Media Resource

2019 Jefferson Lecture: Father Columba Stewart

"These books changed the world because their words were heard. They were taken seriously, seriously enough at times to prompt rebuttal or controversy, admiration or adoption. But they were heard."

—Father Columba Stewart, "Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View," 2019

Father Columba Stewart delivered the 2019 Jefferson Lecture, titled, "Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View," on October 7, 2019. In his lecture, Stewart discussed his commitment to "applying the Benedictine tradition of preserving human thought for the contemporary world." This effort at preservation is part of a broader commitment to listening--to the wisdom of those who came before us, and to each other, in the pursuit of "mutual understanding, the only possible basis for reconciliation and for the resolve to move forward for the common good." The full transcript of the lecture is available here.

About Father Columba Stewart

Stewart, the executive direction of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) has spent 15 years working with international religious leaders, government authorities, and archivists to photograph and digitize ancient to early-modern religious manuscripts, especially those at risk due to war, strife, or economic uncertainty. Stewart has traveled to the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and South Asia to partner with local communities to photograph historic handwritten books and documents in their original context. His work has taken him to some of the world’s most volatile regions, including Syria, Iraq, and the Balkans, to safeguard centuries-old sacred documents from a variety of religious traditions as well as nonreligious texts that record vital aspects of history and culture. In 2013, Stewart forged a partnership in Mali to digitize more than 250,000 ancient Islamic manuscripts and books rescued from Timbuktu.

Grants from the NEH have played an important role in allowing Stewart to digitize these documents and make them available to a wide audience through the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. Thanks to Stewart's efforts, over 250,000 handwritten books and 50 million handwritten pages are now available online, forming the world's largest digital collection of ancient manuscripts.

Learn More

Read an interview with Father Columba Stewart and NEH Chairman John Peede.

Learn more about Stewart's life and work in the Humanities magazine profile.

Read about the history of the Benedictine order and its role in manuscript preservation.

Classroom Connections

A series of eight lessons, for grades 6-8, explores the ancient Malian city Timbuktu and includes a discussion of the production, diffusion, and preservation of precious manuscripts there.