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The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : The Parchment-Less Office Comes to the Monastery Via Computer : Enterprise: Data-entry work is in keeping with their medieval tradition of transcription.

July 20, 1994|From Washington Post

When the monks at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., need guidance, they usually turn to God. But no amount of prayer could help them decipher the computer system a donor had given them to improve their fruitcake sales.

For that help, the Cistercians turned to computer specialist Ed Leonard, an acquaintance from Loudoun County.

Within months, Leonard had streamlined the production and sale of the mail-order cakes. But, seeing how easily the monks adapted to using computers made him wonder whether the keyboard--not the kitchen--might be their most promising source of income.

So Leonard started a much more ambitious project: He quit his job as an executive for a computer equipment maker and two years ago founded the Electronic Scriptorium, a Sterling, Va.-based business that farms out data-entry work to monasteries across the country. Most of the work involves creating electronic card catalogues for school and university libraries.

"The response has been overwhelming," Leonard said. "The monastic community has embraced us. Right now, I have more monks than projects for them."

Several monks say such work not only helps pay their monastery's bills but also fits monastic tradition. They point out that monks were the first librarians, responsible for the manuscript transcriptions by which important writings were copied and distributed in medieval times.

"Our work with the Scriptorium is very much in line with the tradition that made monasteries communication centers," said Brother Benedict Simmonds of the Berryville monastery, who has served as its liaison with Leonard's company. "This work is part of the evolution of monastic usefulness. . . . It's an idea that's so right it goes on like a light bulb."

Leonard expects to handle 40 to 50 projects this year. Some monasteries have bought computer systems just to work on those jobs; others had already been using computers for tasks such as typesetting and stained glass designs. Some monks find data-entry work more compatible with their structured lifestyle than previous forms of employment.

Father Thomas Baxter, who runs the Monastery of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem in Chicago, said the monks enter the data at their own pace, between song and prayer, and now have more time than they used to for meditation.

Still, Leonard's enterprise has not been without controversy. Some monasteries have ruled that such work is not in keeping with their austere regimens. Others have balked at working with certain companies, such as military contractor Martin Marietta Corp., on moral grounds.

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