University of Pittsburgh
July 21, 2015

Pitt’s David J. Birnbaum Awarded Marin Drinov Medal

The medal is the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ highest honor for foreign scholars

Katie Fike


PITTSBURGH—When a computer browses books written hundreds of years ago in Bulgarian monasteries, what does it notice that human readers may not? What patterns can the computer decipher that might reveal unforeseen literary meanings and cultural insights?

University of Pittsburgh scholar David J. Birnbaum has devoted his scholarly career to combining the powers of computing and literature, and he has developed tools that are allowing humanities scholars worldwide to advance their studies.David J. Birnbaum and Academician Stefan Vodenicharov at the award ceremony

The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences recently awarded its highest honor for foreign scholars to Birnbaum, whose work in Slavic studies has included building a digital library containing hundreds of medieval Bulgarian manuscripts. Birnbaum, chair and professor of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures within Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, received the academy’s prestigious Marin Drinov medal, which recognizes contributions to Bulgarian science and culture.

Birnbaum was nominated for the Marin Drinov medal by Professor Anisava Miltenova, director of the Department of Old Bulgarian Literature within the Institute of Literature of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Birnbaum’s contributions to the field of linguistics and literary criticism of the Slavonic manuscript heritage include helping to standardize the representation of early Cyrillic writing in a way that makes it possible to develop search programs for electronic publications and dictionaries. Academician Stefan Vodenicharov, president of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, presented the Marin Drinov medal to Birnbaum at a June 8 ceremony in Vodenicharov’s office.

“My nomination and selection to receive this award is a great honor for me and an important recognition of the importance of the collaborative work I have been able to pursue over the course of more than two decades with the Institute of Literature of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences,” said Birnbaum.

For his PhD dissertation in the mid-1980s, Birnbaum analyzed the textology and history in Slavic manuscript materials and studied computer-programming languages to create software to manage the manuscript data. He began to collaborate with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Literature in 1994 after attracting its attention with his work with Slavic manuscripts and in the field of digital humanities, in which scholars are “developing their own computational tools so that they can conduct new and improved types of humanities research,” said Birnbaum. 

Birnbaum’s principal project with the institute is the Repertorium of Old Bulgarian Literature and Letters. This website allows researchers in medieval manuscript studies to compare the structure and contents of (at present) 157 miscellany manuscripts, which include 3,244 content items and 1,520 unique content items.

“The main form of creativity in the Orthodox Slavic Middle Ages wasn’t the creation of entirely new works,” said Birnbaum. “It was really the creation of new miscellanies. You picked the works you cared about and created a new miscellany book that combined them.”

Birnbaum has taught at Pitt since 1990 and has chaired the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures since 1996. At Harvard University, he earned a master’s degree and PhD in Slavic languages and literatures in 1980 and 1988, respectively. Birnbaum received a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures from The Ohio State University in 1978. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian at Brown University in 1976.

About Marin Drinov
Marin Drinov was a founder and the first president of the Bulgarian Literary Society, now known as the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Visit for more information about the academy.