Saint Louis University

The Digital Medievalist

James Ginther
James R. Ginther, PhD., associate professor of medieval theology and director of the Center for Digital Theology Photo by Chad Williams

by Marie Dilg

Theology Professor James R. Ginther, Ph.D, has been using a computer to unlock the riches of the humanities for more than a decade. Now, he is developing software to help other academics decipher those riches.

Ginther's interest in transferring print to pixel began at the University of Leeds where he was teaching and digitizing a collection of works written by Robert Grosseteste, a 13th century philosopher and theologian. He finished that project in 2002 after joining SLU's faculty and establishing, along with Jay Hammond, Ph.D., the University's Center for Digital Theology.

"You get some curious looks when you put the words ‘digital' and ‘theology' in the same sentence," Ginther said.

PENpoint Accuracy

The center creates multimedia and electronic projects that support research and teaching in theological studies. The center's research has focused on the digital preservation of historical artifacts that have significant religious or theological meaning. One of Ginther and Hammond's projects was creating an interactive, three-dimensional tour of Italy's landmark Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

"You get some curious looks when you put the words ‘digital' and ‘theology' in the same sentence," Ginther said.

Ginther's latest endeavor, funded by a $510,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is T-PEN, or Transcription for Paleographical and Editorial Notation. Humanities researchers are using this new software tool to transcribe more efficiently than ever ancient unpublished manuscripts that have been digitized.

"To fully appreciate T-PEN you have to understand how cumbersome it is for researchers to transcribe digitized documents," he said. "Usually you're looking up at the computer screen to see the line and then down at the pad on your desk to write notes. It's easy to lose your place. With T-PEN each line of text is presented individually with a text box below that allows you to transcribe the line directly on the screen-no looking away. It makes for a very accurate transcription."

T-PEN transcription
T-PEN at work: This screen shot shows how a researcher is using software developed at SLU to transcribe a digitized manuscript from the library of St. Gall, Switzerland. The on-screen process allows for more accurate transcriptions of ancient documents.

Shared Knowledge

The program also allows researchers to store, export and share their work, which facilitates multi-institution collaboration.

"So the document becomes not just a piece of scholarship but a locus for scholarly discussion," Ginther said.

"While I'm a medieval scholar and have been working mostly on medieval documents, our goal is that anyone working on an unpublished manuscript will someday use this tool."

Ginther said T-PEN is in the initial testing phase with several institutions. Feedback has been good and the software is expected to be on the market in the fall. He is collaborating with several universities on the T-PEN project, including the University of Kentucky and Stanford University.

For further details on T-PEN, go to

Find out more information about the Virtual Basilica.

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