Manuscripts can endure for centuries or be destroyed in an instant by fire, flood, theft, or war. Shortly after World War II, a war catastrophic for cultural heritage, Pope Pius XII asked Father Colman Barry, OSB, of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, about the future for manuscript heritage. When Father Colman assumed the presidency of Saint John’s University in the 1960s, he had already conceived a plan in which Saint John’s Abbey would microfilm monastic manuscripts in Europe, store copies in Collegeville, and make them available to researchers. In 1964, the Louis W. and Maud Hill Family Foundation made a crucial gift in support of the project. Foundation director A.A. Heckman recognized the enormous potential of a project to preserve on microfilm every text written and copied before the invention of printing, thereby preserving the classical and medieval handwritten culture of western civilization. With this backing, Father Oliver Kapsner, O.S.B., trekked from door to door of monasteries in Italy, Switzerland, and Austria until the new abbot of Kremsmünster (Austria) told him, “you will begin here.”
In 1973 the work moved to Spain, Malta, and Ethiopia, and later to several other European countries. In recognition of the support from the Hill family, the name was changed to the “Hill Monastic Manuscript Library” in 1976, a name the Library bore until 2004. Microfilm remained the preservation medium until 2003 when HMML introduced color digital imaging to coincide with its new outreach in the Middle East. Since then, projects in more than a dozen countries have added tens of thousands of manuscripts to HMML’s microfilm collection of nearly 100,000 items. Recent grant support from the Arcadia Fund (London) has made much of this expansion possible.
HMML began creating electronic catalog records in the late 1990s in collaboration with international partners. This work was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has made further grants in recent years for additional cataloging and refinement of earlier records. These improvements have supported both the development of vHMML, an online resource for manuscripts studies, and the vHMML Reading Room, through which scholars can access HMML’s digital collections online and free of charge. Work on these projects has been funded through grants from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Henry Luce Foundation, and most recently the National Endowment for the Humanities.
HMML is now much more than microfilm and digital images of manuscripts. In 2004, Saint John’s University placed its historic rare book and art collections under HMML’s curation. Especially notable is the Arca Artium Collection of rare books, art prints, and art objects given to Saint John’s by Frank Kacmarcik (1920-2004), a noted graphic designer and consultant for worship spaces who retired to Saint John’s Abbey as a claustral oblate. In the same year, HMML was given responsibility for the care and display of the original folios of The Saint John’s Bible, a seven-volume handwritten and illuminated Bible in modern English. HMML’s current name, which replaced “Monastic” with “Museum,” proclaims the existence of these other resources–on regular display in the HMML Reading Room, Alcuin Library, and The Saint John’s Bible Gallery–and acknowledges that the Library’s mission of manuscript preservation has expanded greatly beyond monastic libraries and texts alone.
HMML’s purpose is to make these various witnesses to human thought, spirituality, and creativity safe while also making them available to a wide audience. Whether we are looking at a medieval Latin manuscript, a Christian or Islamic text from the Middle East, an early printed book, a lithograph by Picasso or Chagall, or a page of The Saint John’s Bible, each object testifies to what human beings have considered most precious, even sacred. In a world of great cultural diversity, HMML has proven to be a profoundly Benedictine undertaking, applying the injunction from the Rule of Saint Benedict that “in all things God be glorified” to a 21st-century need for understanding and reconciliation.