By Samuel Butterfass
Unknown to many students and visitors to the SJU campus, the lower level of SJU’s Alcuin Library is home to the world’s largest virtual manuscript preservation project.
For over five decades, the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) has been photographing and more recently digitizing manuscripts for preservation from high-risk areas around the world. And the project just got even bigger.
This past summer, HMML was awarded an grant of $323,958 outright and $42,430 in matching funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a federal agency.
“They gave us the full amount that we requested so that was great,” Fr. Columba Stewart, a monk of the Abbey and Executive Director of the HMML since 2003, said. “We applied in an opened competition. It was a very complex process, complicated application. You need lots of letters of recommendation and so on, but we were successful.”
Only about 17 percent of the applicants for the NEH grant were funded.
“The fact that the NEH chose us really helps to boost our
national profile,” Stewart said.
The money will help the HMML to accomplish several of its online development goals.
“This grant will help us improve both [our manuscript education resources and web gallery], keep them current and add a lot of features we couldn’t do in the first round,” Stewart said.
Specifically, the funds will be used to develop Virtual HMML (vHMML) 3.0, a platform for the virtual preservation and study of manuscripts.
After creating the first version of vHMML in 2012 and developing it over the past five years, the virtual library is now home to the largest online collection of resources for the study of manuscript in both Western and Eastern cultures.
The manuscripts are often photographed by local people working with their own heritage. The images get sent back to the HMML where the data is
archived and put online.
“[vHMML] is now up to about 22,000 manuscripts online, and we’re adding hundreds of them every week,” Stewart said. “Eventually it will have well over 100,000 complete manuscripts online—the largest online collection in the world.”
HMML has been preserving manuscripts across the world for over 50 years, but Stewart thinks the HMML’s project has taken on a new significance since he began overseeing the library.
“I became director just as we were starting to work in the
Middle East,” Stewart said. “We’ve spent all these fifty-plus years photographing manuscripts around the world, and many of them are from places the manuscripts have been lost, destroyed, moved and [made] inaccessible, like Syria and Iraq. Now they’re all available online.”
Additionally, Stewart thinks the diverse religious content of the manuscripts has a particular relevance in our modern setting.
“In most of these traditional societies, back in manuscript days, most of what they wrote down was somehow related to religion,” Stewart said. “They’re both Christian and Islamic. It’s an example of how we can work across that great divide.”
Stewart noted that religious texts are not the only types of manuscripts being preserved by HMML.
“There’s also history, scientific treatises, dictionaries and grammars—really anything that [traditional societies] thought was worth writing down,” Stewart said.