they have uploaded. Users cannot, however, edit text contributions. New material must be uploaded to existing records, as it is not possible to create new records. 

Figure 2: Public Contribution screen

Contributions are accepted subject to stated terms and conditions and are not vetted by RCAHMS staff before publication. As stated in the press release at the time of the Canmore re-launch:

The interactive elements will be self-monitoring. We expect that the majority of entries will come from people who are enthusiastic about Scotland and its culture, and how its story is told through our built heritage

1. (RCAHMS, 2009, p. 2)

Users are, however, invited to report contributions that they consider inappropriate, and RCAHMS reserves the right to remove any material which has been identified as unsuitable or represents a copyright infringement.

User-contributed comments are stored in Canmore, separately from the original material. Digital photographs uploaded by users to the archive are, instead, hosted on Flickr; they can be viewed in the relevant Canmore record as ‘public contributions’, and also as part of the RCAHMS’ photostream on Flickr.

Figure 3: RCAHMS’ photostream on Flickr

In the period under study, from spring 2009 to September 2010, Canmore users contributed around 450 comments and some 2,800 images. While images were significantly more than text entries, the latter were more evenly spread amongst contributors and across sites. Indeed, the top five image contributors were responsible for as many as 40% of all uploaded photographs. In other words, the image contributions activity resulted in a significant enhancement to the record; however, it was mostly led by a small, very active, user base. This pattern has been largely maintained in subsequent times, with image contributions today, in 2012, amounting to 17,000 and comments to 1,200.

A qualitative analysis of text contributions to Canmore in the first year since its relaunch showed that, although visitors to the site are invited to ‘add a comment’, the majority interpreted this as an opportunity to contribute new information to the digital archive in the form of data, references to other sources or corrections to existing records. The material has been found by RCAHMS to be relevant and of high quality. Entries are often written in a descriptive, impersonal style, and mostly focus on factual rather than anecdotal aspects. Table1 below summarizes the analysis’ findings:

Text Contributions


Technical or semi-technical contributions

Technical contribution more informal in style

Entries offering links to other sources or references

Corrections to existing records

Direct references to family history

Personal experiences, memories, observations

Comments to images








Table 1: Text contributions

Only a minority of contributors chose to share personal impressions, stories or memories concerning a place. However, these entries were mostly authored by RCAHMS staff during the pre-launch stages and in the first few months since the launch. Interestingly, staff members are not meant to use the public contribution feature on Canmore, as their task is to act as ongoing professional creators of permanent records. Their contributions, as found among other offerings from the public, served simply to test the system and populate the site prior to and around its launch.

The analysis also found that, out of all the postings, only a relatively small number of contributions, around 16%, refer to images in the archive, equally divided into comments to original RCAHMS images and comments to images uploaded by users. Interestingly, there are virtually no instances of users commenting on images from a purely aesthetic or anecdotal perspective: all entries, albeit written at times in an informal style, contribute some kind of historical or factual information about the site to which the images relate. The only exceptions are, again, occasional contributions by RCAHMS staff, uploaded to the archive during the project’s testing stages.

Consistent with findings from the analysis of comments, images uploaded by Canmore users in the period under study also show an overwhelming predominance of technical or semi-technical contributions, a substantial component represented by aerial photography. These items add data to the information already in the records in a style which complements that of the archive.

Figure 4: Aerial photograph of Cairnpapple henge and cairn (West Lothian Archaeology Group)

As evident from contributors’ details, the majority of items have been posted by a small number of specialist users or organizations, with considerable expertise in Scottish archaeology and architecture, who are active in the field and are already regular users of Canmore

Narrowing the focus on what represents an exception in the image contribution pattern, the study found a small number of images, less than 5% of the total, which buck the general trend by bringing to the record observations about places from a social history or personal perspective. Contributions include digital reproductions of old postcards, also bringing insights into local history.

Figure 5: Old postcard of cottages in Craigie, Perth (Chris Paton)

There are images of past social or work activity around a site:

Figure 6: Margaret Christie at Dysart Linen Mill c1910 (Susan Pirie, great grand-daughter)

There are photographs of recent group activities as part of educational projects: Canmore becomes, in this case, a repository of collective memories and achievements.

