Braille Monitor               February 2024

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The Blind Encyclopedist

by Tyler Zahnke

Tyler Zahnke From the Editor: I remember that we were roundly criticized by some for sponsoring Erik Weihenmayer in his attempt to climb Mount Everest. What good would it do for the average blind person? Read to the end of this article and see for yourself.

Tyler likes to write and has always wanted to be a contributor to an encyclopedia. He is making his dream come true, and here is his story:
 
I live in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area, and I am a musician, singer, songwriter, writer, and I am one of the only examples in history of a blind encyclopedist. Now, I'm sure there are quite a few of you who are wondering just what an encyclopedist is. According to the online edition of Merriam-Webster, an encyclopedist is "One who compiles and writes for an encyclopedia."
 
You might be thinking that there are millions of people now, both sighted and blind, who could call themselves encyclopedists, given that sites like Wikipedia and Everything2 can receive contributions from pretty much anyone. However, this article refers specifically to professional encyclopedists: people who contribute to and often get paid for contributing to carefully-inspected, academic-quality encyclopedias such as Encyclopedia Britannica, World Book, and New World Encyclopedia. I am proud to say that, after years of being an amateur encyclopedist at crowd-sourced websites, I have taken the next big step, and I am now a paid contributor to New World Encyclopedia. At first I was worried, because I had never heard of any other blind contributors to professional reference works, but luckily I was able to work with them, use their accessible editing software, and there was exactly one accessibility issue that came up, and they were extremely willing to help me through that. But getting to be the blind encyclopedist I am today was quite a journey.
 
Information, and the sharing thereof, has always been a fascination of mine; being born in the late 90s, I was aware of the power of the internet from a young age. Shortly before I went into the third grade, I discovered Wikipedia when looking up fun mathematical facts about Skewes' Number and googolplex, and around the same time, I saw some educational pieces about encyclopedias on a VHS tape of some 1950s Mickey Mouse Club shows. My journey with wiki-based websites and encyclopedias was only beginning; often, when Googling various topics, I would find either Wikipedia, Wiktionary, or the unrelated site WikiAnswers. A few years later, the Fandom site, known at the time as Wikia, intrigued me; they hosted many websites that were like mini-Wikipedias for specific subjects; Harry Potter Wiki, Disney Wiki, Blind Wiki, and so on. The concept of online communities devoted to sharing certain types of information was fascinating. The very idea that there are these sites where members can contribute information by editing the article and submitting the edit, with knowledgeable administrators and experienced editors, who ensure the accuracy of this content, was something I saw as a truly revolutionary concept. When I was in elementary school, I had no idea that Wikipedia was publicly editable, but I was well aware that it was a gigantic trove of information—a collection so large that it would fill several sections of a library if printed! At first, when I was told that Wikipedia was publicly editable, I was shocked; the information on there seemed so carefully written! But, over the following year, I realized how highly structured the site was, and I came to the conclusion that there wasn't much to worry about. However, I researched so much more than encyclopedic topics. Thanks to my love of words, I discovered the Wikipedia-affiliated online dictionary, Wiktionary; because I enjoyed scripts and quotes from movies and TV shows, I discovered Wikiquote; because I enjoyed reading information in a book-like format, I often used Wikibooks to study computer programming. Though I used many websites to get news, especially Google News, I quickly developed a fascination with Wikinews. I was starting to realize that I was becoming one of those wiki people: The people who know that wiki isn't just short for Wikipedia; I was one of those people who knew all the Wikimedia Foundation-owned websites, but I was quickly becoming aware of plenty of completely unrelated wiki sites!
 
Just as I was turning thirteen, I taught myself wiki markup code so I could edit websites such as Wikipedia effectively; I started out editing the above-mentioned Fandom sites, as they were closer to my writing style at the time, as opposed to the more professional style of sites like Wikipedia. Though I still haven't written an article for Wikipedia to this day, I started fixing occasional spelling and grammar errors on Wikipedia within a few months, while doing editing and even administrative duties on some Fandom wikis. Eventually I noticed that there was so much the Internet had to offer as far as wikis go, and Fandom was only a small part of it! As 2010 went on and I continued to be fascinated by today's technology, I eventually came to WikiIndex, a guide to the wide world of wikis on the web. This is where I started to realize that Wikipedia was not alone as far as general encyclopedias that allow users to link from article to article so seamlessly. The now defunct website 1911Encyclopedia was literally an encyclopedia from 1911, specifically Encyclopedia Britannica, that had been pasted into wiki software, and volunteers made the information more connected. But even if you don't count historical encyclopedias, other encyclopedias were being powered by wiki technology, including an extremely liberal encyclopedia called RationalWiki and an extremely conservative one called Conservapedia, as well as a wiki encyclopedia where every article had to be carefully approved by certified experts, Citizendium, which was created by a Wikipedia founder who left the Wikipedia project early on. Encyclopedias started to fascinate me even more, and not just wikis; my favorite non-wiki encyclopedia was the official Britannica website, which always has the latest articles, as opposed to the wiki with articles from 1911. I very quickly learned about the history of wiki technology; very few people realize that there were wikis before Wikipedia, including WikiWikiWeb, a community for programmers, and MeatballWiki, a community for people who enjoyed online communities including wikis. Like many other people, my knowledge of wikis started with Wikipedia, I eventually learned about all the wikis that came before it, though even better were the Fandom wikis, the other similar encyclopedias, and other sites that came after Wikipedia that put different twists on the wiki encyclopedia concept.
 
In June 2010, while I was exploring some of Wikipedia's competitors, especially the ones with a political bias, I would often read about even more encyclopedias and wikis, and sometimes it felt like the more wikis I read, the more wikis I would find! Well, one of these encyclopedias had an article that discussed the history of wiki sites and wiki encyclopedias—New World Encyclopedia! It was said to be an encyclopedia that made use of wiki technology while being checked over and approved by people with academic backgrounds, much like Citizendium. However, according to the article in this other encyclopedia, New World Encyclopedia pays their writers, while the average wiki, even Citizendium, is volunteer-powered. As soon as I read this article, I decided to check out the requirements for a paid writing position at New World Encyclopedia. Though the site had only a fraction of the number of articles that Wikipedia has, each article seemed to have a professional touch to it that most wikis just didn't have. I guess you could say the same thing about something like Citizendium or Scholarpedia, but NWE just seemed to have more articles while still having those professional quality standards.
 
I remember that day in the middle of June 2010 when, after only seeing a couple of its beautifully polished articles, I decided to look at its application form for writers. The form was beautiful and accessible, with several questions that you would expect to see on a job application, including a place to upload a résumé. Of course, at the time, I had no idea how to make/format a résumé, and perhaps at that age I wouldn't have had much experience to put on it anyway. However, the encyclopedia was shrouded in mystery. Sure, anyone could read its thousands of officially approved articles in their entirety for free, but it was amazing to see a website that looked exactly like a wiki encyclopedia, but with no login button! Much like Willy Wonka's factory, those products just kept coming out; yet nobody ever saw anyone go in. It was a feeling of wonder. What kind of wiki doesn't have a login button? You just go on there and read but can't submit anything. Sure, other non-wiki encyclopedias like Britannica are like this, but since this one looked exactly like a wiki, with the table of contents on the article, the "Powered by MediaWiki" banner at the bottom of the site, and so on, I wasn't expecting such professional content and editing from a wiki, and the website started appearing in my dreams at night. I had dreams about being one of the lucky writers invited to contribute to this fine reference work, submitting a great wealth of knowledge related to music, literature, film, television, and technology, emailing with experts in these fields, getting paid every month for my contributions, and learning new things while also providing information so others can learn new things as well. I had a feeling that, once I had experience and a résumé, I would be able to be part of this beautiful yet somewhat mysterious website.
 
As I continued to gather volunteer experience throughout my teens and early twenties, often through contributing to wiki websites like WikiIndex and Encyc, and spreading the good word of accessibility at NFB of Michigan state conventions and other NFB of Michigan-connected events, occasionally I would think back to those dreams of contributing to the New World Encyclopedia. When I was seventeen, I started writing music reviews that would then be forwarded to artists, managers, and producers in the industry. This was my first time getting paid for my writing, though it was mere cents per review since this was just a little task anyone could do without a résumé.
 
Shortly after turning eighteen, I started doing some freelance writing for a content provider, so I got to write custom articles for those who ordered them from the content provider site. In some ways, this experience felt like my encyclopedia dream come true. I got to write articles, sometimes on a small handheld device and sometimes on a laptop, and as soon as the articles got accepted, they were added to my pay table so they would know how much to pay me on Monday. This gig went fairly well until the end of the year, when the company's small staff couldn't manage all of the tens of thousands of writers who were signed up for these gigs. I went quite far while it lasted, going from a three-star writer, picking up random assignments, to a four-star writer with a writing coach. During these gigs, I got to write for everything from news websites to ads for social media, and I even had an opportunity to be a co-author of a novel. But my contributions weren't quite what they were looking for, so they ended up finding another co-writer. The fact that I was in the final two is something I will never forget.
 
I took a brief break from my wiki volunteer writing when my freelancing started, but it wasn't long until I returned to volunteer writing, though less frequently than before. I looked around for other writing gigs, and I even experimented with MyLot a little bit. This is a social media site that shares its advertising revenue with users, but due to my posts not being all that popular, I only got a few cents here and there, similar to the now defunct site Postloop, which pays users to comment on forums and blogs as a form of traffic sharing; users get points, and those points can be cashed in. Still, I did not get paid much, and the content provider freelancing paid more, though it still wasn't much. But all of these experiences taught me a lot about writing for an audience.
 
By 2017 my priorities had shifted, and I was focusing on getting music performance gigs rather than writing gigs. In that year, mostly I did volunteer performing, but due to making connections with various arts organizations, I had my first paying music gig in 2018. At this point, I had gone back to volunteer writing, for the most part for the sake of contributing information to sites that needed it. I wrote for cryptocurrency wikis not having certain coins and programming wikis not having a certain example in a certain programming language, and, on rare occasions, a music website not having information on a certain music company.
 
In May 2019, I finally found a paying gig; I got to write a series about historical music albums for Channillo, a subscription service for books and other written material. However, because I did not have that many subscribers, I did not get paid all that much, though, since the issues are still online and subscribers occasionally still read them, I get occasional residuals, as small as they are.

At this point in my life, I often wanted to do more paying gigs, whether they be writing or performance. I knew I was going to need to take a big step to make myself more marketable; I was going to need to make a résumé!
 
Originally, I was scheduled to do some résumé building work with the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons in 2019. I did pick up a few tips at the time, though admittedly my work with them slowed down a little bit during the pandemic. At least I was starting to feel more confident and independent, and when they offered to help me find internships, I happily accepted, instead of limiting myself to writing and music. Throughout the next few years, I did several internships, including social media for a musicians union, accessibility evaluation and background music searching for a marketing firm, and accessibility evaluation and research for a music school. But at this point I was fully confident to say yes to Selective Case Management when they offered to help me build and format a résumé! By October 2022 I had a completed résumé, though this was followed by some more music gigs, preparation for another internship, and lots of music practice for college. Because I am a music major, and after all of that was out of the way, a technical difficulty that involved needing to wait almost a month for a computer repair shop to receive a part they ordered delayed me a bit. Luckily, right before that technical issue, I put my résumé in a format where it could easily be accessed, and Selective Case Management gave me that little extra push to convince me that my résumé and cover letter were ready to send out to potential employers. So, at the very end of April, I sent it off to the place I dreamed about thirteen years ago—a site that I would still visit occasionally, pleased that it was still online and actively being edited—New World Encyclopedia.
 
Five days went by without a response, but Selective Case Management convinced me to send a follow-up email. I created the email right away, and within a day, I got an email telling me to send writing samples. Being a freelance writer, I had writing sample files prepared for this situation, mostly articles about albums that I wrote for Channillo. I replied with these samples within minutes, and I was surprised to receive an introduction document with a link to the writers’ guidelines and even a paragraph about payment! This made me feel like I had a good chance of being accepted, and on May 5, right before I went to a Cinco de Mayo block party, they told me that within the next few days they would be setting up an account for me! I couldn't believe it! Only people who have been accepted get accounts on this website! I had a spring in my step for the next week, though I was also aware that I had to organize an online festival for an organization for which I was volunteering. This is probably what made my first article for New World Encyclopedia so difficult—the knowledge that I had so much to do besides that. Luckily, within a week, I got the whole article about session musicians complete, though it, like many other New World Encyclopedia articles, ended up having so much Wikipedia content in it that it needed a Wikipedia source template at the bottom, new sections were needed, and a more academic-grade references section to make the article more professional.

Though the first article was frustrating, it was so exciting when I submitted each revision to the site. Being a wiki, the writers-only website was the same kind of interface as a lot of the volunteer writing I had been doing for years, and therefore it was just like the dreams about that site that I had thirteen years ago when I was only thirteen. At the beginning of June, when that paycheck came in the mail, I was so thrilled! Being a wiki, the writing and editing process was perfectly accessible, and I managed to complete the entire article without the editor knowing about my blindness. However, once I had to create the formatted invoice, an accessibility issue appeared. Though I was given a template invoice that I happily edited and made my own, with the editor still oblivious to my blindness, she needed a picture of my signature. Though I can sign my name when told where to sign, taking a picture of said signature would require some assistance, but once the editors realized I was blind, they decided that my email and my name on the document was enough as long as the editor placed her signature on it as evidence that it was an approved invoice. So with that out of the way, it was 100 percent accessible smooth sailing from there!
 
Though the session musician article from May is still my only full encyclopedia article to this date, in June I found out that the encyclopedia also features short definition pages for words. Since the English language and other languages as well are a deep fascination of mine, and I enjoyed many English classes throughout my life, I asked about doing some of these definitions since they are quick, short, and a lot of fun. Since June I have done over seventy-five of these definitions, receiving a paycheck every month since I got accepted. In September, I also got approved to write a Did You Know column. The encyclopedia has had a Did You Know column for many years, and because I am a big fan of collecting fun little factoids, I decided to ask about contributing some. So now I am defining words, collecting fun facts, and hoping one day to write another full article.

My dream of getting paid from home to contribute to a large information collection with nothing but a laptop and an Internet connection was finally realized—not just any collection of information, but the very same encyclopedia I dreamed of as a teenager! Whenever that check arrives in the mail, my face beams with joy, much like Charlie Bucket when he unwrapped that Wonka chocolate bar and, upon seeing the Golden Ticket, realized that he is one of very few people in the entire world to get to see the inside of this mysterious factory. Sure, anyone on the internet can read New World Encyclopedia, but the joy of being fully approved to contribute information and be part of this reference work cited by many a podcaster and YouTuber discussing everything from science to history to religion is tremendous. Sure, there are millions of people who have the right to contribute to Wikipedia, but the number of people with accounts on New World Encyclopedia is in the hundreds, and only sixteen are recognized on the website's community portal as currently active contributors. Being one of these contributors makes me feel like I am an important part of information collecting in the world of professional/academic information, and it gives me the desire to be an inspiration to blind people around the world. Whether blind or sighted, pursuing dreams like computer programming, submitting essays to literary magazines, or contributing to reference works is essential. Doubts, whether due to blindness or other reasons, should not hinder you. Success is uncertain unless you try. After many dreams about the encyclopedia and saying I would try to apply if I only had a résumé, eventually the desire was so strong that I made the creation of my résumé a priority, and here I am today, one of the world's only blind encyclopedists! Sure I may have started out at volunteer encyclopedias like Encyc and Wikipedia, with the slight fear that professional encyclopedias would one day disappear thanks to the volunteer sites, but I pushed through, checked the professional encyclopedias every so often to see if they still existed, and once my résumé and life were in the right place, I went for it! Much like twenty years ago when I learned about a blind man successfully climbing mountains, professional encyclopedias have always been one of my mountains, and every paycheck, email from the editor, or change made to one of my contributions by an editor reminds me that I safely made it to the top of the encyclopedia mountain, and I will continue to create beautiful things on top.

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