The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), located at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, holds the world’s largest archive of manuscript photographs in both microfilm and digital format. HMML identifies manuscript collections around the world that need photographic preservation. HMML’s archives now contain more than 200,000 complete manuscripts, ranging in size from large codices of hundreds of folios to brief documents consisting of just a few leaves.
HMML preserves and shares the world’s handwritten past to inspire a deeper understanding of our present and future.
HMML’s mission has three major components:
• digitally preserving rare and endangered manuscripts
• archiving, cataloging and sharing manuscripts online
• fostering research on the thought and cultures represented in the manuscripts
HMML is currently carrying out preservation projects in several countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and India. See Places
A manuscript is a book or document written by hand. Whereas printed books exist in multiple copies, every manuscript is a unique creation. Even if copying a common text, the manuscript will often bear information about its owners, about its scribe, or about important events in the places associated with it. The binding itself can say much about the culture that produced it. Typically, HMML works with handwritten texts, or collections of texts, bound into book form. HMML has also worked with archival documents in other formats, especially in Malta, India, and Mali.
HMML was founded in 1965 as the “Monastic Microfilm Library” to photograph Benedictine monastic libraries in Austria and Germany. With memories of World War II still vivid, and fearing the outbreak of nuclear war in Europe, the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were worried that Benedictine patrimony would be destroyed. The project quickly spread beyond Benedictine and religious libraries and throughout Europe. A major project began in Ethiopia in the 1970s, and since 2003, HMML has been working also in the Middle East and India. The name has changed over the years to include the name of the Hill family, who provided key support in HMML’s early years, and most recently in 2005 to its current name in recognition of HMML’s care and display of The Saint John’s Bible and the rare book and art collections of Saint John’s University. The name also makes more explicit the fact that HMML photographs not only monastic manuscripts, but every kind of handwritten material that fits its mission. Read more about the history of HMML.
At one time HMML sent Benedictine field directors from Saint John’s Abbey to live on site to supervise microfilm projects. HMML now works entirely through local teams. HMML provides equipment, training, payment for imaging work, and technical support. Thanks to modern communications technology, HMML can maintain much closer contact with each field project than was possible in the days when airmail was the typical medium. HMML also has regional field directors who provide closer supervision where needed. HMML staff travel regularly throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and India to monitor progress on current projects and to locate new collections for digitization.
HMML applies the following criteria when deciding whether to pursue a new opportunity:
• risk to the manuscripts
• likelihood of obtaining access and permission to photograph the manuscripts
• assurance of appropriate rights to make the images available to researchers
• historical and cultural significance of the collection
• coherence with HMML’s existing and envisioned collections
• volume of material likely to be digitized
Most manuscripts have not survived the ravages of time. Fire, natural disasters, persecution, political upheaval, technological change, and neglect have been the principal historic threats. Today manuscripts have become targets for theft or illegal export, especially in conflict zones. In some locations manuscripts are targeted for destruction by forces intent upon erasing the history and cultural identity of ancient communities. HMML provides these communities with back-ups of their collections should they be lost or destroyed. In some cases, as in Iraq, such destruction has recently occurred. HMML makes these manuscripts available through vHMML, providing scholars with long-term access to collections even if they have been relocated, lost, or destroyed.
vHMML (Virtual HMML) was launched in 2015 to foster manuscript studies. The platform provides resources for learning about manuscripts, discovering new texts, comparing versions of known texts in several languages and tracing the circulation and use of manuscripts across time and cultures. The release of vHMML 2.0 in August 2016 launched vHMML Reading Room, placing tens of thousands of manuscript books and archival documents available free of charge to registered users. Both digital and legacy microfilm collections are searchable by country, repository, author, language, genre, date, features, city or script. Collections are added on a weekly basis. Even uncataloged collections are becoming accessible through vHMML Reading Room, lowering barriers to scholarly access. Explore vHMML.
HMML’s digitization work provides an insurance policy for the owners, who know that the contents of their manuscripts will be preserved even in case of loss or damage to the originals. HMML’s photographs can also provide proof of ownership in case of theft. Providing scholarly access to manuscripts raises awareness of the owning institution or community. Deeper study of the manuscripts increases their significance and value.