Figure 7: Scotland’s Rural Past project participants in Polmaddy

There are also some old family photographs, which offer a social history narrative around the featured places.


Figure 8: The family of Minto House, Scottish Borders, 1924 ('jahjahau')

Interestingly, we find more examples of this kind of contributions among the images than among text entries, as if having an actual artifact to contribute – the photograph – stimulated users into bringing a different perspective to the process. 

These images are rare; they are, however, interesting, as they bring a different flavour to the records by capturing a sense of what life would have been like around a particular site at different times; they tell a more personal story about places with which people feel connected, and about which they hold a unique kind of knowledge. While the contributions by expert users undoubtedly enrich the digital archive from a technical perspective, the often evocative images and the accompanying captions which a minority of users have posted add to the Canmore environment a different quality, ensuring that a piece of history, important to the people who contribute them, finds its place in the wider national narrative. Interestingly, if the majority of items reinforce Canmore’s traditional role as an authoritative data repository, these rare contributions resonate more with that new vision of ‘connection’ which now inspires RCAHMS.

The nature of the engagement

While Canmore contributors did engage creatively with the tools at their disposal – they used headings to structure contributions, tried to link comments and images, introduced new connections between Canmore records and external resources – with rare exceptions, the study found little evidence of active dialogical engagement among users, or between users and RCAHMS.

The reasons behind such lack of collective engagement are to be found, the study suggests, in the highly structured nature of the site’s design. Its multi-layered, site-centred architecture supports a systematic improvement of existing records; however, it arguably stifles, rather than supports, dialogue between users. The separation between commenting and image-uploading functionalities creates a further barrier, as does the lack of browsing facilities. Also, Canmore is very much ‘contained’ in the RCAHMS website, where it is, indeed, described as the institution’s ‘heart’: this leaves little chance for serendipitous online encounters. These structural features are, however, a legacy of the original Canmore’s architecture, and could not have been addressed without a drastic redesign of the whole site, not feasible at the time of the relaunch.

Importantly, RCAHMS’ staff‘s brief is to monitor user activity to spot any controversial contributions, of which there have been hardly any to date; staff do not, however, actively address contributors on the site, liaising with them, when necessary, through separate channels. The institution, therefore, maintains a role of organizer, monitor and silent supervisor of the experience.

Different participation models

The lack of user dialogue around original and new content in Canmore is especially striking if one considers the involvement of Flickr in the project. Flickr users are generally rather vocal: commenting on members’ photographs, sharing, favouring, collecting, are all standard practice; together with the remarkable photographs, this is what makes the site so enduringly popular. Admittedly, contributors uploaded material as users of Canmore, a highly structured, data-rich environment, rather than as members of Flickr, with the latter, in fact, intended primarily as a space for image storage, rather than as a place for social engagement complementing Canmore. Nevertheless, given the shared interest in the subject matter, one might have expected contributors to take greater advantage of Flickr’s commenting facilities, and initiate discussions around the impressive new images.

Precisely this different kind of online engagement dynamics around cultural heritage content were observed in the course of the doctoral research through a study of The Commons on Flickr, which complemented and contrasted the exploration of Canmore.

The Commons is a dedicated space on Flickr where participating heritage institutions display material from their photographic collections that have no known copyright restrictions. Flickr members and visitors are invited to help describe the photographs they find in The Commons by adding tags, notes and comments. The Commons on Flickr is a very successful initiative, widely studied by academics as well as the cultural heritage community (Oates, 2008, Chan 2008, Saunders, 2008, Bernstein, 2008, Cox, 2008, Johnston, 2008, Bray et al., 2011, Kalfatovic et al., 2009).

The study conducted in the context of the doctoral research involved a visual analysis of The Commons’ environment and an analysis of user interaction around an artifact from the Library of Congress’ collections, a photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln. There is no space to report here in detail on findings; however, the study observed the highly dialogical nature of the interaction, users’ creative engagement with the artifact and with the discourse around it, and a role for the institution, original custodian of the artifact, of participant and interlocutor. The analysis certainly confirmed Bray et al.’s observation (2011) that, in the light of the myriad ways users interact with images on The Commons on Flickr, the significance of the type of Web 2.0 collaboration which the experience so powerfully embodies cannot be meaningfully understood through mere hit counting.

