Most libraries have shelves overflowing with well-worn paperbacks and hardcover books wrapped in shiny plastic. Late fees and frequent shuffling noises are common. In 2000, a group of innovators in Denmark created another type of library: the human library, or Menneskebiblioteket in Danish. What started as an event designed for the Roskilde Festival has since evolved into a global phenomenon where “readers” can consult a human “book” for half an hour. Each “headline” provides an opportunity for dialogue on difficult issues, a process that the library hopes will help us all “get past one another”.
The first human library was organized by Ronni Abergel, his brother Dany and their colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen. As a four-day event at a festival, the project was experimental. However, over a thousand readers have come to browse the available human books. The books themselves were chosen to represent often misunderstood or stereotypical groups. The initial library was a success that led to the founding of the Human Library Organization, which has since continued lending human books.
There are two ways people can be part of the human library. One can volunteer to be a book and offer first-hand knowledge of an experience or identity. The books are titled simply, actually quite crudely. Among the human library are books titled “Alcoholic”, “Bipolar”, “Depression” and “Convert”. While these titles may seem reductive, the Human Library hopes readers will pick a topic but get to know the book for more than just the cover and title. Volunteer books are willing to share their experiences, a commitment that requires patience, empathy, and a level of comfort in sharing.
Another way to experience the human library is as a reader. Readers consult the books for half an hour and must return them on time. While being respectful, the library creates a space where readers can listen to the stories in the books. Readers are encouraged to ask the tough questions they’ve always asked themselves but never had a chance (or felt was polite) to ask. Specifically, the library hopes it will be “a place where people who would never speak otherwise find room for conversation.”
Of course, no “book” will have exactly the same experience as one that shares its “title”. However, this voluntary human connection offers opportunities to form opinions on issues affecting a community by speaking directly to a member of that group. The Human Library Organization today organizes pop-up events around the world and even has permanent borrow pits in several cities. They also work with businesses as a fairly unique provider of diversity and inclusion training.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t have to meet with a group member to recognize their humanity, learn about their experience, or respect their concerns. However, research has shown that positive interaction with individuals can affect a person’s tolerance and opinions about the group to which that person belongs. As worded by Bill Carney (a human book using the title “Black Activist”) for Forbes, “It’s easy to hate a group of people, but it’s harder to hate an individual …”
He clarified: “I am not pompous enough to believe that a 25 minute conversation with me is going to change anyone. What I’m pompous enough to believe is that if I can just instill the slightest cognitive dissonance, then their brains will do the rest for me. And that will at least force them to ask themselves questions. It is the process of “non-judgment” that is at the heart of the mission of the Human Library.
To learn how to become a book or reader, see Human Library Organization for more information.
The Human Library Organization is a global project where readers can consult human “books” to learn about experiences different from their own.
The mission of the library is to connect people who do not normally meet to discuss difficult subjects on which they have always been asked and thus develop knowledge, tolerance and understanding at the same time.
Human Library Organization: Website | Instagram | Facebook | Youtube
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