Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awards $343,000 grant to HMML

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December 16, 2009

The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John's University has been awarded a $343,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the cataloging of more than 15,000 Eastern Christian manuscripts digitized in the Middle East and Ethiopia.

This project builds on a Mellon-supported HMML project that began in the 1990s that developed standards for electronic cataloging of manuscripts. A 2008-09 Mellon grant laid the groundwork for this most recent award by refining those cataloging standards for use with non-western manuscripts and devising a model for distributed cataloging of these collections by scholars located in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

HMML is the only institution in the world exclusively dedicated to the photographic preservation of manuscripts, with a particular emphasis on manuscripts located in places where war, social unrest or economic conditions pose a threat to collections or to the communities holding them.

In many cases, the manuscripts digitized by HMML are held by monasteries or churches that are not able or willing to provide outside researchers with access to their collections. By contract with the owners, HMML provides free access to all of its collections, and can make copies of microfilms or digital surrogates for scholarly use. All commercial rights are retained by the owners of the manuscripts.

“HMML’s practice is to photograph all manuscript books (codices) in each collection. Unless the manuscripts are cataloged, however, they remain unknown and inaccessible,” said Father Columba Stewart, OSB, executive director of HMML. “HMML has published numerous printed catalogs of its holdings and has become a leader in the electronic cataloging of manuscript collections, providing web-based access to both legacy and newly-created metadata associated with the hundreds of collections photographed in its field projects around the world.”

HMML’s on-line catalog, OLIVER, which was developed with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is the largest on-line catalog of manuscripts in the world, with over 93,000 catalog entries. The staff of HMML continually studies how scholars use OLIVER in order to improve manuscript access. The new project will expand the availability of HMML’s metadata through new search techniques and sharing of metadata with other projects.

Many of HMML’s digitized manuscripts are outstanding examples of illumination and the art of the book. These Eastern Christian manuscripts also typically preserve traditional bindings. Woven silk and other fabrics were used both in bindings and to protect illuminated pages. These elements of the material culture of the book are becoming increasingly significant in academic study, and HMML’s high-quality digital images permit close study of all of these features.

Most of these collections have never been cataloged. Some have been visited by western scholars and are of obvious significance, but have been little studied. Others have been cataloged in Syriac, Armenian, or Arabic in rare, out-of-print catalogs created a century ago. None have been catalogued electronically.

In its breadth and depth, HMML’s digital archive has become the world’s most significant resource for the study of Eastern Christian manuscripts. For more information about HMML and its online catalog please visit our web site at: