We Are All Books In The Human Library

Looking at some storytelling resources I came across a related project I was unaware of. The Human Library trains volunteers to be “books” you withdraw to learn something about some taboo/prejudice/discomforting feelings you may have about a topic.  The Human Library tagline is “Unjudge Someone.”

The videos I have found are much better at explaining the process than any written materials I managed to come across.  The project was started in 2000 in Denmark by Ronni Abergel whose TEDx video is the first below. They have spread the idea to 84+ countries. The library project collects human books on different topics ranging from religion, race, national origin, belief/philosophy, gender, appearance, sexual identity, body type, disabilities, experiences and myriad other categories.

Librarians have a list of books available to be taken out on any particular day. The reader(s) (the conversations may be one on one or small group) request a human book on a topic they want to learn more about and then they go off to have an encounter for about 30 minutes. Since the organizers want to ensure a safe space for everyone, my impression is they limit the physical borders in which the books may be read.  According to Abergel, if there is a question the human book wishes not to answer, they respond by saying something along the lines of “that page has not been published yet.”

I am sure there are other measures they must take to make sure people feel safe. Perhaps it is part of the training they do with their human books. Participation requires making yourself really vulnerable. Abergel says we often censor ourselves in public and don’t ask questions that are considered impolite, (i.e. Why are you so fat?), and this is an opportunity to ask those questions.

He also cites an example of a reader not believing a human book was Muslim because they didn’t conform to an image they held about Muslims. I wasn’t quite sure if the person recognized they had preconceptions or if they refused to believe the truth of the situation. Regardless, I am sure there are some people who will leave still holding the beliefs they entered with.  The Human Library organization is making a bet that people’s notions will change at some point, even if it isn’t immediately.

On the other hand, the organization also knows that we all have some aspect of ourselves which would qualify us to be one of their books–something that others see as a taboo topic or would be uncomfortable discussing–it might be as simple as experiencing the death of a loved one. If they can get participants to recognize that then there is an opportunity for greater empathy.


Interviews with participants at a Human Library sited at University of Albany (NY)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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