St. John’s University

Virtual Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

challenge

Since 1965, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University (SJU) has been dedicated to the preservation of manuscripts from around the world, through the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML). Specifically, they have sought out areas where historical artifacts are in danger—whether through disaster, conflict, or other circumstances, their goal is to ensure that these texts remain intact for the future. While printed texts can be found in various libraries and museums, manuscripts are unique, hand-written documents, whose value is endless for scholars of paleography, codicology, and numerous other disciplines. The cataloging of such documents involves taking high-resolution photographs of each page and providing detailed bibliographic information for reference. As of 2017, HMML is actively collecting manuscripts from Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia and a number of locations in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In accordance with the Benedictine tradition, SJU scholars have continually aimed to make use of the best available technologies. Six years ago, they began to seek out ways in which they could incorporate such technologies into their library. Their vision was the Virtual HMML (or vHMML) Reading Room—a unique web application where global scholars could view manuscripts, share research, and work with local, on site staff to archive new materials from active worksites. It was essential that the new format would allow for the digital reproduction and cataloging of manuscripts before they faced destruction. At the time sdg was engaged to help with this project, the effort to create the new system had been underway for over 18 months as a collaborative effort between 3 separate teams who were struggling to produce a viable product. With a large portion of HMML’s grant funded budget already consumed, sdg was faced with the unique challenge of producing a world-class system that provided access to online manuscripts through a seamless user experience that was previously only achieved by viewing manuscripts in-person.

Our client envisioned a system that would:

  • Preserve endangered manuscripts for future generations 
  • Be readily accessible to a global network of scholars and researchers
  • Offer extensive search capabilities, filters, and sophisticated research tools
  • Encourage the addition of new manuscripts and materials from around the world
  • Facilitate curation of new content via workflows 
  • User and asset level access control based on legal agreements
  • Support any device including computers, tablets and phones
  • Provide an intuitive, user friendly experience for viewing, uploading, and editing content
  • Offer tutorials in paleography, codicology, and the interpretation of languages
  • Provide digital rights management for manuscript access control
  • Consume and share with other online manuscript resources
  • Allow for import and export of manuscript meta data
  • Provide performant delivery and long term scalability for serving and storing of high resolution images

solution

In January of 2015, sdg first analyzed the requirements and goals for vHMML. This process involved looking at existing process, data, architecture, infrastructure and technologies. With extensive experience in software development, sdg was able to provide a tailored strategy for completing the struggling project. The strategy outlined current state and a proposed solution with technical recommendations, estimates and resource requirements. With shared understanding of progress to date, future goals, and constraints, sdg was enlisted to implement vHMML. sdg provided user interface and experience design, application development, system configuration, coordinated deployment, and mature software development practices from requirements through launch using Agile delivery processes. Despite limited funding, sdg simplified development and maintenance with repeatable patterns and technology reuse that aligned with HMML’s available resources and could be carried forward by HMML long after sdg’s departure. vHMML was successfully released on time and budget and fulfilled all grant requirements. In addition to delivering on HMML’s initial vision, sdg created data administration tools and configuration management support. The completed application includes the vHMML Reading Room, for viewing continuously updated content and manuscripts, as well as the Legacy Collection, where users can search through HMML’s extensive archives. The HMML School provides free tutorials in transcribing Latin and Syriac scripts and will soon include Arabic, Armenian, Gәʿәz, and Persian. Users can search through manuscripts via key words, author, date, language, writing system, and script. There is also a Lexicon section—a thorough, yet easy to navigate dictionary for terms found within the manuscripts and their bibliographies.

Benefits of the new system included:

  • A new user-centric responsive user interface
  • An extensible framework for managing online lessons
  • Administrative tools and security to manage content creation
  • Comprehensive keyword and faceted search
  • Role and object based security for fine-grained manuscript access control
  • Distributed system that offloads image processing to ensure performance and scalability
  • IIIF compliance to provide interoperability with external resources that conform to IIIF standards
  • Permanent links delivered via w3id.org
  • Integration with 3rd party bibliographic citation tools
  • Custom import/export process to pull data from existing legacy systems
  • Continuous integration pipeline management

The success of this project has led to a trusting, long-term partnership between HMML and sdg.  It has also increased global visibility of vHMML from industry publications and the media at large from sources that include NPR, The Atlantic, PBS and the BBC.

In 2017, HMML again partnered with sdg to create a new website, in anticipation of increased web traffic following a featured story on national television. Updates included an interactive map, manuscript tour, and a stronger, more cohesive visual mission statement.   

sdg consultants served our customer in the following roles:

  • Agile project delivery and management
  • Business analysis
  • Quality assurance
  • UI/UX design
  • Enterprise architecture and application development
  • Infrastructure/DevOps support
  • Documentation and training

technologies used

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