At a 'human library' event, people's real-life stories are an open book


Here at PressReader, we are big fans of libraries and the many resources that they allow their patrons to access, from books and periodicals to digital resources such as online catalogs of academic journals — and, of course, digital news platforms like PressReader itself.

Of course, one of the greatest resources we can tap into is the knowledge and lived experience of other people. Talking to people from various backgrounds is not just a great way to learn, it's also a way to build bridges between communities, challenge ourselves and shatter stereotypes.

Creating a safe space

That's the idea behind the Human Library, a not-for-profit platform founded by Ronni Abergel and his brother Dany, along with colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen. This group hosted the very first Human Library event in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the spring of 2000.

According to its official website, the Human Library's mission is to create a safe space for dialog by hosting conversations "designed to challenge stigma and stereotypes."

Each "human book" is a volunteer with personal experience related to their topic.

The Human Library has "published" its human books in over 85 countries around the globe, hosting both virtual readings and in-person events at libraries, museums, festivals, conferences, schools, universities and for the private sector.

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A truly inclusive institution


In founding the Human Library, Abergel and his cohorts drew inspiration from the role of the public library, echoing sociologist Eric Klinenberg's contention that libraries are critical social infrastructure.

Recognizing the role that it plays in community health and well-being, Abergel believes the public library is "truly the most inclusive institution in our time".

In a 2021 CNN interview, Abergel said:

I had a theory that it could work because the library is one of the few places in our community where everyone is welcome, whether you’re rich or poor, homeless or living in a castle, professor or illiterate.

Don't judge a book by its cover


That same CNN item quotes Charlize Jamieson, a transgender woman who volunteered to share her story as a book in the Human Library because she wants to encourage empathy.

Having an open and honest conversation, Jamieson suggests, can cut through prejudice and increase understanding:

There’s rough edges around people, and people form opinions based on what other people say or what the TV news says. And then you get in front of them, and you’re sometimes like a nail file, filing off those rough edges.

Human Library events around the world

The Human Library website features an extensive list of upcoming events, but here are a few taking place in libraries around the world over the next few months:

  • The Médiathèque José-Cabanis in Toulouse, France, hosts a Human Library event on the third Saturday of each month between 2:45 and 5:45 p.m.

  • Not far from where the Human Library began, the Jelling Bibliotek in Jelling, Denmark, holds its own in-person event on September 2 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

  • On November 2, Ivy Tech Indianapolis NMC Library hosts a Human Library event from 1 to 4 p.m.

  • Stadtbücherei Münster, in Münster, Germany, will give its patrons the opportunity to have meaningful conversations and ask difficult questions of human books on November 18 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

More conversations

The Human Library Organization has actually registered the term "human library" as a trademark, but numerous other institutions and organizations host similar events.

The explicit purpose of a Human Library event is to promote inclusion and diversity by facilitating conversations between readers and human books who often represent marginalized groups.

At many academic and public libraries, however, the purpose of a "living library" can vary, from making available a wide range of librarians who are experts in specific subjects to community elders eager to meet people and share their stories.

Living libraries:

  • The campus library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign offers drop-in consultations with experts on a wide variety of subjects, including anthropology, veterinary medicine, popular culture, biochemistry, environmental sciences, journalism, cinema studies, and even library and information science.

  • The Living Library Project at the New Canadians Centre in Peterborough, Ontario, aims to "share human stories of immigration and integration by highlighting diverse and compelling stories of transition, settlement and belonging." Its resources include a podcast, a video series, and a roster of speakers from different countries who are available for booking.

  • At Toronto Public Library, small business owners can book sessions with librarians who possess expertise about the library's business collections and online resources. These experts can also help entrepreneurs learn more about their target market, the competition, human resources, social media, taxes and more.

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Palaces for the people

Facilitating conversations between members of different communities can be seen as a component of the library's ever-evolving function in society. As we have seen in recent blog posts, the modern librarian fulfills a number of roles — for example, encouraging good digital citizenship, championing intellectual freedom and inspiring environmental stewardship.

We mentioned Eric Klinenberg above; the Helen Gould Shepard Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, Klinenberg is also the author of Palaces for the People.

In that book, he advocates passionately for social infrastructure as a means to fight inequality, polarization and the decline of civic life. Klinenberg reports on the important positions that schools, parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, churches and barbershops hold in keeping citizens engaged.

He makes the case, however, that it's the public library that has the greatest potential for connecting people.

Promoting stronger social ties


In an article he wrote for his publisher's website, Klinenberg noted the following:

During my research, I learned that libraries are not only important for providing books, films, internet access, and other vital information, but also for ensuring a neighborhood’s vitality and promoting stronger social ties. Palaces for the People — a term I borrow from Andrew Carnegie, the great sponsor and champion of libraries around the world — reports on all kinds of surprising programs one finds in modern libraries: virtual bowling leagues for older people who might otherwise stay home alone; early literacy programs for bilingual children and families that can’t afford books; karaoke sessions where children with disabilities sing along with elders who are looking for meaningful daily activities; morning tea-times for unemployed men who are striving to find dignity and respect.

A space to talk about difficult issues

In a recent blog post on utilizing library space for community engagement and recreation, we cited the American Library Association, which defines community engagement as "the process of working collaboratively with community members — be they library customers, residents, faculty, students or partner organizations — to address issues for the betterment of the community."

According to the ALA website, "As champions of lifelong learning, libraries are a place to quench curiosity, access technology, and explore new ideas, hobbies, and careers. Increasingly, libraries also offer patrons a welcoming space to meet their neighbors to discuss and resolve important issues."

If that's not the perfect definition of a living library, we don't know what is.

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