The study of The Commons was interesting in so far it highlighted a model of online engagement with heritage content which was fundamentally different from that observed in Canmore. Indeed, while similar in some of their aims and in the tools they use, the two experiences are, in fact, located at what could be described as opposite ends of a spectrum: Canmore’s approach is about granting access to users, enabling them to contribute new, useful information. Users do move centrestage, however, there is no fundamental change in their relationship with the institution, which remains in charge of the experience within an environment which it regulates and controls. If authorship is delegated to users, we see them emulate institutional practices rather than depart significantly from them; nor do we see the institution’s representatives engage in new forms of authorship, or enter into public dialogue with users. Finally, while new content is procured, it goes on to consolidate the original artifact, the record, as if adding pieces to a puzzle.

In the study’s findings, Canmore fundamentally confirms itself as a digital data repository, enhanced by contributions from trusted online volunteers, rather than a space for engagement; digital innovation is embraced from an instrumental, rather than transformational perspective, where traditional practices are enhanced and interoperability improved. Overall, the emphasis is on outputs: more data, more images, helpful links and useful corrections. 

Conversely, even though participating institutions do report many valuable contributions to their collections (Bray et al., 2011), in The Commons, thanks to very different conditions and premises, the emphasis is placed less on outputs and more on process, the engagement experience, with a shift from instrumentality to transformation, from interoperability to serendipity and engagement, from the user as volunteer to the user as participant, from the archive as repository to the archive as place of engagement, from the institution as manager/organizer to the institution as learner.

Having said this, there is no doubt that Canmore represents a successful experience for RCAHMS: with relative little investment, the institution has been able to secure a constant stream of new, high quality material of varied and interesting kinds. At the same time, Canmore embodies an interesting mix of intentions: born from a willingness to open up, tapping into new dynamics of online engagement and their potential in terms of cultural and learning benefits, it also shows a tendency to mirror traditional practices and participation patterns.

At the time of the study, Canmore emerged very much as a metaphor for RCAHMS as an institution in flux, at the confluence of a tradition of analogue practices and digital innovation. Keen to embrace a role of communicator/educator willing to share more with its audiences, to offer an experience of ‘connection’, RCAHMS appeared to be facing a challenge shared by many cultural institutions, namely the ability, as Parry notes (2007), to embrace fully the creative opportunities that online practices now afford. These opportunities might involve engaging more actively with online communities embodying successful models of social learning, and tapping into the motivating potential of digital heritage artifacts as shared online social objects. A move in this direction, however, would require a demanding shift from placing value on what the institution can show as measurable short-term gains – more information added to its records, stronger links with local expert communities, enhanced prestige – to placing value on what users, even the less ‘trusted’ ones, might gain from the process and experience of engagement with their cultural heritage through a live, open digital archive.

In this perspective, Canmore would potentially offer not only a data collection system but also, importantly, an opportunity to spark off a process of engagement by individuals to challenge and re-invigorate the national historical narrative from different and unexpected perspectives. To achieve a genuinely new brand of engagement that taps into the potential of digitality, however, the institution would need to gain a better understanding of the barriers, both cultural and technological, that might still exist around its practices, and how they might be broken down. For this, it would need to learn to let go and explore yet new ways of interacting with its existing and potential users. Interestingly, as the second part of the paper discusses, RCAHMS proved very much up for the challenge.

2.  RCAHMS: current participation and the way forward

The first stage in ‘learning to let go’ at RCAHMS has been to fundamentally rethink the approach to audience engagement, changing from a traditional model of provider-consumer to that of reciprocal ‘partners’. The formal one-way transfer of knowledge from the ‘trusted organization’ to the ‘user’ required change, and MyCanmore enabled this new approach to take shape. Indeed RCAHMS was one of the first national collections in Scotland to enable user generated content on its website. 

Spurred on by the positive experiences of increased interaction with the public through MyCanmore, a User Group was established to create an informal dialogue with the most active contributors. Amongst the issues and suggestions raised, the User Group was keen to submit images directly onto RCAHMS servers, recognizing the ‘value’ of actively sharing these images with the national collection. This corresponds with different models of use of Flickr, already referenced above and discussed later.

