Portico Pilot Project Offers Digital Preservation to Underrepresented Community Collections

In recent years, the scholarly nonprofit Ithaka has prioritized advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), both within the organization and in its outward-facing work. As that process evolved, Kate Wittenberg, managing director of Ithaka’s digital preservation service, Portico, saw that its archival conservation mission aligned in many ways with social justice ideals. In summer 2021, she began to identify underrepresented community collections that might be at risk without a preservation strategy, and in 2023 Portico launched a pilot project connecting the curators of those archives to its expertise and resources.

photo of two little boys in suits and hats on street with car behind them, labeled 1956
Two young boys in matching suits and hats; Photograph
Courtesy of Ozarks Afro-American History Museum Online

In recent years, the scholarly nonprofit Ithaka has prioritized advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), both within the organization and in its outward-facing work. As that process evolved, Kate Wittenberg, managing director of Ithaka’s digital preservation service, Portico, saw that its archival conservation mission aligned in many ways with social justice ideals. In summer 2021, she began to identify underrepresented community collections that might be at risk without a preservation strategy, and in 2023 Portico launched a pilot project connecting the curators of those archives to its expertise and resources.

Since 2005, Portico has worked with libraries and publishers to preserve scholarly content, ensuring that it will remain accessible into the future. Digital materials in a range of formats, from text, images, audio, video, and metadata to complex datasets, are stored securely in dark archives that are only “lit up” as needed if the original platforms or formats are compromised in some way—a process that is, ideally, seamless enough that scholars, researchers, and the public are never aware that it has been activated. While most collections are backed up using short- to near-term solutions, Portico’s long-term digital preservation ensures protection, usability, and discoverability that can keep pace with changing technology.

The first collections to sign on to the pilot project were the Emmett Till Memory Project and the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum; Portico is now also working with the Pilbara Aboriginal Strike website and the Bracero History Archive at George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and Against All Odds: The First Black Legislators in Mississippi, managed by DeeDee Baldwin, history research librarian at Mississippi State University. An agreement was recently signed with Invisible Histories, a project that collects LGBTQIA+ archival materials from the southern United States.



With nearly two decades of digital preservation experience to draw on, providing the necessary technical infrastructure for these community collections wasn’t a major issue for Portico. The challenge, rather, lay in identifying those underrepresented collections—material created outside of the traditional library community by individuals or groups without access to long-term preservation services, whether because of staffing, money, or resource issues or simply because they weren’t aware of their options.

The collections Wittenberg wanted to reach were not part of any national database, she told LJ. “There are people doing these amazing projects all over the place, but there’s no way to find them.” She relied largely on Google searches, then dug further to uncover the right person to approach, as most community collections are run by volunteers or family members. When Wittenberg inquired about their preservation strategies, many told her they had material backed up on a disk or external hard drive, so it was up to her to explain why the content was still at risk, and how Portico could help—and, most important, establish an element of trust.

“There is a history of people coming into communities that are working in these areas and taking stuff—appropriating it in inappropriate ways,” she noted. She needed to reassure the content’s curators that the work would be done on a pro bono basis, that they would not be turning over any rights, and that Portico would not allow any other party to access it unless given explicit permission.

“When we’re talking with the groups who’ve taken the time, energy, and resources—and sometimes chunks of their lives—to collect this content, building the trust so that they are comfortable working with you to preserve it is a really big part of this,” she said. “It’s not something that people necessarily think about in a business setting. It’s more about What do you do? What’s the contract? What’s the process once you sign? But a lot of it is a softer conversation that has to do with What’s our mission? Why are we doing this? Why do we care about this? And making sure that everyone’s aligned on those things.”



Wittenberg noted that the reasons for developing a long-term preservation plan often depend on the nature of each archive. “For [some curators] we’ve talked to—and are still having conversations with—it’s often someone in the community who doesn’t have any special expertise,” said Wittenberg. “We need to explain the whole process of what preservation means.”

brick row house exterior with large photographs in front bay windows of Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley

Emmett and Mamie Till-Mobley on the exterior of the house they lived in from 1950–55
Creator: Dave Tell

For others, partnering with Portico is the next logical step. With the Emmett Till Memory Project, Portico’s preservation work continues the path that took the project from a series of physical place markers to an all-digital collection. Its first iteration, launched in 2008, consisted of signage identifying critical sites in the history of Till, a Black teenager who was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of speaking offensively to a white woman. But those markers were repeatedly defaced—knocked over, covered with graffiti, and shot.

“One of the shot signs is now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History—it was filled with 317 bullet holes,” said Dave Tell, professor of communication studies and codirector of the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Kansas, and one of the project’s creators.

Tell has been a scholar of Emmett Till’s murder for 20 years and has worked with the Till family in Chicago for the past decade to help develop a way to tell the story. “In the wake of that vandalism, we had the idea to make a smartphone app. Our logic was very simple: If it’s relatively easy to shoot a sign in rural America, it’s a lot harder to vandalize a smartphone app and a website.”

The site launched in 2016 as part of an app called Field Trip. After two years the project received an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to create a stand-alone version, and in 2021 the project team joined forces with included by FAVOR, a consulting firm with a history of digital design work for the families of civil rights activists, to develop virtual reality and enhanced GPS elements for the project.

