by Daniel B. Frye
After over a hundred years of conventional service to blind and vision-impaired readers around the world, the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind ceased production of its Braille and cassette versions with its November 2009 edition. This decision has affected 4,200 Braille and 5,400 cassette subscribers living in ninety-two countries. According to Greg Evanina, editor of the magazine since 1994, the publication will continue as an online resource with a weekly email supplement featuring additions to the Website, subscriber letters, and special notices, previously included in the hard-copy versions. As the migration to this new format is made, future content and information about the weekly emails (to start in December 2009) can be found at the magazine's fresh Website, <http://www.matildaziegler.com>; the editor can now be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind was founded in 1907, and for most of its existence it has published a monthly general interest magazine, incorporating articles from a variety of sources. According to Mr. Evanina, Walter Holmes, an employee of a newspaper in Tennessee, was visiting New York City on a business trip in the spring of 1905. Mr. Holmes noticed that New York City newspapers of the day regularly published the wills of wealthy people. He read in the New York Herald an account of a particularly generous bequest, leaving funds to a number of worthy charities, but none of these were charities for the blind. Inspired with an idea and targeting the philanthropic community, Mr. Holmes wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Herald that appeared on May 25, 1905, promoting the need for Braille reading material, indicating that he would be at his business address in the city for two weeks, able to respond to any donors interested in this cause. Matilda Ziegler, mother of a blind son from a previous marriage, saw Mr. Holmes's solicitation and invited him to her home to discuss his idea. She liked his concept and, having inherited money from her former husband, agreed to fund the magazine if he would edit it. Mr. Holmes accepted her challenge and became the first editor of the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind, serving in this capacity until 1946. The magazine has subsequently had only six editors, most serving for fairly lengthy tenures.
Along with the new format, Mr. Evanina says that the magazine will adopt a new editorial focus. "The editorial objective of the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind will be to offer a blindness news service on the Web." He further defined the editorial mission in a follow-up email saying, "The magazine strives to serve, without bias, all people who are blind and vision impaired. Our publication...is a neutral filter of blindness-related news and information. The Ziegler magazine's primary objectives are to inform and entertain."
Blind consumers from across the nation and globe have greeted this decision with dismay and concern. The Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind has been an excellent source for a variety of information and inspirational stories in Braille, particularly in developing parts of the world, where access to Braille is limited. NFB President Marc Maurer has sent a letter of concern about this policy shift to the board of directors of the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind, Inc., the entity responsible for the magazine's production. Individual blind consumers have also registered their disappointment about this development on listservs and in other forums and have urged people to forward their objections to the governing foundation.
Speculation has abounded within the blindness community as to the rationale for this decision. Some have reported that the members of the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation board of directors have decided that the wisest expenditure of its resources is to invest in scientific research promoting sight preservation. Others have characterized the action as a financial decision necessitated by a tough fiscal environment.
Apparently both of these causes have contributed to the suspension of the hard-copy monthly magazine format. During an interview with the Braille Monitor, Editor Evanina said, "The board of directors has decided that they no longer wish to provide the magazine in Braille and cassette formats. This decision is financial. Branching out into the Website arena was my idea, but discontinuing the Braille and recorded editions of the monthly magazine was by no means my idea." He went on to say, "Elimination of these formats will significantly reduce the magazine's expenditures, although I cannot provide you with a specific figure at this time. Please direct questions about finances to the Ziegler Foundation." Mr. Evanina did tell us that the magazine's offices are being closed and that the magazine's three staff members will be working from their homes as of the end of November.
We took the editor's advice and repeatedly invited Cynthia Z. Brighton, president of the Ziegler Foundation board of directors, to participate in an interview or issue a comment. The governing body of the Ziegler Foundation is clearly an insular entity, unaccustomed to responding to any obligation to communicate with those who have patronized the magazine. Mr. Evanina initially declined to provide contact details for President Brighton, but he did forward our email invitation to her once it became clear that our independent efforts to reach her were not receiving a response. The Matilda Ziegler Website does not provide contact details for the members of its governing foundation board. Only after contacting the office of the Connecticut Attorney General and visiting <Guidestar.com>, a Website that profiles nonprofits, were we able to find details for foundation members. In response to our request, the Ziegler Foundation board offered the following terse statement: From its inception the bedrock philosophy of the foundation has always been to make the lives of blind people better. As such, the foundation has two defined goals. The first is to issue grants to scientific research institutes the world over, whose aim is to benefit the blind. By issuing these grants, we have boosted both the quantity and quality of research being performed so that we can potentially help a large number of blind people now and going forward. The board feels that this is where our biggest impact on the lives of blind people lies. Our second goal is to publish content explicitly for the blind. We have provided premier content to the blind for many years and will continue to do so in a medium that will allow us to carry our publishing company into the future.
There you have the comment of the foundation's board of directors. While it appears from this dismissive response that the likelihood of changing this decision is slim, we provide below the contact details for the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation Inc. board of directors so that interested readers can convey their opinions about this decision. The information follows:
Ross Hammond, Administrative Assistant
E. Matilda Ziegler for the Blind Inc.
20 Thorndal Circle
Darien, Connecticut 06820
In closing Mr. Evanina said, "I enjoy the fact that it [the magazine] touches the lives of so many blind people and gives them joy and a sense of community." We can only hope that the magazine, in its new format, will continue to provide these things to the blind people who value it. In the midst of the Braille crisis that is gripping America and the world, we lament the passing of a magazine that, consistent with its founding vision, promoted a wide array of information and entertainment in Braille. We urge the board of directors to reconsider its priorities, considering the scarcity of copy produced in Braille. We urge existing or potential blind patrons to signal their feeling about the effective end of this venerated literary tradition for the blind community. Let our voices be heard.