The eHillerman Project - An Introduction

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was a noted author from the American Southwest. He wrote both fiction and non-fiction works, but he is best known for his series of criminal detective and mystery novels that take place on the Navajo Nation, in Arizona and New Mexico. A unique feature of Hillerman’s work is how he imbibes his stories with Navajo and other Native American cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Readers of Hillerman’s work have frequently remarked that they take an interest in Hillerman’s work because they love a good detective story, but they become fans of his work because of what they learn about Navajo life and culture.

In addition to being an award-winning author, Hillerman was also a college professor who taught writing and was chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque for many years. In 2005, he formally donated his entire collection of manuscripts and personal papers to the Center for Southwest Research, the special collections division of the University of New Mexico Libraries, with the understanding that they be used for educational purposes, to help students learn about the creative and editorial processes of writing monograph-length works. Hillerman’s papers include four to six completed manuscript drafts for each of his twenty-two novels and eighteen non-fiction works, as well as screenplays, idea notebooks and personal correspondence with his publishers and fans.

With a view toward honoring Hillerman’s wishes, after several years of planning and seeking external funding for the project the Center for Southwest Research began a digital library initiative called the Tony Hillerman Portal, ( which would be a web-based online resource providing digital access to all of Hillerman’s manuscripts and papers, as well as centralizing access to online text and audiovisual resources about Tony Hillerman’s life and work. The overarching goal of the project was to create the most comprehensive information resource about Tony Hillerman that had ever been published, in print or online, accessible through a single website. This goal presented a number of challenges to the project team; not only would the website be a discovery system that provided access to digitized copies of Hillerman’s manuscripts and papers, it would also have to support and integrate a variety of content types and delivery formats, which could be hosted locally or linked to across the Internet. This approach also necessarily implied that a great deal of third-party content would have to be licensed for use on the site.

However, while the website would collocate a variety of media, biographical, historical and literary resources, it was determined that from an information architecture standpoint, the focus of the website – in terms of content presentation, visual theme and end-user navigation - should primarily center on Hillerman’s published works and in particular the manuscript drafts, as these resources would be the substantial digital artifacts for both students and researchers of Hillerman’s work. After discussing what types of tools and features would be required to make optimal use of the online versions of the manuscripts with an advisory group of humanities researchers, it was determined that the manuscripts should be digitized at moderately high resolution (600dpi), and that each page should be made full-text searchable through Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which would also be performed during the initial digitization process. Once technical specifications for the manuscripts were determined, the full scale digitization of the entire manuscript collection was started in September, 2012.

Students and faculty members who utilize archival materials in their research typically enjoy making close examination of artifacts so they can identify features such as author’s marks and editor’s notes – for most archival research, scholars are frequently required to travel long distances to perform detailed examination of archival collections. One of the opportunities identified for the Hillerman portal was to be able to provide a realistic content exploration and document examination experience for end users – providing the comparable level of content manipulation and visual resolution that one would experience if examining the actual manuscript documents at the Center for Southwest Research. Thus it was next determined that the manuscripts should be packaged and made available through an eBook or page-turning type application. Nearly a dozen open source and commercial eBook applications were evaluated, and two were selected for use on the Hillerman Portal. The commercial eBook application, ePageCreator was selected as the general publishing platform for the majority of the manuscripts, while the open source MegaZine3 platform was selected to provide specialized page-turning features. As discussed below, MegaZine3 can also be integrated into the Drupal Content Management System, which forms the basis of the Hillerman Portal website.

In addition to providing a realistic page browsing experience, another requirement for the manuscript eBook platform was the ability to insert inline hyperlinks into the text of the manuscript pages. As mentioned above, Tony Hillerman’s writings include a wealth of ethnographic cultural and religious information about the Navajo and other Native American tribes. Many researchers who are not familiar with the American Southwest are unfamiliar with cultural, historical and geographical references that Hillerman makes in his work. The hyperlink capability provides the ability to enrich the manuscript content, in that definitions, scholarly articles, maps, photographs, audio and video clips can be referenced and made available to users inside each digital manuscript. Thus the Hillerman Portal will serve as both a digital repository of archival materials and an encyclopedia of Native American and Southwest culture, history and geography.

The technological infrastructure of the Hillerman Portal includes a variety of applications that have been integrated to provide a seamless retrieval and access experience for end users. In addition to the eBook packages that deliver the manuscript content, digital audiovisual content hosted on the site is served from a separate Adobe Flash Interactive Media Server. However the core website is a very typical LAMP stack (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) that hosts the Drupal 7.22 Content Management System (CMS). Drupal was selected because of its overall versatility as a CMS and its broad technical and user support community. Drupal can be easily customized with minimal original code, and its modular architecture provides an almost endless variety of plug-ins and add-ons that have already been written by the Drupal community. For example, the Hillerman Portal makes ample use of the Views, Panels and Display Suite modules to create customized record displays and query result lists.

The first phase of the Tony Hillerman Portal was launched on June 14, 2013 at a public event at the University of New Mexico Libraries. The site is now available to the public (, though it is still in its early stages of maturity. Over the next two years the portal team will be adding additional content and features to the site, including interactive online teaching and learning activities which are keyed to support a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of New Mexico. A suite of Digital Humanities research tools will also be released next year that enable researchers to perform online text analysis queries and comparisons. It is anticipated that at the end of the development phase of this project in 2015, the Tony Hillerman Portal will serve to illustrate a variety of archival information discovery and exploration features that can be realized using readily available software tools and applications.