The catalyst for RCAHMS embracing the use of social media came in October 2010 with a series of seminars and workshops as part of Digital Futures of Cultural Heritage Education ( Funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, this was a partnership between RCAHMS, the University of Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland where cultural heritage organisations from the UK and Ireland met to discuss the use and research of social media interfaces with museums, galleries and universities. Participants presented a series of innovative projects that meet public expectations of increased user control and interaction with cultural organizations, including the use of crowdsourcing, blogs, mobile phone applications, and social networking sites.

Figure 9: the Digital Futures website

A significant boost to the progression of social media at RCAHMS came with the positive reception by the Chief Executive and senior management, who attended the initial event and were encouraged by the experiences shared by like-minded cultural and heritage bodies. Following this event, a social media strategy was formulated with short, medium and long term goals. This has directly influenced recent online developments at RCAHMS, with social media now at the core of any proposals, whether in partnership projects or improvements to existing services.

Setting up a dialogue and packaging content

Since the end of 2010, social networks have provided a further forum for the public to engage with Scotland’s built heritage through RCAHMS. A clear difference in the use of social networks has been a sea-change in attitude to what constitutes an organizational ‘voice’. When we look at content on the RCAHMS website, this is considered to be an official publication with text and images being edited and approved as part of the standard publication process. In comparison, social media has enabled RCAHMS to engage using a more informal ‘voice’ and to listen in an open, relevant and public way. As well as publicizing the range of RCAHMS work and collections through tailored content such as online galleries, social media has enabled a wider promotion of engagement with the built heritage, forging relationships with new audiences while sharing experiences with existing communities and networks.

The importance of packaging interpretive and relevant online content that audiences can be pointed to through social media has been consistently emphasized. Online galleries of themed images from the RCAHMS collections have proved an excellent way of keeping the website fresh while enabling regular updates on Facebook and Twitter, opening up the collections to a much wider range of audiences. Other ‘snapshots’ are posted which promote the range of work undertaken by RCAHMS, staff at work, surveys, events, exhibitions and tasters of what will appear online in future.


Figure 10: RCAHMS online galleries

Active input from Twitter, and to a lesser degree Facebook, followers has enabled public participation in identifying images and responding to requests for presentations. The importance of participating in (and being seen to be a part of) global social media events such as AskArchivist, AskACurator and DayofArchaeology to connect with existing networks reflects an increasing awareness of such opportunities. These participatory ‘events’ have included links to personal blogs by members of staff, bridging and blurring the definitions of the professional/personal online experience.

When we study activity through Twitter particularly, on several occasions the press have contacted RCAHMS within minutes of making a post. Several useful connections have also been made through sharing experiences of utilizing social media, for example with Voices of the Past in Philadelphia, and other organizations in Scotland and the UK.

Obviously, for a publicly funded body online user statistics are an important metric. But a more qualitative analysis has developed, for example checking referrals from Facebook and Twitter, analyzing possible trends, and investigating search terms. Through Google Analytics and tracking, it has been shown that referrals from Facebook to Canmore are regularly greater than those from Twitter, even though the number of followers is much larger on Twitter (Twitter 2,300 and Facebook 900), with both being consistently in the top 10. The reasons for this might be due to the group dynamics of followers in these social media, with Facebook followers being more ‘aware’ of the existence of RCAHMS, with Twitter followers a more diverse spread of aware users and ‘random’ networks, often happy to read the ‘headline’ but not take it further. 

 When social media attack

‘Letting go’ can, potentially, have its share of drawbacks as RCAHMS discovered in late 2011. The Lost Edinburgh page on Facebook, which gained 20,000 followers in a matter of days along with a degree of press coverage, had downloaded and used hundreds of RCAHMS digital images without permission and with minimal reference. These images are all freely available on the Canmore website, but since licensing conditions prohibit these archive images being posted on Facebook, a request was made to remove them. The resulting negative feedback, along with press coverage of the ‘rise and fall’ of Lost Edinburgh, impacted on the reputation of RCAHMS, with a perception that the images were being unnecessarily restricted. RCAHMS is now in discussions with the Lost Edinburgh start-ups to reach a solution that could build upon the obvious interest in this subject while protecting the intellectual property rights of the owners’ images.