In the past, western museums, libraries, and private collectors acquired manuscripts from the Middle East, Ethiopia, and other regions by means that would be considered illegal or at least unethical today. Entire libraries were alienated from their original communities.
HMML believes that manuscripts should remain in their communities and countries of origin. High-quality digital imaging ensures that the contents of manuscripts, including even minor details, will be preserved for centuries to come and readily available for research.
HMML is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization. HMML is supported by the generosity of the foundations and individual donors who support its mission. Service fees charged to scholars for copies of manuscripts constitute less than 1% of HMML’s annual revenue; most manuscripts are studied online without charge.
HMML signs a contract with each owning library reserving publication and commercial rights for the images to the owners. HMML’s goal is to provide free access for researchers while honoring the interests of the owning libraries.
Researchers may have access to the images in the following ways:
1) they can consult the images in vHMML Reading Room without charge
2) they can view them on-site at HMML
3) HMML can provide images of complete manuscripts for download once the applicant has agreed to conditions of use reserving publication and commercial rights to the owners of the original manuscripts. If scholars wish to publish images, HMML will facilitate contact with the owning library.
HMML began its work in 1965 using bi-tonal microfilm, and made the transition to color digital imaging in 2003. Digital imaging offers greater cost-efficiency in production as well as photographs that are much more useful than microfilm because they are in color and are taken at a much higher resolution. Digital images can also be made available to scholars across the world much more easily than microfilm.
HMML digitizes microfilms on demand for scholars but has no plans for a comprehensive digitization campaign for the entire microfilm collection.
For all of its advantages, digital imaging does pose the challenge of long-term archiving and retrieval. Storage media change (floppy disks to diskettes to CDs to DVDs to flash drives to…). HMML has a long-term archiving plan and regularly refreshes its digital data, backing it up in multiple media stored in several locations both on- and off-site.
Yes. If free online viewing in vHMML Reading Room is not sufficient, scholars can order copies of manuscripts for download. Publication of the images requires the permission of the owning library.
Visiting scholars and researchers sustain and inspire HMML’s manuscript preservation work. Their work reminds us that the wisdom preserved by the manuscripts is unlocked only when they are read and studied by those trained in ancient languages and skilled in communicating their discoveries to others. The Heckman Fund at HMML offers stipends to scholars who have not yet established themselves professionally, and whose research cannot progress satisfactorily without consulting HMML’s collections. HMML also offers fellowships to scholars wishing to spend longer periods of time in residence using HMML’s collections: the Swenson Family Fellowship in Eastern Manuscript Studies and the Nicky B. Carpenter Fellowship in Manuscript Studies. See more on the Fellowships
While not directly involved with physical conservation of manuscripts, HMML can help connect its partner libraries with organizations providing such services. In addition, HMML provides resources and strategies for the development of local digital archives.
While HMML’s holdings are primarily related to Christian cultures of east and west, HMML also holds thousands of Islamic manuscripts and is actively developing new projects focused on Islamic material. Much of HMML’s work has been in places of historic cultural interaction among various religious traditions. HMML’s holdings have abundant material on relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews (in Spain, Malta, the Middle East, Ethiopia) or Christians, Hindus, and Muslims (India). Although there are Hebrew manuscripts in HMML’s collections, all known Hebrew manuscripts in the world have been photographed by a project based at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.
Your manuscript collection may be a suitable candidate for digital preservation if it is:
All projects are dependent on available funding and other demands on HMML’s resources. You must allow HMML to make the manuscript images available to scholars through vHMML Reading Room, though you will retain publication and commercial rights. Contact us ([email protected]) for more information.
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Thomas J. Barrett
Dennis Beach, OSB
Chair, HMML Board of Overseers
Lucia Lahiff Crane
President of Saint John’s University
Jim Wm Johnson
Abbot John Klassen, OSB
Sunfish Lake, Minnesota
Joseph S. Micallef
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Richard Oliver, OSB
Arden Hills, Minnesota
Pleasant Valley, Arizona
Tamrah Schaller O’Neil
Saint Paul, Minnesota
William Skudlarek, OSB
Marine-on-St. Croix, Minnesota
Columba Stewart, OSB
S. Linn Williams