The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 10, Number 1
Feb 1986


Hill Monastic Manuscript Library

Last July this Newsletter reported that the National Endowment for the Humanities had given $400,000 to the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, at St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota. The news notice, under "Grants and Awards," mistakenly put the figure in pounds sterling, omitted one word from the name of the library, and failed to mention that it was a challenge grant, which must now be matched by donations amounting to three times that $400,000. But the biggest mistake was not saying what the HMML is and does. Information published in the December American Libraries and received from the Library itself now make it possible to describe this unusual place.

Here are excerpts from the newspaper article enclosed with other material from HMML:

The Hill Monastic Microfilm [i.e. Manuscript] Library (HMML), in its 21st year at St. John's University, is the only microfilm collection of the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts of most of the monasteries of Western Europe.

In the past decade alone the collection has doubled to more than 21 million pages. The scholar who guards this treasure, Dr. Julian Plante, shows a deep respect for those long-gone monks who painstakingly created each page.

"We have established ourselves as a research center here, and we gladly serve the world," said Plante, director of the library and a research professor of classics at St. John's. "It's common scholarly property and we like people to come and use it, within the rules we have..

The manuscripts date mainly from the 5th through the 15th centuries, although a few are as maw as 1699....

The destruction of World War II convinced Pope Pius XII that the monasteries' manuscript collections should be preserved on film. He asked the Rev. Colman Barry, a Benedictine monk of St. John's Abbey, which is connected with St. John's University, to consider the project. By 1965 some funding had been found, and the Rev. Oliver Kapsner was off to Austria to find and photograph manuscripts.

But many of the monasteries were reluctant to share their centuries-old treasures, and many books were so fragile that merely touching them caused them damage.

Kapsner had a built-in advantage because he was a monk and therefore understood the monastic societies of Europe. He finally found a monastery willing to have its collection filmed: 185,000 pages of the Krememuenster Abbey in Austria....

The HMML collection covers materials from 29 countries, but so far has concentrated its collection in Austria, England, Ethiopia, Germany, Malta, Portugal and Spain. The entire Vatican City collection has been microfilmed for St. Louis University, St. Louis, No., and the Ambrosian Library in Milan, Italy, has been filmed for Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind. Those three collections comprise the major medieval and Renaissance manuscripts of the world. Plante said the three libraries often exchange films to aid scholars.

In the list of the year's events at the Library appear many visits to examine the calligraphy of the manuscripts. Some visitors are working on theses or other research, and some tour the library in groups. For more information, write HMML at the above address, zip code 56321.

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