Figure 11: Lost Edinburgh on Facebook

A positive aspect is the clear interest demonstrated in history, heritage, and photographs in general, as well as the ability to share images and interact with other users on Facebook. From an organizational perspective this case also reveals that Canmore is not always suitable for general users who are only interested in browsing historical or themed images of their locality. The value of packaged content is reinforced, enabling these 'casual' users to easily browse images, while more in-depth research and analysis can be carried out by actively searching the Canmore database.

But the question remains: how does a national collection convince the ‘world of Facebook’ that we are all (really) on the same side?

Community Engagement and partnership working

RCAHMS is currently working on several partnership projects which include a major social media element, directly learning from MyCanmore outcomes while meeting the expectation of users.

As part of recent public engagement developments at RCAHMS, there has been a major emphasis on working with communities. Award-winning projects such as Scotland’s Rural Past ( have included the ability for trained volunteers in local communities to upload their own photographs, measured drawings and information to their website, and for trusted participants to upload into Canmore for verification by RCAHMS.

Figure 12: Scotland’s Rural Past website

The current Britain from Above project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and in partnership with English Heritage and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, is creating an interactive website using aerial photographs from the Aerofilms collection. This is a unique archive of international importance that presents an unparalleled picture of the changing face of Britain in the 20th century. A website (launch April 2012) will enable the public to tag and comment on images, create or amend wikis, and upload their own images. There will also be tie-in exhibitions, publications, and direct community engagement through a series of local presentations and workshops.

Figure 13: Britain from Above website proposal

Taking forward a participative 21st Century Inventory has been inspired by and builds on the research already undertaken by Michela Clari entitled “In the hands of the user...” Beyond Text research funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, is enabling the creation of online developments to existing services to improve how users can access, interact with and reuse records, which will be live tested by professionals, academics and the public. Three proposals were put forward for public consultation: 1. an API enabling RCAHMS data be used for innovative development of applications and websites; 2. Canmore image tagging to enable users to add and search for keywords; 3. Thesaurus enhancement to enable users to nominate a Canmore image to represent a site type.

Figure 14: Beyond Text image tagging proposal

Other successful models and precedents of crowdsourcing and APIs have been investigated as part of this project, for example Ordnance Survey OpenSpace (, Addressing History (, The Victoria and Albert Museum (, and the RCAHMS service Scran ( which already has a controlled image tagging facility. A period of consultation and user testing is underway at the time of writing, so it is too early to deduce how these developments have been received. The project will end in February 2012, and feedback will directly influence any new online developments at RCAHMS.


Harnessing the creative spirit of social media

There are several initiatives that are currently being developed, building on the momentum that has already been established in the integration and use of social media. In terms of Facebook and Twitter, RCAHMS is to be encouraged to open up social media to a wider team of staff so that new ‘voices’ relating to specialist subjects such as survey, photography and conservation can be heard, and with further personal and project blogs being established and new connections made with wider networks.

As previously mentioned, RCAHMS’ current use of image hosting on Flickr has been an experiment in user participation. Feedback would suggest moving to a model of hosting these user generated images at RCAHMS instead, which would elevate the ‘status’ of these images in the contributors’ eyes while enabling ‘correct’ use of the Flickr photostream. This could be more readily harnessed to promote and share RCAHMS collection images, enabling comments and discussions to be made and groups to be established. Sharing images with successful existing initiatives such as HistoryPin ( and Retronaut ( are also clear goals, enabling potential new audiences to discover RCAHMS resources and engage with Scotland’s heritage.

Feedback indicates that the Canmore database would benefit from complete restructuring, learning from developments on the Britain from Above and Beyond Text projects and taking on feedback from the MyCanmore User Group, to reconstruct it from a user (not a provider) perspective, and this is actively being investigated.

Developments for a mobile enabled website are already underway for the partnership website Scotland’s Places (, a successful and expanding initiative funded by the Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh, which spans the digital collections of three national organisations (RCAHMS, National Records of Scotland, and National Library of Scotland). The development would enable these collections to be searched on-the-go, providing location-relevant filtered content.

RCAHMS is at an exciting point in time. In just over one year, RCAHMS has come a long way in terms of relaxing control while accepting and adapting to more modern models of user participation and interaction, and this continues to develop all the time. Learning to let go has never been more rewarding.


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