The Prenumeranten Project: Digitizing Pre-Subscriber Lists
Elli Fischer, University of Haifa/University of Wroclaw
In the 18th century, authors and publishers began including in their books a list of individuals and institutions who pre-ordered and thereby helped to fund the publication of each book. For the next 150 years, approximately 1,700 imprints of Hebrew books contained such lists, some of which include over a thousand names.
These lists of pre-subscribers, or prenumerantn, contain a wealth of historical information. They document c. 10,000 distinct places of Jewish residence, mainly in Europe, as well as the names of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Each subscription – a specific person, living in a specific place, buying a specific book in a specific year – is a data point in a vast network of cultural interactions.
To date, the only comprehensive attempt to systematize this data is Berl Kagan’s monumental Sefer Prenumerantn [Hebrew Subscription Lists] (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1975). Since most prenumerantn are organized by place, the bulk of this work is a Hebrew alphabetical listing of place names. Each entry contains variant spellings of the place, a list of books whose prenumerantn include that place, and the number of subscribers from that place for the given book. Some entries contain additional information, such as the names of significant personages who lived in that place and regional identifiers to disambiguate similarly spelled places. An index lists all the Hebrew books that Kagan documented, and another index represents Kagan’s attempt to identify each place with a Latin spelling.
Kagan’s work is magisterial but leaves much to be desired. As can be expected of a work compiled by manual labour, it is incomplete and there are misidentifications. Since it remains in book form or PDF, its utility is limited. It does not provide maps or coordinates, so even the Latin-character place names that it provides are not always easily plotted, especially given how much the map of Europe has changed since the book appeared in 1975. Several supplementary volumes of additions and corrections have appeared, most notably Shlomo Katsav, Sefer ha-ḥatumim, 3 vols. (Petaḥ Tikva, 1986–1995). They have not been integrated into Kagan’s original, leaving the full dataset scattered across several publications.
The Prenumeranten Project seeks to build on Kagan’s work in several stages. In the first stage, we will transform Kagan’s book and its supplements into a public, open-source database, which will make the information it contains searchable and retrievable by a variety of parameters. A by-product of this database will be an unequalled gazetteer of Hebrew place names. An in-progress version of this gazetteer can be viewed at: https://blog.hamapah.org/searchable-map-of-hebrew-place-names/ We will go beyond Kagan’s work in that we will record information about the hundreds of thousands of individual subscribers as well. The data we produce will be open source. We recognize that these lists represent only one facet of Jewish culture during the period under study. However, when analysed alongside other datasets – for instance, census records, networks of rabbinic and non-rabbinic correspondence, development of railroads and postal systems, etc. – it will certainly thicken our understanding of the dynamics of Jewish culture.
Users will thus be able to generate corresponding maps (or lists) that profile, for instance, each city and the subscriptions it was “buying” and “selling.” Subscriptions to books by authors from, say, Brody can be aggregated to produce a map. Likewise, subscriptions from Brody to other books can be mapped, whereupon the two maps can be either merged or contrasted. In addition, it will be possible to see chronological dynamics of each of these sets of data. Relationships between any two places, or group of places, will be easily detectable.
We have also found that prenumeranten contain information that Kagan and others have barely touched. For instance, we noticed that some lists are not arranged alphabetically, but instead record place names in a seemingly haphazard order. We hypothesized that in such cases, the order of places reflects the chronological order in which the bookseller visited these places. Thus far, our hypothesis has proven correct in all cases, and accordingly, we have reconstructed the travel routes of these booksellers through several regions of Europe.
The presence of women on these lists is another element that has not been studied. Women appear on these lists both as subscribers and as mothers of subscribers – that is, when subscribers self-identify by matronym instead of by patronym. From what we have gleaned, maskilic works are most likely to have women subscribers, whereas books produced by Hasidic masters are most likely to have subscribers who give their mothers’ names.
The Prenumeranten Project also builds on the work of its research team. The team is led by Prof. Marcin Wodzinski of the University of Wroclaw, whose Atlas of Hasidism and work on spheres of influence of Hasidic courts will enhance, and be enhanced by, the data from prenumeranten. Elli Fischer and Moshe Schorr, the other team members, created the HaMapah project (www.hamapah.org), now part of the E-lijah Lab at Haifa University, with the goal of aggregating and analysing the metadata of responsa, to better understand how networks of rabbinic legal correspondence function and how rabbinic hierarchy emerges.