Portico’s role in supporting the project involves embedding sustainable practices into the design process, regular maintenance and updates, and an agreement with the Portico preservation service to preserve and make freely available the content of the project in perpetuity. Wittenberg, along with Portico Lead Research Developer Karen Hanson, participates in all the design meetings, ensuring that design choices support a robust platform and has helped Tell understand exactly what the preservation work entails. “Sometimes that doesn’t mean making sure all the things will function as they do now for perpetuity, but it might mean preserving the assets, which will be loaded into new systems in the future,” said Tell. “As long as we can preserve all the digital assets, then in a sense we’re preserving the core of the project.”

Portico’s ask was easier in the case of the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum, which began life in 2003 as a storefront space, created by Fr. Moses Berry, documenting the history of the African American community in Ash Grove, MO. The materials, including photographs, clothing, quilts, furniture, documents, and even slave chains, were donated by families in the area.

Ten years later, Moses Berry’s health began to decline, and he was unable to give the museum the attention it needed. His daughter, Dorothy Berry, was earning her MLS at Indiana University–Bloomington, and decided to transition it to a digital museum as a school project. “It’s an interesting collection, because it’s a vernacular history in that my dad is not a trained historian by any stretch of the imagination,” said Dorothy.

She created the digital site “in the way that anybody without a strong background [in preservation] could do it,” she recalled—“paid however much for the lowest-level Omeka site, took pictures, scanned things, and wrote descriptions.” But by the time Wittenberg called to offer Portico’s services, Dorothy—who currently serves as digital curator for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture—knew exactly why they were needed. “I had experience managing digital projects at a more technical and professional level,” she said. “I jumped at the opportunity.”

Portico was a good partner, Dorothy noted. As her father grew more ill, she had less time to engage with the preservation process. “They were really good at sending regular updates without requests,” she said. “It felt like what they were asking for were things that were truly for the benefit of preservation.”

Often, however, the question of “why have a preservation strategy?” can be answered more simply: Funders are increasingly requiring explicit statements of sustainability. For Tell, who has applied for grants through the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “I came in knowing that funding organizations were asking me a question I couldn’t answer, and I was hoping that Kate and Karen could help me.” They did, and in the process he received an education about best preservation practices, including the need for flexibility in planning a multimedia site to ensure that its components won’t break as technology changes.

Having a preservation system like Portico’s can expand the abilities of small and local collections to grow, suggested Dorothy Berry. “There’s a possibility for it to be very powerful for a lot of institutions, at the community or even personal level, that don’t have the ability to set up preservation in the ways that funders expect you to have before they’re willing to increase support.” Portico could also consider partnering with funders that want to bring in smaller collections, she added.



Together with Hanson, Wittenberg has identified protocols for preserving a range of formats—often several types within the same collection. The collections’ curators send files to Portico’s technical systems team to be ingested into Portico’s archive. Each file is labeled with detailed metadata, so that content will be completely accessible to users when lit up.

“If we’re doing our job right, researchers or students or journalists who are trying to find this material wouldn’t even notice that the [original] archive had disappeared, because it would start coming from Portico,” Wittenberg explained. That seamless process is particularly important, she added, if the content is being used for teaching; the Emmett Till Project hopes to add curriculum material that could be used for a range of grade and academic levels.

Wittenberg hopes that as the number of underrepresented collections joining the project grows, Portico will be able to show its value more efficiently, possibly partnering with cultural organizations that collect underrepresented content but don’t have a long-term preservation framework in place. At the same time, she noted, it’s hard to publicize a dark archive. The original sites are currently open and available, and Portico’s work only comes into play in an emergency.

“That’s the whole problem with talking about preservation—who wants to talk about your life insurance policy?” she said. “The fun story is that you can get to all this stuff because of the incredible work of Dorothy Berry and Dave Tell and the Till family. We’re just there to be the helper in case something bad happens.”

Working with newly created material will help Portico better develop the long-term preservation strategies needed for a variety of evolving media and datasets. The virtual reality pieces of the Emmett Till project, for example—“Are you preserving the elements of the video and then putting them back together if you have to light them up?” Wittenberg wondered. “We’re going to be learning how you handle new kinds of material that you don’t find yet in traditional e-journals or ebooks. But I think you’re going to start seeing it there soon, because I think that these multimedia elements are going to become part of the scholarly publishing process.”

Circling back to the project’s origins in DEI work, the implications beyond simply preserving unique collections are becoming increasingly urgent, Wittenberg noted. As some states legislate against academic DEI curricula and mandate which titles are permitted in school libraries, and instances of cyberattacks increase, preservation can represent a larger issue—“preserving history so that it can’t be destroyed, regardless of the political or social environment in which we’re living,” she said. “I feel that in this environment, the act of preservation—I don’t want to overdramatize—but it’s taken on new importance because—when are things safe? They’re safe, in some sense, when a third party has them in a dark archive, that, so far, is not affected by the sort of politically motivated activity that is undermining access.”

The project, she added, “is something we’re committed to. But it’s a slow process. And it’s going to be going on for a while.”

Author Image
Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing