The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library

At Minnesota’s Saint John’s University, the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library has the world’s largest set of resources for the study of manuscript cultures of both East and West.


Dr. Matthew Heintzelman holds an early printed Bible in the storage area of St. John’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota. (photo by Bob Sessions)

After touring the Saint John’s Bible Gallery, I visited the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML), which also reflects Saint John’s commitment to preserving spiritual and cultural treasures.

I was welcomed by Dr. Matthew Heintzelman, HMML’s Curator of Western European Collections and Special Collections. He took me into a climate-controlled storage area to see some of the books and manuscripts in its rare book collection, from illuminated books of hours (medieval devotional texts containing psalms and prayers) to early printed Bibles.

The Saint John’s Bible is our best-known book, but we also have almost 12,000 other rare books and manuscripts and a 7,000-piece art collection,” said Heintzelman.

HMML is particularly focused on preserving manuscripts, which are books and documents written by hand. Each one is a unique creation that has a wealth of information not only in its words, but also in its physical characteristics, from its binding to the materials used in its pages and ink.

Medieval books of hours, which were used for private devotions, are among the treasures in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota. (photo by Bob Sessions)

In addition to its physical collection, HMML has digitized approximately 400,000 complete manuscripts from more than 800 partner libraries across the world, giving priority to texts from regions endangered by war, political instability, or other threats. From Lebanon and Iraq to Mali and Ethiopia, HMML has trained and funded local technicians to help them preserve more than 50 million handwritten pages. These physical and digital collections comprise the world’s largest set of resources for the study of manuscript cultures of both East and West.

“The manuscripts stay in their home libraries, which retain the copyright to the digital images,” explained Heintzelman. “We give them copies of those images, and retain a set for HMML that is made available to the public through our website and reading room.”

The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library has a comfortable lounge and reading area for visitors. (photo by Bob Sessions)

The idea for the HMML came in 1964 with the launch of the Monastic Microfilm Project, which sought to preserve monastery libraries in Austria and Germany. With memories of World War II still vivid, Saint John’s Abbey wanted to make sure that their Benedictine patrimony would be safeguarded from future threats. The work quickly spread beyond Benedictine monasteries to encompass other religious texts, and then broadened further to include many kinds of handwritten manuscripts.

“Today our manuscripts include texts from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism as well as historical records from many cultures,” said Heintzelman. “Our goal is to save what’s in danger of being lost and make it available to scholars and the general public around the world.”

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