When Ed Leonard helped a Cistercian monastery, Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia to computerise its mail-order fruitcake business a couple of years ago, he realised its monks constituted a "competent and underutilised workforce".
The friendship he formed there with Brother Benedict Simmonds, a former librarian, prompted him to set up a business whose focus is on providing electronic cataloguing and a variety of related services to libraries. Borrowing its name from that part of a monastery where monks traditionally read, wrote and doubtless illuminated manuscripts, Ed Leonard's company, the Electronic Scriptorium, is associated with several monastic orders, including Benedictines, Carmelites and Trappists. The monks and nuns who work on the projects are paid an hourly rate of about £6 per hour, which goes to their monasteries, and the company pays a percentage of its profits to Holy Cross Abbey.
Ed Leonard's need for skilled and educated workers was matched by monasteries' need to find new sources of income. The work fits in with a long monastic tradition, for monks were the first librarians and were responsible for transcribing manuscripts centuries before the printing press.
And while a few monks feel such work is not in keeping with the traditions of their orders, most find the data entry work fits in better with their highly structured lifestyles than other forms of employment.