A helping hand that produces mutual benefits

A helping hand that delivers mutual benefits

Some personal reflections on six months of peer mentoring

Last November I volunteered to support The National Archives Peer Mentoring programme which seeks to ‘build relationships between confident digital practitioners and professionals who have limited experience of digital work’.

I saw this as an opportunity to support colleagues but also to develop my own skills. I was delighted to be matched with an individual that needed support to develop the digital preservation workflow at their organisation. A virtual briefing session led by Kevin Bolton and Penny Shapland-Chew from RedQuadrant allowed the mentors to meet and practice mentoring skills and a follow-up session on 27 January brought all participants together and kicked-off the six-month programme.


Ahead of the first meeting I reflected on my own skills and experience. I was conscious that as an archives consultant I was being paid to give advice and direction to the client – but as a mentor my role was to help the mentee review and reflect on aspects to help them identify possible next steps. I wrote myself a few prompts including ‘listen more and speak less’.

The meetings were conducted over zoom which was not as daunting as it may have been pre-covid. It had the added advantage that mentors and mentee did not have to be physically close. Our first meeting gave us a chance to make proper introductions, review the ‘contract’ for working together and to hear the background and context of my mentee’s hopes for the next six months. 

Progress – team marathon not a solo sprint

My mentee shared an ambitious plan of what they hoped to achieve in the next 6 months. In talking through the plan we were able to break this down into distinct phases and as a result we ‘parked’ some aspects like models of access to a future phase allowing us to focus on a shorter list of immediate priorities. Ambition is good and to be encouraged, but should be topped with a sprinkle of realism.  

We quickly got into a pattern with a 1 hour meeting every 2 weeks, always starting with a very simple “How are you?” This would then be followed by the mentee providing an update on what had been achieved or progressed. We talked about a range of topics including advocacy for digital preservation, NDSA levels of digital preservation, DROID, DPC-RAM, talking with depositors and so much more. As we discussed the challenges faced it was easy to forget the achievements that were made including re-purposing a PC as a forensic workstation.

An early priority was to create a digital asset register and having the details about the size and extent of born-digital holdings proved invaluable in a business case to ICT for additional storage space.  Another key success was engaging colleagues, not just in IT but also their line-manager and other members of the team. This increased the profile of the work that was being undertaken and meant that some tasks could be shared or delegated and will be of long-term benefit to the mentee, the team and the institution.

Shared experiences across the programme

Last week saw a final meeting bringing all mentees and mentors together to reflect on the outcomes and benefits of the programme. It was good to hear from the other 14 pairs about their experiences which included digitisation, digital preservation, digital scholarship, digital engagement and collections management activities. Outcomes featured achievements to the mentees respective institutions but also on a personal level with new skills and increased confidence reported by all.

There were a number of reoccurring themes including the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Novice to Know-How training, the importance of the digital asset register, the mentor as a sounding-board outside of the mentees institution, creating workflows, drafting policies and aligning to business cases and archives accreditation. 


I really enjoyed the opportunity. It was easy to turn-off my phone and notifications to ensure my focus was 100% directed on my mentee. An unexpected benefit was the fact that I got to spend some time seeing the challenges of digital preservation from another perspective and this insight will really help me to support other people and other institutions.

Involvement with the programme helped me improve my listening skills and to understand the nuance in questions. So not to ask ‘Why did you…’ with its implied judgement but instead ask ‘What were you hoping for here?’ and avoid ‘fake’ questions like “Did you consider…” which Stanier says is a direct attempt to offer advice with a question mark attached.

I do hope the scheme returns again, as I will once again put my hand-up.

Further reading – two books that helped me 

  • The Mentoring Manual: Your step by step guide to being a better mentor (2014) by Julie Starr
  • The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way Your Lead Forever (2016) by Michael Bungay Stanier

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