Answers to the most asked questions.

The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), located on the campus of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, maintains the world’s largest collection of manuscript photographs.

HMML advances manuscript research and scholarly inquiry by digitally preserving, providing access to, and interpreting manuscript collections around the world. HMML places a special priority on manuscripts in regions endangered by war, political instability, or other threats. HMML now preserves approximately 400,000 manuscripts photographed in partnership with more than 800 libraries worldwide, ranging in size from large books to small fragments.

HMML is an acronym for the organization’s official name – Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. The acronym is pronounced HIM-EL.

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.

See HMML History for more information.

HMML was founded in 1965. The idea for HMML was launched in 1964 as the Monastic Microfilm Project 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 monastic leadership of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, were worried that Benedictine patrimony would be destroyed. Later in 1964, the project became a program of Saint John's University, under the name the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library (MMML). Microfilming in Austria began in April 1965. The work quickly spread beyond Benedictine and religious libraries and throughout Europe. A major preservation project began in Ethiopia in the 1970s and, since 2003, HMML has been working in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, as well.

The organization became the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (HMML) in 1975 to honor the business leader and philanthropist James J. Hill, whose family foundation provided key support in HMML’s early years. In 2005, the name was changed to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) 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 heritage that fits its mission. See HMML History.

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 a manuscripts is a copy of a common text, it will often bear unique 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. See Global Operations.

Manuscripts stay with the libraries or repositories that hold them. HMML’s methodology is to partner with libraries and repositories, photograph the manuscripts in place, and then put the photographs online for long-term digital preservation and access.

HMML’s work begins by forming partnerships with each library or repository—agreements that allow HMML to make digital photographs of the manuscripts in their collections and share the digital photographs with the general public.

HMML employs local teams to photograph the manuscripts where they are held, creating digital copies of each manuscript in the collection. If a library’s manuscripts are in immediate danger or if physical access is prohibitive, any relocation of the manuscripts is the decision and work of the holding library or repository.

Copies of the digital photographs are given to the library or repository that holds the manuscripts. Copies of the digital photographs also come to HMML in Minnesota. HMML employs catalogers and other staff to ensure that the digital images of these manuscripts are identified, supported for long-term access, and are made freely available to the public via our website, HMML Reading Room.

HMML has a small collection of printed books and manuscripts (Special Collections) and artwork (Art & Photographs). These are used as teaching collections, and will eventually be fully available online in HMML Reading Room and Museum.

The majority of the works in these collections were gifts to HMML. On rare occasions, HMML will purchase materials. Our focus continues to be working with libraries around the world to digitally preserve rare and endangered manuscripts.

HMML is currently carrying out preservation projects in several countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. See Global Operations.

HMML works entirely with local teams: HMML provides equipment, training, technical support, and payment to local technicians to create preservation images of the manuscripts in a collection. HMML also has regional field directors who provide closer support where needed, ensuring the successful completion of each project. HMML staff also travel throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia 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

The ravages of time, fire, natural disasters, persecution, political upheaval, technological change, and neglect have been the principal historic threats to the survival of manuscripts. Today manuscripts have become targets of 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, Syria, Yemen, and Mali, such destruction has more recently occurred. HMML makes these manuscripts available through its digital platform, providing scholars with long-term access to collections even if they have been relocated, lost, or destroyed.

HMML launched its online platform of digitized manuscripts 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. In August 2016 it launched HMML 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. See HMML Reading Room.

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 researchers and communities of origin.

HMML is a non-governmental, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization. HMML is solely funded by the generosity of the foundations, corporations, and individual donors who support its mission. Service fees charged to scholars for copies of manuscripts constitute less than 1 percent of HMML’s annual revenue, and the majority of manuscripts are made available online and in-person without charge. See Support.

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 HMML Reading Room without charge
  2. They can view them on-site at HMML

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 still digitizes microfilms on demand for scholars but has no plans for a comprehensive digitization campaign for the entire microfilm collection. Some collections cannot be digitized and made publicly available due to agreements with the original repositories. Other collections microfilmed by HMML are now digitally available to the public through originating libraries and in these cases the digital copy is linked to the item in HMML Reading Room. See HMML Reading Room.

For all of its advantages, digital imaging does pose the challenge of long-term archiving and retrieval. Storage media change, as witnessed by the move from floppy disks to diskettes, from CDs to DVDs, from flash drives to whatever is next. 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.

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. See Fellowships.

While not directly involved with physical conservation of manuscripts, HMML often partners with organizations that support this work at its field sites. In addition, HMML provides resources and strategies for the development of local digital archives.

While HMML itself is not a religious organization, it began as a program of Saint John’s University, a liberal arts institution of higher education sponsored by the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey. As part of the Benedictine tradition, HMML extends a welcome to all visitors and supports scholarship and preservation of cultural heritage across the boundaries of religion, culture, language, and geography.

HMML's collections contain more than 90 languages, including Latin, Ge'ez, Syriac, Arabic, Slavonic, Armenian, Malayalam, Sanskrit, and Nepalese, as well as vernacular languages from Europe and Africa such as German, Portuguese, Maltese, Amharic, Bambara, and Fulfulde. HMML's collections will soon have more manuscripts in Arabic than Latin due to the growing collections of Eastern Christian and Islamic manuscripts from the Middle East and Africa. See HMML Reading Room.

HMML preserves images of hundreds of thousands of Christian and Islamic manuscripts from across the globe and is now working to preserve Buddhist and Hindu cultural heritage. Much of HMML’s work has also 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, and Ethiopia) or Christians, Hindus, and Muslims (in 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:

  • A premodern manuscript collection of historic importance
  • At-risk because of its location or environmental conditions
  • Coherent with HMML’s other collections and expertise
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 HMML Reading Room, though you will retain publication and commercial rights. Contact us.

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